In A Trace of Smoke, Anton flees into the world of Karl May’s Wild West books. Anton, like many German children since the 1890s, identifies with the strong and noble Apache brave Winnetou. Other Winnetou fans include Albert Einstein, Erich Kästner, and Adolf Hitler (yes, that’s quite a range).
Karl May is often referred to as the most read German writer, with more than 200 million copies of his books in print. He’s popular outside of Germany too, and he’s also the most translated German writer, with works translated into more than thirty languages (including Esperanto and Latin). Here’s picture of Karl May dressed up as his German hero, Old Shatterhand:
Despite all that, Karl May is practically unknown in the United States, and his works weren’t published here until 2001. When I arrived in Germany in the late 1980s, I had never heard of him until I saw my host sister’s large leather-bound collection of his books. She gleefully received a Karl May book every year at Christmas and on her birthday. The books were forest green, like the trees that Winnetou rode through, the spines had the titles in gilt, and the covers had pictures of Winnetou and his friend Old Shatterhand posing with horses, guns, and wilderness. These were books built to last.
I read a few of her books and watched the Winnetou films in rerun on TV, but they slipped right through my head. Winnetou was played by French actor Pierce Brice, and he was always clean shaven, with immaculate buckskins, and perfect hair. He cantered through the mountains of Italy on a perfectly groomed horse.
These tales were nothing like the Native American culture I’d seen when I went to school in New Mexico and Colorado. I’d read Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee and learned about the Trail of Tears. It didn’t look like that there.
I’d come to Germany to learn about German culture, not idealized versions of the American West, so I didn’t give them much thought at first. But over time, I realized how important the ideal of wide open spaces and simple nobility was to people living in mostly urban areas and trying to live down their own complicated history.
Winnetou stands for courage to do the right thing, strength to get through difficult times, and a strong moral compass that never wavers. He might live in a brutal world, but his heart never faltered.
So, when Anton needed a place to escape the rigors of a difficult life in Weimar-era Germany, I knew just where to send him.
Rebecca Cantrell has graciously offered to donate a copy of her just-released novel, A Game of Lies, to one lucky reader this week. All you have to do is comment on this blog post by Thursday, September 15, and we'll have a random drawing to select the winner on Friday. It's that easy! Good luck!