This is the second in my series reviewing some of the highlights of the 1980s “Choose Your Own Adventure” book series. Earlier in the week I gave you a rundown of Edward Packard’s The Mystery of Chimney Rock from 1979, which was #5 in the series. Today we examine the CYOA series’s single greatest success, and possibly the most famous of the books.
The Abominable Snowman by R.A. Montgomery
Published: May 1982
Number thirteen in the CYOA series proved very lucky. Although Edward Packard is generally credited as having “invented” the second-person, interactive adventure books for children, either the concept was independently developed at the same time by R.A. Montgomery, an educator and co-founder of Waitsfield Summer School (sounds prestigious, anyway), or else Montgomery came on board the franchise very early on. Almost all of the first ten books are written either by Packard or Montgomery. The Abominable Snowman, which came out in 1982, was so successful that when the CYOA series was relaunched in the mid-2000s, it was the first title chosen for reissue. There was also an interactive DVD released that was based on the book.
Now, to brass tacks. “You” are a mountain climber, and you and your best friend Carlos have been commissioned by the International Foundation for Research Into Strange Phenomena (got a business card?) to go to the Himalayas to find and bring back proof of the existence of the mythical title creature. Although the book’s title is The Abominable Snowman, for some reason that term is never used in the book itself, and “Yeti” is preferred. Anyway, you barely get to Nepal before Carlos vanishes, and–(*insert dramatic fanfare*)–you have to go find him.
From this initial premise the plot branches off into numerous directions. You can join forces with experienced climber and Nepali diplomat R.N. Runal, thus greasing the bureaucratic wheels of your search; you can pick up an imposing Sherpa called Sirdar, who I envision as looking like an Asian version of Brian Blessed; or you can wander through the Himalayas on a number of mystical spiritual journeys heavily influenced by Buddhist philosophy. All in all it’s a very mixed bag, and paging through the book again to do this review I’m reminded of how difficult it was to find a coherent plot and stick to it.
Nevertheless, with that being said, there are some interesting things in this book. Here are some of the elements I liked:
- The various sidekicks you can hook up with are awesome. Runal and Sirdar are both interesting characters, and later in the book there’s even a sort of domesticated Yeti you meet called Zodak. It’s rare in this series that supporting characters are so well drawn.
- The Yeti with the “ancient bronze cannon” (p. 32-33) are epic. Wish R.A. had done more with this.
- Some of the “spiritual journeys” are very well done. “You can hear the bells in the distance, and wind in the pine trees just outside the window. It is beautiful. You sit for what seems like hours, listening with your whole being.” (p. 41)
- Descriptions of the Himalayan settings are very vivid. “That night, after a dinner of brown rice and lentils, onions, and garlic, you sit in front of your red mountain tents watching the moon play on the snowy white flanks of Annapurna and Dhaulagiri.” (p. 51)
- The inevitable James Hilton Lost Horizon reference–you find Shangri-La on page 99.
Nevertheless, there are some elements that just don’t work. Here’s what I didn’t like:
- Early in the book there is a totally pointless subplot where, instead of going to the Himalayas to take pictures of Yeti, somehow you wind up in the swampy Terai region to chase tigers. WTF?
- Another pointless subplot where you get mixed up in a hash smuggling ring. (Hard drugs? In a children’s book? Hmm…)
- A really ridiculous plot involving aliens called “Movidians” and their leader Norcoon, an “X52 Double L, intelligent, mobile activator being” who wants to take you to the Planet of the Seas in the Void of the Seven Moons. No, I have not been drinking! It’s right there on page 100!
- Not to spoil any of the book’s 28 endings, but you never really do get to accomplish your mission and prove the Yeti exist. So, in an existential sense, the book is pointless.
When I first read this book at age 10 there was something unsatisfying about it, yet I have to admit that it remained one of my favorites well into adulthood. Although there are serious drawbacks, the well-done elements are interesting enough that you can still have fun with the book even given its shortcomings.
R.A. Montgomery was definitely one of the more controversial writers of the CYOA series. While his co-author Packard tended to try to keep things realistic (relatively speaking, I mean, these are children’s books), Montgomery had no qualms about blasting off into any old direction he felt like it, the more outlandish, the better. As a result, half-baked ideas involving aliens, smugglers, monsters or secret societies often popped up in his work. The Abominable Snowman is the sina qua non of that approach.
You can see sort of a similar progression in the James Bond films. Take the early movies–Dr. No, From Russia With Love, etc. Very straightforward, generally realistic and hard-edged, but then in the late 60s the series moved toward bizarre supervillains and over-the-top setpieces. Think of The Abominable Snowman, then, as sort of the You Only Live Twice of the CYOA series.
Nonetheless, the book is enjoyable.
Keep coming back to this site for more CYOA reviews. I may be in my 40s, but as you can see, I never really grew up!