Wednesday, August 18, 2010

Book: Raw Gold

Central Los Angeles Public Library
I have this funny habit when I hold an old library book. I wonder how long it’s been sitting on the shelf in the stacks untouched, then of the different hands that have turned its pages over the years. Then how often it’s been taken home and read and by why sorts of readers.

This particular 102-year-old copy of Bertrand Sinclair’s Raw Gold came from the LA Public Library downtown (above), and I picked it up at my local branch (below). The book looks and feels pretty good for its age. It has been rebound in a stiff yellow binding, now scuffed and smudged. The author’s last name and the book’s title have been stamped in black capital letters on the spine. The pages themselves are soft with much handling, many of the corners creased from being folded over. The  old check-out punch card is still in its pocket inside the front cover.

My local branch - Westwood
There’s also the evidence of previous ownership. On the first page of chapter 1, the words BOOK LOVERS LOAN LIBRARY LOS ANGELES have been embossed into the paper. The date NOV 25 1977 has been stamped at the bottom of the title page. On the back of that page is another stamp: “University of Southern California” and in the gutter on the facing page yet another stamp: “Gift of James and Vernon Pleukharp”. And so on.

It occurs to me that no one is going to have these thoughts about an ebook a hundred years from now.

Anyway, about Bertrand Sinclair (1881-1972), who was born in Scotland and came to North America in 1889. He was a young cowpuncher living in Montana when he wrote this novel. He had befriended and later married novelist B. M. Bower, who encouraged him in his writing. (I wrote about Bower here earlier.)

Raw Gold (meaning gold nuggets and dust) was published in 1908 after publication the previous year by Street and Smith. When I picked up this book, I expected maybe a male writer’s version of the kind of story Bower writes in Chip of the Flying U, a lightly humorous adventure based on real, everyday knowledge of working cowboys.

Not quite.

The story. For a first novel, Raw Gold has a lot going for it. We get the wide-open frontier of the 1870s with outlaws and lawmen and what was to become a staple of western adventure, the innocent fugitive wrongly accused of a crime. There’s stolen money, stolen gold, and more stolen money, as well as an imperiled young woman who needs rescuing. All is resolved at the end after a confrontation with the outlaws in an isolated canyon.

Fort Walsh, 1878
Sinclair puts his stamp on this material by setting the story “north of the border” in the southern corners of what is now Alberta and Saskatchewan. The time is shortly after the arrival of the Northwest Mounted Police, and the entire story takes place within one or two days’ riding of Fort Walsh (shown here) in the Cypress Hills. A key scene takes place in Writing-on-Stone, a section of the Milk River where the cliffs are inscribed with Native American petroglyphs.

Mounties. The NWMP are (to this marginally informed reader) a cross between the U. S. Cavalry and the Texas Rangers. Their job is law enforcement, and they are organized like the military. There is strict adherence to protocol and the giving and taking of orders, and a misstep can get a man demoted and sent to the guardhouse.

Constable Bagley, NWMP, c1885
Dressed in scarlet tunics, the men carry arms but do not use them unless fired upon. Although their job includes rounding up Indians who wander off the reservation, they are not Indian fighters. Another of their jobs is to enforce the law regulating possession and transport of alcohol.

While Sinclair’s American narrator says he would not give up a job as a forty-dollar-a-month cowpuncher to be a sergeant in the Force, he does acknowledge the authority that wearing the uniform carries. “It has come to pass,” he says, “throughout the length and breadth of the Northwest that ‘in the Queen’s name’ out of the mouth of an unarmed redcoat, with one hand lightly on your shoulder, carries more weight than a smoking gun” (p. 172).

Sinclair’s respect for the Mounties (and this is curious) stops short of being complete. Turns out the troublemakers in his novel are members of the Force. One of them is even a high-ranking officer. The argument, if there is one, is that even the NWMP can have a bad apple or two.

Sinclair and Wister. Owen Wister’s influence can be seen in how the story is told. Like The Virignian, the narrator, Flood, is an observer who tags along with the real hero of the story, MacRae, a member of the NWMP. The two men are old friends, having been cowpunchers together a while back in Texas.

Writing-On-Stone, Milk River, Alberta
They meet up again as Flood returns from Fort Walsh with cash payment for delivery of a herd of horses he has brought from Fort Benton in Montana. They come upon a dying prospector who tells them of gold worth thousands he and his already dead partner have hidden at Writing-On-Stone (shown here). Flood is then robbed by men who are after the gold. Thus the plot is set in motion. As Sinclair’s narrator remarks early on, “Good lord! it sounds like the plot of a dime novel” (p. 44).

After MacRae and Flood find the gold, it’s quickly stolen from them again. Things go from bad to worse as they discover they are wanted for robbing the Fort’s paymaster. The rolling hills and valleys of the surrounding prairie are crawling with Mounties in search of them. A third man, Piegan, joins them as they go in search of the robbers themselves.

Then things get even worse. MacRae’s girlfriend, en route from Fort Walsh back to the States is kidnapped by the robbers, and the three men track them as they flee for the border. Their way is impeded first by a massive herd of buffalo and then by a prairie fire. The capture of the robbers takes place in clouds of smoke as the fire burns itself out on the shores of the Milk River.

NWMP camp on the prairies, 1875
Exciting enough, but channeling all this through a tag-along narrator takes a lot of the wind out of the story. Wister cheats by letting his narrator disappear for long sections, and we get to follow the story as if we were observing the action first hand. Sinclair might have done this, too, but he doesn’t, and there are long stretches of inaction, followed by whole chapters in which someone else reports what’s been going on.

Another parallel with Wister is the narrator’s warm appreciation for the real hero of the story, MacRae. He is introduced as a handsome man, especially as fitted out in his NWMP uniform. He is stoic, his emotions firmly under control. The following description of MacRae could easily fit the Virginian:

Whatever he felt, he always kept bottled up inside, no matter how it hurt. I never saw him fly to pieces over anything. (p. 60)

Northwest Mounted Police, Fort Walsh, 1876
As evidence of his commanding presence in the story, MacRae also makes all the decisions that advance the action, and he’s the one smart enough to figure out the mystery of where the gold has been hidden.

Like many western writers of the period, Sinclair and Wister both set their stories in a vanished past. Both look back from after the turn of the century to the years of the open range.

It was a big life while it lasted – primitive, exhilarating, spiced with dangers that added zest to the game; the petty, sordid things of life only came in on the iron trail. There was no place for them in the old West, the dead-and-gone West that will soon be forgotten. (p. 8)

This melancholy sense of loss pervades much of what’s been written about the West – from loss of a way of life to loss of a pristine wilderness. Sixty years later you’ll find it in Edward Abbey’s Desert Solitaire. Only Sinclair was wrong about one thing. It hasn’t been forgotten.

More next time.

Picture credits:
1) Los Angeles Public Library,
2) LAPL, Westwood branch,
3) Book cover,
4) Fort Walsh, Saskatchewan, 1878,
5) Constable Fred A. Bagley, NWMP, c1880,
6) Milk River Valley, Writing on Stone Park, Alberta,
7) NWMP Camp on the prairies, 1875,
8) Royal Mounted Police, Fort Walsh, 1876,

Coming up: Bertrand Sinclair's 1926 novel, Wild West


  1. I have not read this novel but I do have it in it's earlier magazine form, Oct 1907 POPULAR. I see it's been cut and edited down to around 50 pages, which the magazines often did with longer novels. Of course some were expanded from the shorter length for the hardcover edition.

  2. Walker, I've been assuming the novel had been serialized by S&S. A look at the S&S version sometime would be interesting, to see the difference and then surmise whether it was cut to fit 50 pp. or expanded to novel-length.

  3. I've done a couple posts about scribblings I've discovered in books. I've even written a short story which I should send somewhere about the topic.

  4. That first sentiment you expressed, wondering when last it was taken out, is exactly what started Friday's Forgotten Books.

  5. David, the scribblings in books are almost always mysteries for me. I can never make out what they mean.

    Patti, good impulse and thoroughly understandable.

  6. Interesting! I'd love to read this yarn. I've read a few like it and a few true stories from the area and the era in researching my own stories.
    My 'Partners' story starts in the Cypress Hills in 1866 and ends in Barkerville the following year. The NWMP didn't arrive in the area untill 1874.
    My 'Homesteader' has a few Mounties in it and an ex Mountie as one of the villians.
    I also did 'The Great Liquor War' a few years ago which recounts a disagreement between the NWMP and the BC Provincial Police over who had juristicion over liquor sales. Even though it's a novel that part of the story is true. The BCPP won the court battle.
    Sadly, TGLW is out of print. Perhaps this winter I can get it done again.


  7. Dave, maybe you can explain something to me about the liquor laws that the NWMP were enforcing when they arrived there. It wasn't clear from Sinclair's novel.