Tuesday, September 26, 2023

Fred MacIsaac’s Balata

Fred MacIsaac’s adventure novel Balata originally appeared in serial form in six issues of Argosy magazine in 1930 and 1931.

Fred MacIsaac (1886-1940) was an American who turned to writing fiction after a varied career in journalism and concert management.

Balata is the story of a small group of men searching for a balata forest deep in the Amazon rainforest. The Brazilian rubber industry, once thriving, is now languishing due to competition from British plantations in Malaya. But somewhere in the Amazon basin there is a much greater prize than rubber - balata. What is balata? According to the story it’s a kind of super-rubber, and much more valuable than rubber. It is harvested like rubber and the balata tree grows nowhere else in the world.

American explorer Felix Dexter has found the world’s biggest balata forest. He needs money to exploit his discovery and that’s where millionaire Les Gorman comes in. Gorman has an adventurous spirit and is prepared to back the project but first he wants to see that balata forest for himself. An expedition is organised. Gorman invites his old college buddy Peter Holcomb, now fallen on hard times, to join the expedition. Gorman’s sister Louise invites herself along, despite the protests of the men who feel that it is much too dangerous. Gorman recruits a dozen other ill-assorted Europeans and some native porters. The expedition will begin on a river steamboat.

Other people want that balata. And they will stop at nothing, not even murder, to get it. The most dangerous of these men is Brazilian rubber baron Carlos Aguedarno, a very ruthless man indeed.

To complicate things Peter Holcomb, Felix Dexter and Ageudarno all want to marry Louise Gorman. Louise wants nothing to do with Aguedarno but the rubber baron is prepared to use whatever methods may be necessary in order to persuade her. So there are going to be major romantic dramas.

The expedition seems to be ill-fated from the start. There are cut-throats lying in wait as well as hostile tribes, all stirred up by Aguedarno’s money.

You can anticipate a lot of the obstacles and dangers these adventurers are going to face but MacIsaac throws in a few neat plot twists and turns, and even the more clichéd action scenes are handled with energy and style. And there really is as much action and danger as any reasonable reader could hope for.

And it is a neat plot. On more than one occasion the adventurers seem to be in hopeless predicaments but MacIsaac finds interesting ways to extricate them. The ending is nicely suspenseful and satisfying.

Most of the characters are standard types but there are some colourful villains. Both Pete Holcomb and Felix Dexter are a bit more than standard square-jawed action heroes. Pete has been a failure at everything he has attempted and he’s really just drifting through life. The expedition is his chance to make something of himself. It might be his last chance. And he may find out something about himself. Felix Dexter is on the surface the perfect heroic man of action but as the adventure proceeds some of the expedition members develop nagging doubts about him, and the reader will share those doubts. Perhaps in some ways this is Dexter’s last chance as well.

We remain uncertain until the end just how the characters arcs of these two men will resolve themselves.

The style is pure pulp, which is perfectly fine by me. It’s lively and the story powers along at a pleasingly brisk pace.

Balata is a very fine tale of jungle adventure and it’s highly recommended.

Balata has been reprinted in paperback in Altus Press’s Argosy Library series. It’s also available in those ebook formats of which I disapprove so strongly.


  1. Having read it ... I wasn't as impressed by the relationship between the main characters as you were, and the romantic love triangle had the same weakness they often have, especially in movies - I'll say no more to avoid spoilers.

    However, overall, it's a great read - there are some fine twists, and a great depiction of the Amazon (reminded me in a way of Rider Haggard's descriptions of journeys through Africa). I'll definitely be reading it again.