Friday, September 9, 2011

Off The Beaten Track: Winnetou – A German Classic

We’re so honored to have another of our favorite authors, Rebecca Cantrell, as our guest this week AND she's even offering a copy of her latest book. (Read to the end for details.) Rebecca writes the critically acclaimed iMonster series under her pen name, Bekka Black. The iMonsters are young adult novels written entirely in text messages, web browsers, photos, and voice mails–“only what you could read on a cell phone.”  You can even download the first book, iDrakula, as an app. But as she explains below, long before launching iDrakula, Rebecca took on another old classic in her award-winning Hannah Vogel series. If you haven’t already, check out these terrific novelsstarting with A Trace of Smoke, A Night of Long Knives, and A Game of Liesset in 1930s' Berlin. Currently, Rebecca lives in Hawaii with her husband, her son, and too many geckoes to count and online at and

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! 


  1. Images of poor little Anton in his Wild West gear, clinging to his book still haunt me. And for the longest time, I'd thought you'd made that Apache series up till Heidi corrected me. Do contemporary Germans still read his books (maybe in school) or are they passe? And did he write anything other than westerns? (We need a name for this subgenre, like spaghetti westerns. How about schnitzel westerns?)

  2. Thanks again for having me!

    Anton and Winnetou are both in the next book, A CITY OF BROKEN GLASS, in another very intense scene. The Apache brave is there when you need him.

    Contemporary Germans do still read his books. They have huge yearly festivals where they pitch tipis and hire actors to play the main characters. Winnetou is still very present in German culture today. Love the term "schnitzel Western!"

    Karl May wrote many non-Winnetou books. He second most successful series was set in the Middle East.

    Ironically, he never visited the Wild West.

  3. Rebecca, what a wonderful post! I'm familiar with Karl May from my years in Germany, but, like you, the stories didn't stick with me. I think I learned more about them through the eyes of German friends than from reading the books. I didn't know May had written anything but the Winnetou books. Do you know what the Middle East series is called?

    Maybe it's a good thing that May never visited the real Wild West. If he had, he probably wouldn't have written the books the way he did. It is seems that they struck quite a chord in German culture. The reality would have been too depressing in the dark period of German history where your books are set.

  4. Thanks for stopping by, Heidi!

    The Middle East series had Kara Ben Nemsi and his servant Hadschi Halef Omar. The first one is "Durch Wueste and Harem." I never read the series, so I don't know more than that. They were very popular.

    I think that the fact that he didn't visit is what gave him the freedom to write the stories of honor and wide open spaces and exotic cultures that gave the Germans of his time (and since) a place to escape from an increasingly urban life. Winnetou is a great imaginary friend to have in dark times.

  5. I like Jackie Chan's westerns (Shanghai Noon is one) for similar reasons. You learn more about the culture that's processing the time period--how do they see it, what appeals? And you learn more about the time period seeing it through a different frame.

    Best wishes with the book release--I'm looking forward to reading!

  6. Thanks for the best wishes, Ann Marie!

    I do love the Jackie Chan Westerns. Or pretty much any Jackie Chan. I agree that it's true that our literature about other cultures says at least as much about our own culture as it does about theirs.

  7. Interesting note to Mays; Germany by way of the Wild West, at least of the imagination. Churchill begged his mother to take him to see Buffalo Bill, I believe. while when the designers of the hideous V-2 were detained they swore they received their ideas from seeing American sci-fi literature and movies int eh 20; Country of countries inspires through imagination to reality. Many of the Wild West primers in this century were extensions of Fenimore Cooper's Leather Stocking Tales which were subscribed massively to libraries. As with other icons (E.g., Bukowski), much of what receives little audience in America finds a second one in another country (Carl Mays was also the name of the pitcher who threw the baseball which killed Ray Chapman)

  8. The British seemed to like the Wild West, too. I remember seeing fake saloons when visiting Blackpool as a student. I wonder if it's for the same reasons that we idealize the Middle Ages -- Renaissance fairs, the Tudors, etc.. It's a reason to experience something noble, ideal, and sometimes untamed, that our own culture has never known.

    PS, I'm a big fan of Anton / Winnetou. It's amazing to watch how brave little children can be.

  9. Jack: Buffalo Bill did an extensive European tour, I believe. I guess we all want to see an idealized world that exists just a little farther than we've traveled. Weird coincidence re: the pitcher.

    Matt: I think you're on to something with our love of Renaissance fairs! It's the same thing. I wonder what British exchange students do when they got a Renaissance fair in Texas? I bet they're a nonplussed as I was to see Germans dressed up like Apache.

  10. I love the idea of the British students seeing Renaissance fair in Texas! On the one hand, I love that Anton had Winnetou to escape to. In such grim times, a mental sanctuary like that is vital. On the other hand, most native Americans find the European (mostly derived from Mays' very popular work)images of Indians insulting. It's a shame that they still cling to them today.

  11. Thanks, Linda!

    I don't think the Europeans have a corner on native American stereotypes, sadly. I think a more nuanced view is hard to find even in the United States.

  12. The first time I heard of Karl May and his impact on the German people was when I started touring in Germany in the early 1990's.

    At first I thought it was a joke, after all how could a German school teacher, locked up for petty thievery, who had never been to the USA, know anything about the American west! After hearing over and over about Winnetou and Old Shatterhand, I surrendered and found myself lost in the magic of Karl May's noble western heroes.

    I spent a few years traveling in the American west, sitting around many a campfire sharing songs and stories with old cowpokes.

    A few years ago I brought my German friend on a cross country jaunt to see the west. There in the old town of Tombstone we discovered a showcase dedicated to the German writer. So even though he himself never made it past Buffalo New York, his spirit lives on and found it's way into the heart of the west.

  13. I have to admit, I have never read any of Karl May. When I asked my German-born mother if she had ever read him, she made a face and said "that's for children". I think now she looked down on these books as not being high literature. I am not nearly so discerning and am now thinking I have missed out on some great adventures. I think I'll have to read the copies my husband has on his bookshelf!

  14. Rik: How wonderful to know that Karl May and his creations found their way to Tombstone, of all places! The spirit of Winnetou would be pleased!

    Marianna: I still find gems in books "for kids." Harry Potter? Lord of the Rings? I'm not even too proud to admit that I learned a lot about language from Dr. Seuss. Hope you enjoy your visit with the Apache brave!

  15. Rebecca, thank you so much for writing about Karl May. It's so interesting that someone who'd never set foot in the Wild West can write so passionately about it. And even as an adult, I still find some books "for kids" a treat to read.

  16. Thanks for having me, Alli!

    Karl May clearly captured something, even if it wasn't necessarily the Wild West.

    But sci-fi writers (and us historical writers too) HAVE to write passionately about places we can never actually go. Imagination counts (plus obsessive research).

  17. Linda Rodriguez is the winner of this week's Novel Adventurers' contest. She wins a copy of Rebecca Cantrell's latest historical suspense novel, A GAME OF LIES. Congratulations, Linda!