Lassie: The Secret of the Smelters' Cave

Time for another installment in the series of book reviews that I call "Books That are Not Worth Reviewing" – This time, it's Lassie: The Secret of the Smelters' Cave – a young adult book written by Steve Frazee and published in 1968.

First, a confession: I wrote most of this post months ago. And the book has been sitting in my work bag that whole time. It's taken me a long time to finally go ahead and publish this review because, for once, I was concerned I wouldn't be able to give the book the review I think it deserves. Because although this book has definitely earned a place in my collection of books that aren't worth reviewing, I sort of love it.

Steve Frazee was mostly known for writing Westerns, but he also wrote a bunch of novels for Whitman Publishing series such as Zorro and Lassie. He was popular enough that The Best Western Stories of Steve Frazee was published. He worked on movies as well.

Readers of the 'Not Worth Reviewing' series undoubtedly recognize Whitman Publishing from the Space Eagle books which I've reviewed previously. Like those books, this one has a collection of fairly lackluster art scattered among the pages which you can see in this gallery:

Lassie: The Secret of The Smelters' Cave

The opening pages of the book include a mention of the Lassie Forest Ranger Conservation Award:

Big Award

The Lassie Forest Ranger Conservation Award, a highly regarded award presented annually "to individuals or organizations who have contributed effectively and in an outstanding manner to conservation," was recently presented to the author, Steve Frazee. The publisher joins the United States Forest Service and the Wrather Corporation, cosponsors of the award, in congratulating Mr. Frazee, not only for being thus honored, but also for his continuing and conspicuous efforts in behalf of conservation.

The Wrather Corporation was owned by Jack Wrather. Wrather made millions in the oil industry, and then diversified into television and other things. Among other television shows, he bought the rights for The Lone Ranger television series in 1954, and Lassie in 1956. Wrather financed and built the Disneyland Hotel when Walt Disney ran out of money, and then refused to sell it back to him later. He's also the person who sued Clayton Moore to keep him from dressing up as the Lone Ranger:

Wrather is known as the man that 'sued the mask off the Lone Ranger'. When a new theatrical movie version of the Lone Ranger was being produced during the late 1970s, Wrather obtained a court order requiring Clayton Moore to quit making public appearances as the Lone Ranger. This resulted in a great deal of negative publicity and The Legend of the Lone Ranger released in 1981 was not well received. Before Wrather died, he gave permission for Clayton Moore to resume making public appearances in costume.

Anyway, as I was researching the book, I tried to find some evidence of this "highly regarded award" and there's nothing online about it that I can find. However, the National Agricultural Library has a US Forest Service Lassie Collection – several boxes worth of Lassie data. Maybe the secret to this award is hidden in a library in Maryland.

Lassie has a long history that can be traced to the 1850s, but really started with the book Lassie Come Home in 1940. Most people are probably familiar with the television series, which started in 1954, and went through several iterations, including the famous 'Timmy' years that I remember watching fondly on Nickelodeon. This book takes place during the Corey Stuart years – after a life of living on a Farm, Lassie finds herself with a US Forest Service Ranger:

The groundwork for their pairing was laid in the tenth season five-part episode, "Disappearance". Stuart rescues Lassie from a storm in the first part and reunites her with the Martins in the final-part. In the meantime, Lassie helps Stuart rescue others lost in the storm, stops a poacher on Federal land, survives avalanche and forest fire, and forms a profound bond with Stuart.

With the new plot good to go, the Martin family was shipped off to Australia to teach agriculture in the eleventh season opener. Lassie remained in the States due to Australia's strict quarantine regulations and found a home with Stuart. The two would share adventure in America's national forests and scenic wonderlands. The show transitioned to color filming in 1965 with the twelfth season,[3] and episodes became mini-travelogues with some locations being seen for the first time on television on color.

Lassie

It would be easy to make fun of this book. One of the main characters is a dog. In a lot of places, the book is essentially an advertisement for the Forest Service, which isn't exactly a bad thing, but it gets a little annoying after while. At one point, the technical details of mortgages and titles are central to the plot. And almost nothing actually happens. At 210 pages, this book is probably 50 pages too long for the limited amount of plot and character development. It's fairly sexist - of the few women mentioned in the book, only one appears to have a first name.

But as I was reading it – and I made it through this book twice – I found a lot to love. This book is full of compassion for people, animals, nature, and the Earth. Most of the people in the book want to do the right thing, no matter how difficult that might be. The slow pacing can be dull, but it also has this meditative feel to it. Basically, I totally fell for this novel.

The book opens with Corey Stuart and Lassie inspecting the damage at the Beaubien guard station. Someone has trashed the place – they shot the stovepipe full of holes, ripped the cover off the well, broke some windows, and so on. This doesn't surprise Corey, because he's at the Perdoso National Forest for a specific purpose - to try and convince the locals to allow the Forest Service to build a new access road into the wilderness – the Perdoso Valley Horsethief Trail. Building the trail will allow all sorts of people easy access to the forest for camping and outdoor fun. Right now, there's a gated community up there and they basically have the land to themselves. There's a bunch of weekend residents, a family of hunting guides, the extremely cranky retired Senator Chilton, and a rancher named Dimasio Sandoval.

Sandoval is critical to the story – the road needs to go through a chunk of his land. Originally, he agreed to sell the land, but he changed his mind for some mysterious reason. He is clearly having some financial problems, so selling a small chunk of his land would seem like a good idea, so it seems like someone must be pressuring him to prevent this. Corey has been sent to try and settle the matter. The Forest Service doesn't want to deal with the fallout of just seizing the land via eminent domain, so it's a sensitive situation.

Two young boys – Billy Kent and Pete Sandoval (Dimasio's grandson) show up and offer to help Corey clean up the mess. Lassie is suspicious, but she warms up to them quickly enough once they feed her and fetch some wood for repairs.

The boys are searching for some hidden gold – hidden in the long lost Smelter's Cave of the title.

Corey knew that for two hundred years a lot of people had looked for the treasure cave of the Don Madrid. The legend was that a man by that name had worked a very rich vein of gold somewhere in the Oro Mountains in the years around 1765.

In a cave some miles from the mine the miners had smelted the ore in a charcoal furnace. By mule train they had packed the golden ingots to Mexico City for minting. It was said that church records showed heavy contributions for a period of five or six years around 1765.

[…]

It was a fact, however, that in 1913 a sheepherder had found two golden ingots.. People in general assumed that they had come from the smelter cave of the Don Madrid, but where that could be was still a mystery.

Eventually the miners are discovered by a bunch of Ute Indians who chase them down and kill them all while they try to escape, conveniently leaving no one who knows where the mine was located. Anyway, at this point the smelter's cave is a legend and no one really believes that there is a trove of gold hidden somewhere in the mountains. The boys are following in the footsteps of a lot of treasure hunters, and they haven't made a lot of progress, but they have some theories and have been working on mapping the area to try and find the gold.

Anyway, Corey talks with the boys for awhile and suggests to them that they should look for the charcoal the miners used to smelt the gold, then he kicks them out so he can finish cleaning up.

The next morning, Corey heads over to visit the grownups in the story. He meets with Billy's parents first, who clearly represent the sensible middle ground of the book. Corey meets Billy's dad first – "In faded Levi's, scuffed cowboy boots, and a shirt with a torn sleeve, he did not look much like a city lawyer, but he was Sidney Kent." Mrs. Kent is also very nice, and she's apparently an excellent horse rider. Both Kents are in favor of the new road, and seem to have the sensible position on it – all people should have access to the forest.

Corey glanced through the big window at Lassie waiting patiently in the Jeep. "I understand you two are not opposed to the Horsethief Trail."

Mr. Kent nodded. "We don't follow Chilton's contention that it will ruin our privacy down here in the valley. We're very fortunate in that we've had this place for ten years, with the whole Perdoso Forest as a sort of private park all around us. After all, the National Forest belongs to all the people, so let it be opened up for a lot more of them to enjoy."

Mrs. Kent happens to be good friends with Senator Chilton's daughter, so she helps Corey get an appointment with him, which is where he goes next. It's clear as Corey drives over that the Senator enjoys a certain amount of power:

The Chilton summer home was a huge log structure set close to a lake of about three acres. There were five guest cabins. Judging from the number of vehicles Corey saw, he thought that most of the cabins were occupied. The senator was famous for entertaining prominent people such as generals, industrialists, actors, – famous people from all walks of life.

Chilton, nicknamed "the Angry Bear", immediately starts being a total asshole.

"Mr. Stuart, your expensive, boondoggling organization has worked on me from the top on down to the grass roots. Now they've wasted a little more money sending you here. What kind of charm do you think you have that the others have lacked?"

"No charm, Senator, but I'm hard to insult."

"Is that so? The milk-toast type, eh?"

Corey smiled. "No, sir."

The old man grunted. His keen eyes raked Corey. "You must be the computer type then. You've come armed with facts to overwhelm me. Is that it?"

[blah blah blah]

The senator pointed his finger like a gun at Corey. "Try to take one inch of Sandoval's land by condemnation and I'll fight it, at no cost to him, until the Forest Service will be sick of the very sound of the name Horsethief Trail! … Won't you and your greedy bunch look great when I blast that through all the newspapers in the country? A poor old Mexican rancher, eking out a living on the last few acres that a powerful, unfeeling government has left to him…. The Forest Service will look great after I get that picture before the public."

Asshole

Chilton rambles on for awhile, and then starts talking about how the land will be ruined if it is opened up to the public:

"Campgrounds every hundred yards, trash scattered everywhere, cars roaring up and down the road day and night, forest fires all summer, lakes fouled with beer cans and bottles, vandals overrunning the valley – No thank you!"

"There will be some difficulties, yes," Corey said. "Should virtually all the public be shut off from the serene beauty you mentioned because a few irresponsible–"

"Don't give me any more of your canned speeches, Stuart! You may know one tree from another – I hope you do, at least – but you don't know the first thing about people."

Oh snap!

Meanwhile, Lassie is waiting outside in Corey's jeep, which is good, because she happens to notice when a young girl falls off Chilton's boat dock into the water. Lassie runs to the pond, barking to let everyone know that something is wrong. She dives into the water and drags the kid back towards the shore where Corey is wading in to help. Instead of being thankful, Chilton immediately assumes that Lassie knocked the child into the water and he is irate:

Chilton met them as they came ashore. "Whose cur is that?"

"She's my dog," Corey said.

"Get her out of here before I have her shot!" Chilton was white with rage.

"Dad!" Mrs. Enright cried. "The dog just saved Lisa's life."

"Get that cur out of here!"

Corey gets out of there before things get any worse.

Anyway, from this point forward, the book moves at a lazy pace, even when things are happening. The perspective switches between Corey and the two boys every chapter or so. The boys wander around the hills looking for evidence of smelting – some charcoal, old tools that might have come from the cave, etc, and they do find some of that. But mostly they just have a good time wandering through the outdoors with Lassie and talking about how great it would be if the new road was built so everyone else could access the land too.

As the boys explore, eventually they find a some charcoal (needed for smelting). They come across mountain lion tracks, and shortly after that, a dead deer and signs of a 'terrific struggle'. It seems like the lion killed it, which scares their parents and for a little while they aren't allowed to continue their search, until they are able to convince their parents that they will be safe, which mostly means taking awesome walkie talkies with them during their adventures.

Corey spends the book trying to finagle people into agreeing to the new trail, and sometimes helping the boys out - he gives them a map, digs up some old research that someone had done on the lost cave, etc. He finds a few convenient moments to mention all the cool science and technology that the forest service uses. Billy is griping about how old-fashioned the Forest Service is: "That's the trouble with the Forest Service. They just fool around with trails and trees and stuff like that." Corey takes advantage of a teachable moment:

"As a matter of fact, Billy, we are using some of your science. We've got rangers trained to take information from satellites. Right now we're getting photographs from Gemini.

"Before long, with electronic equipment in space, we'll be able to study forests from the air. We can make maps from the pictures, determine changes in plant growth, learn about forest recessions – work out all kinds of problems that now take years."

"Are you kidding?"

"Nope! You'd better believe it, Billy. I don't know too much about all these programs, but we've got Forest Service scientists working on them every day."

[…]

Billy was quiet for a while. "Boy, I sure didn't know about all that. Where can I get some dope on that stuff?"

"I'll see what I can do for you."

He meets with the Frawley brothers, a trio of hunting guides who lead expensive trips into the forest. They're clearly pretty shifty, never giving Corey a straight answer to his questions. They claim that they're not opposed to the road project, but they're also clearly not in favor of it. They keep acting like they basically don't care either way, although people are paying them a lot of money to serve as guides into untouched wilderness. "There was something phony about the we-don't-care attitude of the Frawleys." Also, they offer repeatedly to purchase Lassie from Corey.

Corey visits Dimasio next.

Dimasio Sandoval came from the stable. He was a small man with a wrinkled brown face and a shock of white hair. His back was straight and he held his head high, but he walked with the awkward, bowlegged gait of a man who had spent most of his life on horseback.

Corey and Dimasio talk for awhile. Sandoval has clearly fallen on hard times. The house he lives in is bare, there was once a great house, but now all that remains is some stones of the foundation – this isn't really described though. We're told that all of his children have moved to the city, leaving him with his grandson in the summers. The family legacy is in decay.

Corey explains the plan to run the new road through the edge of Dimasio's land. Sandoval says that "The land you speak of has little value. It could be given without harming the rest of the ranch." But instead of answering when Corey asks if he will sell it, he wanders off subject, and slips into speaking Spanish, which Corey happens to speak. Sandoval mentions an expensive stallion he purchased for $3000, which doesn't make a lot of sense to Corey – where did the money come from?

While Corey is tracking down the details of financial arrangements, and setting up a big meeting with everyone in the community – his final chance to convince everyone to allow the project to move forward – the boys continue to hunt for the gold, and Lassie tags along. On one trip, Lassie spooks a mountain lion, and the boys see fresh tracks. And on their next trip, they actually see the lion – and her cubs. At that point, Mr. Kent tells the boys to stop with their adventures immediately, but Corey convinces their parents that it's probably safe.

Eventually everything starts to come together. Corey thinks that the Frawley brothers are the vandals who damaged the ranger station. Furthermore, with the help of Sidney Kent, he learns that it was the brothers who loaned the money to Dimasio for the stallion, in return for a mortgage on his land. It's obvious that he could never repay them, so they probably did it in order to control him, and ultimately to control his land – which can prevent the Horsethief Trail from being built.

Corey devises a plan to get the brothers to confess. He shoots up a tree with a rifle that matches one the brothers had bragged about earlier. Then he has a big confrontation with them and suggests that he has sent off some bullets as forensic evidence to the FBI, and that it can be used to send them to jail for destruction of Federal property. The brothers totally break down – they confess to everything and beg for mercy. They promise to pay for the damage - a deal which Corey accepts. He also implies that it would be best if they didn't pressure Dimasio anymore. At this point, Corey thinks he might have a chance at succeeding. But when he visits Dimasio to let him know what happened, he's reminded of an important fact about mortgages:

"… there is no way I can sell the land unless one of two things is done first. Either I must pay Big Jim and his brothers everything that is owed, or else they must give their permission in writing before the government can buy that part of the land where the road is to go."

Corey realized that he had completely overlooked a most important fact, Dimasio could not give a clear title to any part of his mortgaged land, as things now stood.

If he paid the debt, the land would be clear again for him to do with as he pleased. Otherwise, the Frawleys would have to release that part of the ground needed for the Horsethief Trail.

So, the plot of the book hinges on a technicality of property law. People complain about how we don't teach civics in school anymore, but when was stuff like this common knowledge for preteens?

Dimasio is so indebted that he's basically about to lose everything. It's a much bigger issue than simply finding a way to build the Horsethief Trail - he's about to lose his family homestead and all of his land.

Meanwhile, the boys are back to exploring, and they decide to visit the last place they saw the lion, wondering if she is still around. Lassie runs off – she has found something. It's the cave where the lion was living – and it's also the smelter's cave!

They stood upright in a cave with rounding walls that ran in an arc back into the cliff. A little light was filtering in along the edges of the slab that had fallen to seal the front. They stared around them, both of them too astonished to say anything.

They had found it. Thinking they were discovering a lion's den, they had stumbled into the smelter cave of the Don Madrid!

Inside they find some gold ingots! There's some random "it turned out later" facts here, where we learn that it's about 25 pounds of gold. Yipes! It's not quite pure, but it's definitely worth a lot of money.

Corey happens to stumble upon them while they celebrate and helps them to carry out the gold. It will basically solve all the problems – Pete could give his share to his grandfather, which would take care of his debt, and allow the trail to go through. But Corey makes a special request of Pete:

Right now, Pete, your grandfather is on the verge of making a decision about selling land for the road," Corey said carefully. "He has a very high sense of honor. I think he'd like to make that decision the hard way, without knowing that you've already got the means for him to make it the easy way.

The boys agree, so everything is set up for the big finish.

Everyone meets up at Senator Chilton's ranch – everyone except Dimasio, who is missing for some reason. While they wait for him, Corey gets right to the point, convincing the Frawley brothers to say that they are okay with the trail. But Chilton isn't impressed – since Dimasio didn't even show up, he assumes this means that he won't sell the land. Corey gets Chilton to say that he'll agree to the trail as well, but only if Sandoval does as well:

Chilton glanced up the valley. "I'd feel the same way about the trail if everyone here suddenly was for it, but if Sandoval should come here and say the he has no objections to the trail going across his land, then I'll promise to keep my mouth shut. And that's a mighty big promise, folks, coming from a former politician."

And then…

"Grandpa's coming," Pete whispered. "I saw him."

Corey could not see anything moving on the road to the west. And then a rider on a palomino horse came around a bend from behind a screen of aspen trees.

He was a little late, but Dimasio was coming.

Lassie saw him when he was closer. She loped up the valley to meet him. They came in together, the old man sitting erect and proud, with Lassie pacing beside the horse.

Dimasio gets the seat of honor – he's basically the noble gentleman farmer at this point, and he gives a speech. He wants people to have access to the land, so he won't block the project. But he won't sell the land – he's just going to give it away instead! He gets a huge round of applause from the crowd. "They rose and applauded Dimasio Sandoval, a little old man dressed in the rusty black clothes of another century."

The speech has clearly broken any opposition to the trail. It's such a successful speech that the Frawley brothers agree to release their hold on the land – and all of this is before the boys tell anyone about the gold! When Dimasio learns about the gold, he realizes what Corey did for him: "If you had told me, it would have been easy for me to give a small piece of worthless land to the Forest Service… But you left me to make my decision with honor. I thank you for this. You have great understanding."

Dimasio rides off into the night, as Corey and Sidney Kent watch admiringly. "In this crazy modern rat race of ours, there ought to be more like him." The boys run off with Lassie to pick up litter from the meeting, after inviting the adults on a trip to the cave on the next day. "Thanks to Lassie, it had been a great summer. And it was not over yet."

This is a strange book for children - half of it is about tracking down who owns a piece of land, and the intricacies of mortgages. Lassie is in it but she doesn't do a whole lot really - at the very least, she's not a major character.

And yet in so many ways, it sums up a dream summer for a young person – especially the young boys of the 1960s who were undoubtedly the target audience of the book. Spending a couple of months at a ranch in the mountains, riding horses, adventuring with your friend and a great dog, and in the end of it all finding hidden treasure and literally saving the day – that is the stuff of childhood dreams. And yet, the book unfolds at a lazy, comfortable pace, and is basically a meditation on the value of access to nature for all. Everything happens in its own time. Despite no lack of flaws, I really enjoyed this book.

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