Friday, March 29, 2013

Robert Ames Bennet, Out of the Depths: A Romance of Reclamation (1913)

This is one of a crop of early westerns with civil engineers as main characters. As in some other examples, the action of the story involves the development of an irrigation project designed to convert arid land into a “fruited plain.” The novel’s central conceit is the parallel it wants to draw between the reclamation of both land and a man’s worth as a productive member of society.

Plot. Bennet’s main character is a man who rises from the depths of a wasted life to become the doer of heroic deeds. Lafeyette Ashton is a self-indulgent, lazy bum, who has grown up in the lap of luxury and received the finest education. Lacking any kind of work ethic, he has been disowned by his father, his regular remittances reduced to zero. Left to fend for himself, he’s on his own in the West, a hapless tenderfoot.

His foil in the novel is the brilliant young engineer, Thomas Blake, whose daring achievements have made him renowned. Blake is everything Ashton is not. In him, not an ounce of energy goes to waste. Generous and good-humored, he not only throws himself into the most challenging engineering projects; he is a loving husband and devoted father.

A map of the watershed
Their paths cross in western Colorado on the ranch of cattleman Knowles. Blake comes at the invitation of Knowles’ daughter, Isobel, to determine whether her father’s rangeland can be irrigated. Blake goes to work, with Ashton as a reluctant assistant.

It turns out that the two men have a history. While a student of engineering himself, Ashton had once stolen an idea for the design of a bridge from Blake, who had then exposed the theft. While Blake has long dismissed the incident, Ashton is still eaten up by professional jealousy.

They set to surveying the surrounding watershed, which includes a stream that runs at the bottom of a very deep, narrow canyon. And the two men climb down almost sheer cliffs to take measurements. Not only does Blake’s irrigation scheme turn out to be feasible, but he discovers a seam of gold-bearing quartz. Wealth abounds for all concerned.

Wake-up call
Romance. Complicating matters is that Ashton has fallen in love with the rancher’s daughter. She may or may not like him much in return. Sympathetic when she learns of his predicaments, she expresses “motherly tenderness” for his suffering. But it is hard to tell from her bantering conversation the actual depth of her feelings for him.

Meanwhile, she so obviously worships Blake that Ashton’s jealousy drives him mad. He suspects something irregular between them and becomes concerned about preserving her reputation. In the descent into the canyon, he thus plots to make Blake the victim of a fatal accident. When Blake breaks a leg all on his own, Ashton learns that the man he so despises is actually the long-lost brother of Isobel.

Experiencing a wave of guilt for his murderous thoughts, he has a sudden change of heart. He makes a perilous climb back to the canyon’s rim and directs a rescue that has only a slim hope of success. While help and a doctor are sent for, he descends again in the middle of the night by the light of a lantern to take food and first aid to the fallen man.

Convinced now that he is no better than worthless scum, Ashton wants only to see that Blake is returned to safety. That accomplished, he hopes to simply disappear from the face of the earth. But Isobel confesses her love for him, and Blake has only gratitude for his bravery and his heroic efforts. He offers Ashton a job and a future as resident engineer owning a share of an ambitious irrigation project.

At the bottom of the canyon
Character. And so all ends well. Ashton is pulled out of the depths of his own moral and ethical malaise to lay claim to his manhood and get a second chance at realizing his potential. Until then he’s been more than a little chagrined to have been reduced to taking work as a cowhand, “a common laborer for wages.” Not one to beat around the bush, Isobel corrects him. “You are now a man and honestly earning your own living,” she says, and no longer “a leech” living off of others.

Blake himself has risen from depths of his own. Growing up in poverty, he is proof that a man can overcome the odds of being born into a bad family. A wealthy benefactor and the love of a good woman have helped make of him a man of considerable achievement. There is to be found in him the idealism of the dedicated engineer, whose goal is “the uplifting of all mankind, both materially and spiritually!”

Villainy. The cowboy wearing the black hat in this novel is the ranch foreman, Kid Gowan. He has six notches on his gun. Three of the men he killed were rustlers, though two of them were said to be surrendering to him at the time. Two others were Ute Indians. Recently he was tried and acquitted of killing a man in self-defense.

Blake, the engineer, is a scientist and curiously impervious to even the idea of villainy. “There is no room for a devil in all the universe,” he tells Ashton. It would have been interesting to put Blake face to face with Kid Gowan. Villainy incarnate, especially with the prospect of putting a seventh notch on his gun, Gowan could make a dent in Blake’s positivist philosophy.

Blake learns that Isobel is his sister
He fails to live long enough to do that, however. Attempting to kill Blake by sending a boulder into the canyon where he lies injured below, he is surprised by Isobel holding a revolver on him. In confusion he steps backward and over the side of the cliff to his doom.

Wrapping up. Robert Ames Bennet (1870-1954) was born in Denver, Colorado. He was a lawyer and surveyor, before achieving success as a writer of fiction, with historical novels and numerous westerns. Several of them appeared as serials in the magazines. He is also remembered as the author of speculative fiction. His first novel, Thyra: A Romance of the Polar Pit (1901) is a lost-race adventure set on the North Pole.

Out of the Depths is currently available online at google books and Internet Archive, and for kindle and the nook. For more of Friday’s Forgotten Books, click on over to Patti Abbot’s blog.

FictionMags Index
Who Was Who Among North American Authors, 1921-1939, 1976
Gary Westfahl, ed., The Greenwood Encyclopedia of Science Fiction and Fantasy, 2005

Image credits: Illustrations by George Brehm

Coming up: Saturday music, Jo Stafford


  1. This kind of story idea would just be almost anathema to me today to read, although I suppose I do read "terraforming" tales in SF. However, I remember from talks and comments from my mom and dad that in their day this would have indeed been an heroic undertaking.

  2. This sounds like an interesting one. And incidentally, what a beautiful frontispice painting there at the top.