Book by Sid Fleischman, Published 1963
Movie Directed by James Neilson, Released 1967
Mood: If you find grownup Western fiction exhausting and wish you could find a brilliant gold rush tale that’s pure fun from start to finish.
Bullwhip Griffin will always hold a special place in my heart.
It was the first official Western book I ever read. It’s also the one I’ve read the most, probably five or more times since I was a kid. And it holds up.
I’ve clung to this tattered old paperback through TWELVE MOVES. It was my dad’s when he was a kid, and during my most recent reading the cover threatened to fall off so I put packing tape along the spine.
If you want a charming, hilarious, family-friendly gold rush tale that can be devoured in a couple of evenings, I can’t say enough good things about Bullwhip Griffin – but I’m obviously going to try. That’s what I do here.
I also own the Disney movie version, and although both are awesome for different reasons, they’re light fare and I definitely don’t have enough witty commentary to fill two reviews. I also don’t think I could hold back my F-bombs for that long, which I’m doing out of respect for the material.
So you get a two-for-one, book-and-movie review. You’re welcome.
Sid Fleischman’s Bullwhip Griffin (the book) is actually called ‘By the Great Horn Spoon!’, but I guess Disney wasn’t digging that name for a movie and then they re-released a paperback under the movie’s title. That’s the print that I have, hence the name of the review. Otherwise the photo above this paragraph would be hella confusing.
This is a whip-cracking gold rush tale if there ever was one. Whether you watch the movie or not, you HAVE to read the book. It’s so good.
Wow, not swearing when I’m excited is harder than I thought.
Bullwhip Griffin (the book) is the brave tale of 12-year-old Jack Flagg: orphaned by cholera, and adopted with his two little sisters by a loving aunt who has now fallen on hard times. She’s given one year before she’s broke. This is 1849, and Jack has heard of the gold rush, so he runs away to try to find gold and save his family.
Jack’s not alone. The family’s loyal and resourceful butler, Praiseworthy, is by his side. They’re pickpocketed before they can even book passage from Boston to San Francisco, so they’re forced to become stowaways on a ship.
The story is nonstop action from start to finish.
The first seven chapters take place at sea, because in 1849 you had to sail around South America to get from one side of the U.S. to the other. Then the two unlikely miners face preposterous San Francisco prices (sound familiar?) to acquire gear and get to the gold fields. There they have to learn to pan, find a claim, deal with unsavoury armed characters, and survive a bare-knuckle boxing match with a giant – all on a super tight deadline to save the family home, due to the months-long return trip.
Bullwhip Griffin is basically Louis L’Amour for kids (or adults who love juvenile fiction). You’ve got a bunch of crusty men trying to improve their situations, well-detailed Old West settings, and characters who appreciate hard work outdoors.
And dare I say it, this book is a lot more fun than most of The Sacketts novels. I realize this is basically blasphemy on my website. But because it’s written for a younger audience, it’s got an excellent balance of pacing and humour. The characters are all really well developed, and although ‘Jakoma Jack’ and ‘Bullwhip’ find themselves in some crazy situations, everything is still totally plausible.
If you don’t smile while reading Bullwhip Griffin, you should call the undertaker because you’re dead inside.
Bullwhip Griffin (the movie) is a similar tale that’s also a good time for the kiddos, but Disney made some pretty big changes to bring it to the big screen.
- Praiseworthy is instead called Griffin (played by Roddy McDowall), hence the title
- Jack is Arabella’s brother instead of her nephew
- The deadline to save the family home is 90 days
- Somehow this is plenty of time to get to and from California
- Most of the best scenes from the ship are missing because it’s a shorter trip
- Jack and Griffin meet the Mountain Ox once before the big fight, rather than never having seen him
- The big boxing match is given significantly more time in the movie, and the ending is totally different!
- Arabella (played by Suzanne Pleshette) is a bigger character in the movie, coming to San Francisco of her own accord, taking a job as a saloon entertainer, and helping Griffin train for his big fight
The movie is classic oldschool Disney. The young man is earnest, the punches are campy, the music is gay, and nobody is ever in real danger.
It does have two pretty bad racial stereotypes; unsurprising for that era and thankfully super brief, but still cringey to watch. The road agents speak in cheesy, fake Mexican accents (they weren’t Mexican men in the book), and the villainous Higgins masquerades as a Chinese worker and ‘speaks’ in a bunch of offensive nonsense sounds.
Obviously you have to read the book, because it’s better than the movie on every level. But on this rare occasion I actually recommend watching the movie first. It’s more enjoyable if you can just roll with the slapstick hilarity, and don’t know what’s missing from the story.
I love this book so, so much as an adult, and will probably read it many more times.
The movie is pretty funny G-rated fare, especially for kids or adults like me who love those nostalgic live-action Disney flicks like The Apple Dumpling Gang and The Parent Trap. I would have laughed more on my most recent viewing if I hadn’t JUST finished being immensely delighted by the book.
You just can’t beat a good book.