Retro Book Review: Deadwood City (Choose Your Own Adventure).

Well, here it is–the first of (and one of the only) Choose Your Own Adventure Westerns. Deadwood City from Edward Packard is the obligatory foray of the CYOA series into this mythic genre, and the results are decidedly mixed. Let’s get on with an analysis of the finer points of the book, and why there may be more here than meets the eye.

Deadwood City by Edward Packard
Published: 1978, 1980

Number eight in the CYOA series was obviously written before the series proper got off the ground–notice the very early copyright date, 1978–and was probably written as a demo volume. “You” are a cowhand looking for work in the Old West. One day you ride into the town of the title, which you find to be less than a glittering metropolis. The people seem nervous and tense. The first choice is a rare three-branch decision tree: you can head over to the saloon, get a room at the local hotel, or go talk to the sheriff to see if there’s trouble in town. (Gee, ya think?)

This beginning is inauspicious, if at least honest. Very quickly the reader grasps the main problem with Deadwood City: there’s no real plot. The biggest event that happens, and the one that several choices either lead to or mention, is the arrival in town of vicious outlaw and bank robber Kurt Malloy. There is a choice (p. 22-23) where you face Malloy in a classic High Noon-style showdown, but very little comes of it. Even the plot where Malloy shoots you in the leg and you choose to get revenge on him–which I expected would be a major plot thread–sort of fizzles out into nothing.

Indeed, the majority of the book’s plots, if they can be called that, are pretty humdrum. You can join a high-stakes hand of poker in the saloon, which will either ruin you or win you a fortune. You can start a newspaper in Deadwood City and get involved in disputes between cattlemen and ranchers. You can ride shotgun for the stagecoach. In one plot you join a gang of desperadoes, but, like the Malloy plot, very little comes of it.

Essentially, this is a series of fairly mundane “adventures” you can have in the Old West. None are especially compelling. This reinforces my sense that this was more of a demo book than anything else. It’s like clicking a View Master reel of Disneyland. Each picture has its good and bad points, but their only unifying concept is that they’re all of Disneyland.

There are, however, some very interesting elements here. One of them finally deals head-on with the elephant that was lurking in the room from the beginning of the CYOA series: the gender issue. Although the cover doesn’t hit it that hard, the interior illustrations by veteran CYOA penman Paul Granger (a/k/a Don Hedin) clearly depict “you” as a young, attractive woman with blonde hair. This is an interesting twist on what you’d expect. A female cowhand in the Old West would be a very interesting story for a number of reasons, but Packard never deals with that; in fact, he can’t. These books never mention gender at all, and, except for the suggestive illustrations of “you,” they carefully avoid casting your character as male or female.

I understand why the editors of the series did this. I mean, they’re trying to sell books, of course, and children’s books at that. There’s no reason why a book called Deadwood City should appeal primarily to boys, or to girls for that matter. I wonder if the illustrations were a marketing decision. Perhaps they assumed a Western story would mainly catch the interest of boys, but showing “you” as a girl was also a subtle telegraphing that the book was fine for girls too.

When I first read this at about age 9 or 10, I remember not being bothered in the least by the illustrations showing “me” as a girl. In fact, as I read the book I put myself in the place of the female cowhand, as if she was a character separate from me. Obviously gender-switching in children’s books was taboo in 1980, but I think every kid has probably wondered what it would be like to be a member of the opposite gender. Deadwood City is strangely interesting by being willing to play with that dynamic on a very subtle level.

I say this is the elephant in the room that they hadn’t dealt with as strongly up until then because, if you look at the previous books in the series, the “you” character has carefully been drawn to be either obviously male or else deliberately androgynous. Take, for example, “you” in the previous book, The Third Planet From Altair. Judging from the illustrations, “you” could be either a feminine boy or a masculine girl. (Most of the time you’re wearing a spacesuit, so it doesn’t matter that much). In previous books like Journey Under the Sea (#2) or Your Code Name is Jonah (#4) “you” are portrayed as an obviously adult, obviously male character with particular attributes that no kid could possess–you’re an undersea explorer or a secret agent, respectively. Deadwood City is the first of the books to cross the gender line definitively on the female side, at least with respect to the illustrations.

I don’t know what to make of all this, except to say that Deadwood City is a mixed bag. The plots are pretty evocative of real situations that a person might have encountered in the West, and is much less an exercise in hackneyed “Hollywood Western” mythology that it might easily have delved into. That said, it’s surprisingly dull. Not sure what else to say.

Grade: C+

I’ve heard some feedback on these reviews, so evidently you all like them. More are coming!

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