Thursday, April 17, 2014

Bertrand Sinclair, Big Timber (1916)


Looking for a theme song to go with this novel by Canadian writer Bertrand Sinclair, you might pick Bonnie Raitt’s “I Can’t Make You Love Me.” It’s a story set in the old growth woods of British Columbia, where a one-sided marriage of convenience leads to a good deal of heartbreak and disappointment.

Character. The central character is 22-year old Estella Benton, suddenly thrust on her own by the accidental death of a father who has left her penniless. Unprepared for the cold, unpredictable world, she is summed up by the narrator as “a young woman who had grown up quite complacently.” She has been “wholly shielded from the human maelstrom, fed, clothed, taught, an untried product of home and schools.”

As for the future, she has had no more than a vague notion of eventual marriage to a Prince Charming who would come along to sweep her off her feet—and maintain her in a life style to which she has been long accustomed.

Plan B finds her on a long train journey to remote British Columbia, on the banks of a lake north of Vancouver, where she joins her brother, Charlie, who has a start-up logging company. Obsessed with becoming wealthy, he has little regard for his sister’s personal welfare and puts her to work as camp cook, a grueling job that exhausts her and brings her to near despair.

Movie still, Wallace Reid, center, as Jack Fyfe
Romance. A rescuer and prince by almost any standard shows up in the manly form of Jack Fyfe, who has a well-run logging operation of his own. He partners with Charlie to deliver on a timber contract and befriends Estella, who discourages what she interprets as his unwelcome attention.

Any reader can see that he is filled with a gentle compassion for her and has fallen quite in love. But she will have none of this rough, handsome man of the woods. Nevermind that he has a fine intelligence and tender sensibilities. He frightens her, and for no apparent reason than her unwillingness to consider meeting him on equal terms, as a caring, considerate friend and potential life mate. For love to be true, she has to feel it as a delirious infatuation, and it’s not there.

Monday, April 14, 2014

Rage at Dawn, (1955)


A Randolph Scott western rarely gets a lukewarm review here at BITS, but this will be one of those times. Rage at Dawn is a fictionalized account of the Pinkertons’ efforts to bring to justice the Reno Brothers’ gang in southern Indiana shortly after the Civil War.

Precursors of the James and Younger gangs, they had a large outlaw following and gained notoriety as the nation’s first train robbers, operating over a large area of the Midwest. Some were put to a stop by vigilante citizens, who hanged them before they could face trial.

Plot. The film focuses on four of the Renos, including the leader Frank (Forrest Tucker), Simeon (J. Carrol Naish), and Clint (Denver Pyle). Another sibling, Laura (Mala Powers), is their put-upon sister, who shelters them at her farm. Pyle plays the only Reno brother who is a law-abiding member of the community, where the Renos dominate local politics by intimidating voters to put their own men in office, notably the judge (Edgar Buchanan), the chief prosecutor, and the sheriff.

The gang's last robbery (Scott at right)
We don’t meet Randolph Scott until well into the film as a Pinkerton man assigned by the agency to infiltrate the gang and set them up for arrest. The scheme is improbable at best, and it involves his befriending the Renos’ sister Laura, who falls for the handsome, amiable Scott in a big way. The brothers are finally tricked into a train holdup that ends in a lengthy shootout. The citizens of their hometown take the law into their own hands, breaking into the jail where the brothers are being held. Scott arrives too late to save them from hanging.

Sunday, April 13, 2014

White lily



New look
We bought a hair clipper, and with thanks to my wife, I now have a whole new look. Here I am just back from a morning walk, most of the rest of me covered, for reasons of an antibiotic that makes me allergic to sunlight. Outside, of course, you’d see me in a skullcap and UV-resistant wide-brimmed hat, plus sunblock.

And here is more of the journal I’ve been keeping since returning home from the hospital and surgery. (I apologize if this installment gets a little mordant, but it’s the way my mind works.)

3/7/14. This morning Laurie Anderson’s piece “White Lily” slips into my dawn thoughts (see below). And for a moment, the days seem to be going by, “endlessly pulling you into the future.” I stand in the driveway a few minutes ago after setting out the trash and recycling bins for pickup. Mockingbirds are singing in the trees on the street; the sky is nearly clear; there’s the lightest breeze, and Venus shines bright in the eastern sky. Far off, down the valley, a ridge of hills is a faint blue shadow.

We collapsed into bed last night shortly after 8:00. The day, which included another drive to the cancer center for more radiation, had in fact seemed endless. By evening I had lost appetite for a meal and skipped ahead to a serving of frozen yogurt. The 6:00 news got turned on, and I am reminded that the world still seems bent on going to hell in a hand basket. Who ever guessed that battle lines would be drawn again in the Crimea? At times I’ve had way too much of this war-torn earth and the endless killing. No more evening news, thanks.

San Jacinto, morning walk about the neighborhood
So I write for my blog, a review of a beautifully crafted novel from 1902, Eleanor Gates’ Biography of a Prairie Girl. And I cruise steadily through Margaret Lawrence’s The Stone Angel, as it triggers more thoughts. I am grateful for this imagined world to retreat to, where killing and death are transformed into words on the page and real blood is not shed. There we can encounter life’s harsh realities without having to succumb to them. Neither we nor our loved ones—or any other living being for that matter. Would that all wars were only wars of words.

In literature, the dead do not fall into an Eternal Silence, as do those who have actually lived and breathed. Gravestones do not mark the resting place of a lifetime of memories, locked away forever. Lives lived in literature remain at least partly open to us, unforgotten. I think of Joyce as getting at something like this in “The Dead.” Spending a holiday evening with a gathering of people, all of them now dead and gone, we are touched by them, their loneliness and sorrows, their heart-breaking memories, their isolation, weaknesses, and failures, their bravery. Yet somehow the words on the page keep them from being forever snuffed out. At least some part of them is still remembered.

Saturday, April 12, 2014

Glossary of frontier fiction: P
(P.C. – Phyllis)


Below is a list of mostly forgotten terms, people, and the occasional song, drawn from a reading of frontier fiction, 1880–1915. Each week a new list, progressing through the alphabet, “from A to Izzard.”


P. C. = prominent citizens. “‘Depewted,’ he said, ‘by a number of prominent citizens,’ with the usual meddlesomeness of the P. C. in all communities.” Patience Stapleton, Babe Murphy.

pace = indulgence in reckless dissipation. “He must make good—must win to the fore in the business world as he had won in the athletic. And above all he must forswear the pace!” James Hendryx, The Promise.

packet = a ship traveling at intervals between two ports. “Did not the hope possess me that she would embark in a New York packet.” Charles Sealsfield, The Cabin Book.

painter = a short rope or chain by which an anchor is held fast to the side of a ship when not in use. “The old sailor cast off the painter and gave the great even push which propelled the craft out between docks.” Ada Woodruff Anderson, The Heart of the Red Firs.

palace car = Pullman railroad car. “Where’s your palace car? Have you sunk so low as to come in a mere cab?” Roger Pocock, Curly.

Palouse = a hilly grassland region in eastern Washington and central Idaho. “I am starting on a long hunting and trading trip, through the Palouse and Big Bend country.” Ada Woodruff Anderson, The Heart of the Red Firs.

pan out = to criticize severely. “When she came in he thought she was a boy an’ kind o’ got gay, an’ she panned him out.” Robert Alexander Wason, Happy Hawkins.

Thursday, April 10, 2014

Dane Coolidge, Rimrock Jones (1917)


Rimrock Jones, prospector
Leave it to Dane Coolidge (1873 – 1940) to write a love story that is 90% about greed, high finance, the stock market, and mining law. Set in the deserts of southern Arizona, this novel pits its title character, a hard-drinking, gun-toting miner, against a railway tycoon in a struggle for ownership of a multi-million dollar copper mine. Between them is a deaf (we would say hearing-impaired today) freelance typist, with her own interest in both the mine and Rimrock Jones.

Plot. This is a novel that requires a reader to follow the money. Rimrock has sold 49% interest in his copper claim to W. H. Stoddard, the afore-mentioned tycoon. With cash received, he pays off everyone who has grubstaked him. One of these is the typist, Mary Fortune, who isn’t satisfied until she persuades him to give her a 1% share of the mine.

A little romantic attraction between them gets him thinking that he can count on her to pool her interest with his remaining 49%, and he’ll retain control. But true love does not run so smoothly. Possessing better sense than Rimrock, she objects to his high-handed ways as he protects his interest in the claim, especially as he kills a man who attempts to jump it.

Rimrock Jones, frontispiece
Meanwhile the nefarious scheming of Stoddard to win control of the mine would fill a book (which it does). He gets and keeps key employees in his pocket and drives a wedge between Rimrock and Mary Fortune. The wedge comes in the form of a wildcat skin-wearing adventuress from New York called Mrs. Hattersley.

She lures Rimrock away to the Big Apple, where he takes up residence at the Waldorf and lives the high life as profits from the mine begin rolling in. An inveterate high-stakes gambler, he throws himself into playing the stock market, hatching a scheme to drive Stoddard into financial ruin by manipulating copper shares. Meanwhile, without direct supervision of his trusted employees, he is unaware that they are doing Stoddard’s bidding back in Arizona.

Monday, April 7, 2014

The Moonlighter (1953)


OK, this is somewhat of an experiment. I’ve recorded a video review of this week’s western movie for BITS. The drawback of video for me is that a viewer can’t skim it like a reader can with text. So you're stuck with a certain time commitment. (You may have guessed that I don't watch many TED talks.)

Also, such a visual medium calls for many more photo and graphic images, which aren’t often readily available. And though my use of them here is arguably in keeping with “fair use,” there’s always the concern of possible copyright infringement.

Anyway, the result this time, as you will see, is a bit amateurish, and I doubt that it warrants the hours that went into it. But nothing ventured, nothing gained. The next one, should there be one, is bound to be an improvement.

Pass the popcorn.


The Moonlighter is currently available at amazon and Barnes&Noble. For more Overlooked movies and TV, click over to Todd Mason’s blog, Sweet Freedom.



Further reading:
BITS reviews of Fred MacMurray westerns

Coming up: Dane Coolidge, Rimrock Jones

Sunday, April 6, 2014

Awake again


Mask to hold my head in place during radiation
The fatigue slowing me down last week turned out to be a need for a meds adjustment (and I’ve begun
to think this whole journal should be called Club Meds). In a matter of two days, I was going strong again, and the good news from a CT scan showed real progress in discouraging the tumor. My left hand is still out for repairs, but we live in hope it will return mostly whole before long.

Here are some more excerpts from the journal I've been keeping since returning home from surgery. I would read them aloud in a video blog, which I plan to use for future BITS reviews, but my voice gets a little shaky when talking about this stuff.

3/4/14. Doing taxes, I am having flashbacks as I go through the bills paid and receipts for 2013, thinking of how they are a record of another life, almost another person’s life. I feel a bit of nostalgia, but for a world that seems already not to have existed. The psychologist referred to this as getting used to the “new normal,” a phrase that doesn’t quite do the job, when I puzzle over how I would characterize the old normal. A kind of sleepwalking, maybe. Not delusional, but hardly as sharply focused on the here and now as the day that awaits me this morning.