|Poster, 1890s. Artist, Edward Penfield|
Bechdolt was a prolific writer, with more than a hundred stories and novels in various genres, starting in 1906 and lasting into the 1940s. He had an education from the University of Washington, and in his early years worked as a journalist for newspapers in several Western cities.
Maybe I’m just going tone deaf, but these early novels set in the West seem as well written as many books today. The Hard Rock Man has a nice balance of character and action, and it brings a little known world to life. It also has something to say.
|Iron Mountains, Washington. Farwestern photo by Gregg M. Erickson.|
Character. Like other novels of the period, it wants to say something about the growth of character in a man. In this case, the man is a young Irish immigrant, who has fetched up in the mountains of the Northwest, working on a railroad tunnel project.
Modern immigrant literature, like Dinaw Mengestu’s novel, The Beautiful Things That Heaven Bears, questions the myth of the melting pot. It embraces America, but with mixed feelings. Bechdolt’s Tom Morton represents the more traditional immigrant story. He quickly adapts to the New World, rising gradually from a lowly unskilled laborer, shoveling muck at the mouth of the tunnel, to boss of operations.
He accomplishes this chiefly out of sheer physicality. He is big, strong and fearless. When five fellow workers gang up on him, he beats the crap out of them before stopping a bullet that hardly wounds him. Graduating to jobs with more responsibility, he eventually is in charge of one of the heavy drills pounding into the hard rock inside the tunnel.
|Goat Peak, Cascades, Washington. Farwestern photo by Gregg M. Erickson.|
Laboring men. The novel is a vivid description of what it was to build a railway tunnel through a mountain at the turn of the last century. Bechdolt vividly describes the scene, as the men work under conditions that would send a safety engineer from OSHA into shock. The air is toxic with fumes from exhaust and dynamiting. Men die of pneumonia. The din is deafening, and there’s the frequent threat of collapsing roofs.
It takes a breed of reckless and wanton men to do this work. Some of them, in fact, are marginally criminal. A gang of miners from Couer d’Alene take jobs in the tunnel and spark a rivalry with the “hard rock” men. There is eventually a barroom fistfight between their leader, Kennedy, and Tom Morton, the entire camp crowded around them and cheering.
The life of these men is hardly romanticized. A ramshackle town serves their few needs: saloons, dancehalls, and a postmaster, who doubles as a druggist and doctor. There are heavy snows in the winter, and the streets are littered with broken bottles. Canvas signs hang across the fronts of the business establishments, reduced in time by wind and weather to tatters.
|Lake Cushman, Washington. Farwestern photo by Gregg M. Erickson.|
There’s a telling scene in which the men, while shoveling a path in the snow, encounter the superintendent’s daughter coming the opposite way. A line of them lift and pass her from hand to hand until she is deposited safely past them. Tom is the last in line, and holding her for a moment is enough to stir up his long submerged memories of softness and tenderness.
Putting aside the Freudian implications of the setting (sometimes a tunnel is just a tunnel), the novel is about overcoming loneliness and finding love. Becoming a man of importance, Tom wins the willing respect of all the other men – including his rival, Kennedy. But it takes an accident in the tunnel for Tom to complete his growth as a man.
In a postmodern twist at the end Bechdolt retells the story of Tom’s life as it would have been told years later around the camp stove by a man who remembers him. It’s an American success story about a working man’s rise to the top and marriage to the boss’s daughter. But the storyteller, not given to sentiment as Bechdolt notes, leaves out the part that love played in the story’s ending.
The Hard Rock Man is available free online here and for Nook.
Photo credits: Wikimedia Commons
Coming up: Martha Sandweiss, Passing Strange