Thursday, August 19, 2010

Book: Raw Gold, part 2

Didn’t mean to get so long-winded, but here’s more about Bertrand Sinclair’s novel, Raw God (1908). Like I say, I read old books so you don’t have to. Illustrations today are by Clarence H. Rowe, from the first edition.

Lyn pleads with MacRae
Sinclair and Bower. We know that Sinclair read B. M. Bower’s Chip of the Flying U as she wrote it. It’s hard to say what he learned from it. There’s nothing resembling a ranch romance in the almost perfunctory relationship MacRae has with his girlfriend, Lyn. In a brief back-story, we learn that they were once engaged to be married, but they have since drifted apart.

Sinclair keeps it that way. There’s one scene of potential intimacy, but it takes place out of sight and hearing of the narrator. So we learn nothing. At best, the former girlfriend’s main reason for being in the plot is to get kidnapped and rescued.

One time that Lyn appears, she plays the stereotypical role of women in westerns – the one that tries to speak reason in the face of violence. She pleads with MacRae to give up chasing the villains: “There’s been too much blood shed over that wretched gold already. Let them have it. I know something dreadful will happen if you follow it up” (p. 212).

MacRae, of course, stubbornly insists that a man does what he has to do, and she relents. Bower’s heroine wouldn’t have given up so easily.

By contrast with Bower, this story takes place almost completely out of doors. Sinclair’s appreciation of heat and wet and cold and sleeping rough, sometimes without meals, seems to be genuine. His characters don’t drink, but they smoke endlessly. He’s also familiar with horses – how many hours of riding are in one, when it needs rest, what and when it eats or gets fed. Sinclair would have known all this from experience, and the details add to the realism.

Style. Sinclair has a purposeful style of writing. The tone is mostly neutral. At times he can work up some suspense as he describes a crucial plot development. Also, his characters can become real for a moment with a telling detail – as with one of the villains who has hairy wrists. Bower is better at this. One can sense her penciling in the following description of MacRae:

But his looks gave no hint of the real man under the surface placidity; you’d never have guessed what possibilities lay behind that immobile face, with its heavy-lashed hazel eyes and plain, thin-lipped mouth that tilted up just a bit at the corners. (p. 22)

Bower’s Chip has heavy lashes and that same little smile.

Flood gets pistol-whipped
And then there are moments, like Clarence Mulford, when Sinclair uses humor in the portrayal of a high-risk situation, especially if it involves gunfire. Riding alone and coming upon several Indians who give chase, the narrator escapes, frightened at the prospect of being shot and scalped. However, he puts it this way:

As it was, they shot altogether too close for comfort, and the series of yells they turned loose in that peaceful atmosphere made me feel that I was due to be forcibly separated from the natural covering of my cranium if I lost any time in getting out of their sphere of influence. (p. 125)

Alfred Henry Lewis, of course, writes whole stories with this tongue-in-cheek tone. Sinclair saves it only for these scary moments to disguise his narrator’s fear.

He also has fun characterizing the difference between Canadians and Americans. Observing MacRae report to his senior officers at the Fort, Flood says he wouldn’t want a job that would require him to take orders from another man. MacRae then jokingly scolds him for his American obsession with independence. “You’ll be a heap more sane,” MacRae says, “when you get that old, wild-west notion, that every man should be a law unto himself, out of your head” (p. 184).

Sinclair comes down harder on the social stratification in the NWMP. A woman visitor at the post is escorted by a commissioned officer. If she were to acknowledge a passing noncom, like MacRae, she would be dropped “like a hot potato” and “knifed socially” by the officers’ wives.

Flood and MacCrae find the gold
Colors. Over and again in the books set in the west during this period you find reference to the central characters as “white.” It’s not just about color of skin but also a judgment about someone’s worth. A man who shows himself to be “white” is someone honorable, generous, and trustworthy. The word appears often with this connotation in Sinclair’s book. The narrator at one point says, “I know nearly every bull-whacker that freights out of Benton, and they’re a pretty white bunch” (p. 201).

Meanwhile, Indians appear in war paint and breach clouts, and an African-American woman, who is the “mammy” that accompanies MacRae’s Texas girlfriend, is referred to blithely with the n-word.

Death and dying. With all the shooting and killing in western fiction, it’s not often that it casts much of a pall over the story. The dead are forgotten as soon as they hit the turf in Mulford’s Bar-20. Wister’s Virginian can get a bit wistful when he considers the death of his friend Steve. Meanwhile, death is just one more part of the comedy in Alfred Henry Lewis’ Wolfville.

By contrast, Sinclair digresses on the subject of death as something that visits everyone – including the reader. Standing over the body of a dead man who has died in the dark of night at the hands of villains, the narrator says:

If it should ever be my lot to take the Long Trail at short notice, I hope it will be under a blue sky and a blazing sun. It was hard to be philosophic, or even decently calm, standing there in the sickly glow of the fading coals with old Hans mutely reminding us that life is a tenuous thread, easily snipped. (p. 45)

The book even ends like this:

Ah, well, we can’t always be young and full of the pure joy of living. One must grow old. And inevitably one looks back with a pang, and sighs for the vanished days. But Time keeps his scythe a-swinging, and we go out – like a snuffed candle. (p. 310)

This tenuous sense of life crops up now and then in the novel. If it was a concern of Sinclair’s, it should be noted that he himself lived to the ripe old age of 91.

Fort Walsh today
Last word. The novel is dominated by the theme of introducing “peacekeepers” into the West. But the Mounties are police and not an Army. Meanwhile, their authority reaches all the way to the throne of Queen Victoria. I’m oversimplifying, but the identity of these westerners is not shaped by a history of rebellion – first in 1776, then again in the Civil War.

In the novel, MacCrae argues that individualism and resistance to authority will keep the American West in turmoil long after the Canadian West has been peacefully settled. He has high hopes for his future as a member of the Force. It offers him more in the long run compared to the uncertainties of life in Texas.

I’m thinking that when Sinclair wrote the novel, he was still divided in his opinion. The American narrator of the story, Flood, is unconvinced by MacRae’s argument. Also, members of the NWMP turn out to be the same kind of trouble-making bad apples Wister’s Virginian has to deal with.

When his marriage to Bower broke up in 1912, Sinclair returned to Canada and eventually settled in British Columbia. It would be interesting to read his later novels to find out whether these themes show up again and how he handles them.

Further reading:
American writer Wallace Stegner spent several years of his boyhood in this area of southern Saskatchewan. He writes about it in his collection of western fiction and memoir, Wolf Willow.

Picture credits:
1) Book illustrations by Clarence H. Rowe, from the first edition
2) Fort Walsh, Saskatchewan, shaunavon.com

Coming up: Bertrand Sinclair's 1926 novel Wild West

5 comments:

  1. Enjoyed this review,Ron, nice.

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  2. I see you're listening to Chris LeDoux. I never grow tired of his music.

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  3. This is fine material, with rich insights. I recollect that some of Bower and Sinclair's work ended up on film.

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  4. My neighbor, Joanne Gardner, headed Sony's musical video division in LA for years. One day she took a call from Chris LeDoux, who wanted info about doing a musical video. So Joanne patiently took him through the entire routine. Then he said, "That's great, honey, but now I want to talk to your boss, Joe."
    "This is Joanne," she said.
    Long pause.
    They ended up great friends, and she even visited his home in Wyoming.

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  5. Thanks everybody for your comments. I'm a day late and a dollar short with my reply.

    Cheyenne, thanks for dropping by again.

    David, LeDoux really was a country rocker. My favorite, "Life is a Highway" is really a rock song. It took me a while to realize that.

    Richard, from CHIP OF THE FLYING U onward, Bower sold quite a few titles to Hollywood. Sinclair, too, to a certain extent. The Chris LeDoux story is wonderful. That would be Chris, all right.

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