Thursday, July 12, 2012

Herman Whitaker, The Settler (1907)

Title page, 1907 edition
Reading this novel, it’s not a surprise that its author hung out with Jack London. Herman Whitaker shows a feeling for the kind of tough men who labored in the most physically demanding industries of the developing West. While an opponent of the monopolists, trusts, and robber barons who made fortunes at the expense of workingmen, he also saw that it took the hubris of their grand vision to build nations. 

The nation in this case is Canada. The Settler, written while British-born Whitaker was living in California, is based on his experience as a homesteader in Manitoba during the late 1880s. The Canadian Pacific Railroad has lured farmers onto the prairies to turn the sod and plant wheat. Rising freight rates, however, prevent the farmers from making a decent living, and most are mortgaged to the hilt.

Carter, the central character, is a handsome specimen of manhood. He may be a farmer, but he’s also a cut above his neighbors in intelligence and leadership skills. He doesn’t just complain about the railroad. He begins thinking like a railroad tycoon, and the novel traces his emergence as a man whose daring and cunning make him a match for even the mighty Canadian Pacific.

Illustration, 1907 edition
Plot. What the wheat farmers need is a fifty-mile spur connecting them to the main line. The CP, in the person of its general manager known as Brass Bowels (a sonorous euphemism), says no way. It would have an adverse effect on the bottom line. So Carter decides to build his own spur, from the farmers’ wheat lands to Winnipeg.

He gets the financial backing of lenders who see the opportunity to make fifty percent interest on their investment, and he acquires the equipment needed to spend a winter felling timber. Converted to lumber, it goes to laying track, building bridges and trestles. Seeing the advantage of linking to the American markets, he builds on southward to the U.S. as well.

The potential showstopper is the expected refusal of the CP to let Carter’s railroad cross CP tracks. While all of Manitoba watches with bated breath, newspaper editorials hot with speculation, Carter manages a crafty move that checkmates his opponent. Recognizing that he’s up against an equal, with brass balls of his own, the CP manager works out a deal that happily suits both men.

So that’s the main thread of the story, but it’s merely a line to hang from it several subplots with various turns and wrinkles. One concerns the running of a lumber camp through the dead of winter. We learn about the felling of timber and its transportation by horse-drawn skids over snow and ice to a lake, from where it will flow with the spring thaws downstream to the mills.

Of interest are the working conditions and management of the men, all of them proud, rough bruisers with minds of their own. Carter has to win and hold their respect, in a world where the pecking order is normally fixed with fists and other handy weapons. With a Trampas-like villain called Michigan Red determined never to knuckle under to Carter, there is a long war of nerves between the two men.

The perils of work in the northern woods include the fierce winter weather and sub-zero temperatures and a raging forest fire that catches Carter and his men on a burning trestle. Ready after several months of hard work for a raise in pay, the men also go on an ill-fated strike.

Canadian Pacific Railway, Manitoba, 1880s
Romance. The story is a romance as well. But as the narrator points out, unlike love stories that end with the marriage of an unpolished cowboy and a pretty schoolmarm, this one starts where they leave off. A sweet romance in the opening chapters brings Carter and Helen to the altar, but the honeymoon doesn’t last long.

There’s trouble right away with the neighbors. Plain folks don’t cotton to Helen’s Eastern ways, and she turns for friendship to the local colony of remittance men from England and their women.  Seeing how much pleasure she takes in their more refined company, Carter realizes that she is shamed by his unrefined ways. It does not help matters that one of the English wives, Helen’s best friend, has set her own eye on him and makes reckless advances.

Carter and Helen separate, and he throws himself into his work. They do not see each other for most of two years. By this time, the water under the bridge would fill Hudson Bay. Helen has nearly fallen victim to a sly fox of an Englishman, Molyneux, who uses every trick to lure her into his den. We learn long before she does that he has fathered a stillborn child with the daughter of a local farmer.

Two bear-like friends of Carter by the names of Bender and Cougar bring an end to Molyneux’ schemes. Attempting to scotch his plans for Helen and trying to force him to make an honest woman of the seduced and abandoned girl, they confront him on a bridge over a stream full of Carter’s cut timber. The results are tragic, but it gets Molyneux out of the picture.

Borrowing a convention from the early western, Carter winds up in the hospital after an injury while fighting the forest fire. Who should be at his side but the much-chastened Helen, now a nurse, who pretends for a long while to be cold and officious until the two finally admit their mutual love. In a long denouement, they return to the farm where their marriage started, wiser by far, and give it another go.

Herman Whitaker
Wrapping up. This is one heck of a novel, with far more in it than can be summed up in a few paragraphs. Reading it, you know you are in the hands of a storyteller able to infuse a narrative with humor, intelligence, and caring for the characters. Several stories come to life within the novel’s embrace, many with telling incidents and some that reveal well-observed aspects of social history.

There’s a detailed portrayal, for instance, of the adversarial relationship between the Scots and English communities on the Canadian prairie. The English, for whom the narrator has little sympathy, are a sleazy lot, aware of and enjoying their own moral turpitude. Meanwhile, the Scots are fiercely self-righteous. A tent revival meeting incites them to a moral frenzy. In a chilling scene, a gang of drunken ruffians attempts to drag Helen from her home in the middle of the night and punish her for alleged improper behavior.

In 1895, Whitaker (1867-1919) resettled from Canada to Oakland, California. At the age of 35 he began selling fiction to the magazines while holding down menial jobs. Starting in 1901, FictionMags Index shows him the author of 60 short stories in the likes of Munsey’s, Harper’s, Ainslee’s, and The Popular Magazine. A collection of stories, The Probationer, was published in 1905, and The Settler in 1907 was his first novel. In that same year his home had become shelter for writers and artists after the San Francisco earthquake.

Poster for 3 Bad Men, 1926
A number of novels followed, including his last, Hunting the German Shark (1919), based on his experience as a war correspondent during WWI. His novel Over the Border (1916), set in northern Mexico, was made into two films, 3 Bad Men (1926) and Three Rogues (1931). In the years before his death in 1919, he became an American citizen.

The Settler is currently available online at google books and Internet Archive. For more of Friday’s Forgotten Books, click on over to Patti Abbot’s blog.


Image credits:  
Illustration from the novel, Mac M. Pease
All others, Wikimedia Commons

Coming up: Saturday music, George Strait


  1. I wonder when more elaborate covers began to show up in western novels.

  2. I could not find an original cover for this one, Patti, and don't know what a dust jacket would have looked like. I know there were illustrated covers for cowboy novels already before 1900. N.C.Wyeth was doing colorful illustrations for western novel dust jackets shortly after the turn of the century. Maynard Dixon, too.

  3. Don't think I've read anything by him. This seems the place to start most likely. I did see 3 bad men as a movie, I think.

    1. He might interest you, Charles. If I remember right, he had a Louisiana connection and wrote N.O.-based fiction, too.

  4. Thanks for the review. I read the recent bio of London and had intended to read some work of his and his contemporaries but never got to it.

    1. Reminds me, I should check London's bio to see if there's mention of Whitaker and other 2nd-string novelists whose paths crossed his in California. Thanks.

  5. Ron, this must be one of many fascinating stories built around the Canadian Pacific Railway that transported people and goods across vast stretches of land in both Canada and the US and, I believe, had a tremendous influence on early settlements on the Canadian side.

    1. The railroads then were like the Interstate highway system today, with similar effects.

  6. What a cogent review, Ron. Yes, London biographers, of whom I am one, do discuss Whitaker. In fact, I'm writing an essay about London and his friends, and discovered your commentary. You make me want to read the book! And provided more information on Whitaker than I had come across in the past. Thanks.