I reviewed this book three years ago while looking for cowboy stories and neglected its several stories set in gold rush Alaska. As I put together a chapter on Rex Beach for a book on frontier fiction, I’m correcting that oversight. Here is some of what I have added.
The subject of two prospectors working together as partners is at the heart of Rex Beach’s Alaska stories in this collection. One pair, Big George Brace and Charlie Captain are featured in three of them. Involved in daring adventures, usually saving the lives of others, they eventually must confront a life-threatening risk that may permanently separate them.
“Where Northern Lights Come Down o’ Nights.” In this story, Big George and Captain are up against a rogue priest, Father Orloff, a Russian who has a wide influence among the indigenous Eskimo tribes. Receiving a cold and threatening reception as the two partners arrive in one of their settlements, they claim sanctuary in the church. There they wait through a storm and make plans to escape before Father Orloff shows up with the certain intention of killing one or both of them.
“The Scourge.” This, the most disturbing of the Alaska stories, has death by scurvy as its subject. George and Captain come upon an encampment of 125 newly arrived prospectors who have dug in for the winter. Instead of putting up log cabins for shelter, they are living in dugouts, where Captain tells them that without air, light, exercise, and the right diet, they are certain to fall ill.
Unwilling to take anyone’s advice, they stay put, coming to dislike the industrious duo, who venture out daily to work in the snow and cold. Without preventatives like potatoes, limejuice, and citric acid, they begin to develop scurvy and start dying in numbers.
Short on rations themselves, George and Captain are also at risk and nervously watch for symptoms of the disease. When George falls ill, Captain and another man, Klusky, start off on a days-long journey for fresh grub.
“Pardners.” The title story, however, concerns a big, rough bruiser, Bill Joyce, who tells of taking a young tenderfoot under his wing. They have mixed fortunes as prospectors, but the real drama involves the young man’s wife back home.
When she doesn’t answer his letters, he gets so heartsick the two men return to the States. In Seattle, they find her singing in a variety show. She considers the marriage over because of some unflattering photos she has seen of her husband in the newspaper. In doing a photo feature on life up north, a sensation-seeking journalist has made him out to be a carouser and womanizer.
|"The Thaw at Slisco's"
“The Thaw at Slisco’s.” Billy Joyce narrates this story as well. Several prospectors gather during a fierce winter storm in Slisco’s roadhouse, where they are joined by Annie Black, a hard and bitter woman considered with some contempt as a claim jumper.
When a nearly frozen Eskimo stumbles in out of the storm, they learn that two Swedes are still out in the snow about to perish. Annie marshals a rescue, shaming the reluctant men into leaving the comfort and safety of the roadhouse. The two Swedes are brought back alive. When a pretty young woman arrives in search of her mother, the mother turns out to be Annie.
Character. There’s a recurring theme in many of the stories that defines character as the willingness to make sacrifices for the sake of others in distress. That sacrifice usually involves a risk to one’s own life. It matters not whether a person in need is an adversary. You put past differences behind you and go to his aid.
Male bonding. The stories are an unembarrassed celebration of male bonding and undying loyalty to a mate. At the opening of “Pardners,” Bill Joyce argues that “the guy that alluded to marriages germinating in heaven certainly got off on the wrong foot. He meant pardnerships.”
Women. In their general isolation from women, the men are sometimes surprised to learn that their assumptions about them have been wrong. One example is the formidable Annie Black, who storms her way through “The Thaw at Slisco’s.” Bill Joyce describes her as “tall, slab-sided” with a “disposition uncertain as frozen dynamite.”
But when she is reunited with her daughter, the men see the brave, tenderhearted, and self-sacrificing woman behind her rough and tough exterior. Observing the two women embracing, the men stand mutely moved, their throats aching, “like it was Christmas or we’d got mail from home.”
Style. The stories show a gift for setting up a situation somewhere under a northern or western sky and building an adventure where men have to live by muscle, fearlessness, and wits. In the Alaska tales, there is invariably a great deal at stake. Situations are dangerous and life threatening. Beach is especially adept at building suspense.
There is a sharp precision to much of his description, especially in the opening paragraphs of a story:
They were skirting the coast, keeping to the glare ice, wind-swept and clean, that lay outside the jumbled shore pack. The team ran silently in the free gait of the grey wolf, romping in harness from pure joy of motion and the intoxication of perfect life, making the sled runners whine like the song of a cutlass.
His descriptions of adverse weather conditions are vivid, and he is adept at describing how they register on the body:
The spray whipped into his face like shot, and froze as it clung to his features. He strained at his paddle till the sweat soaked out of him and the cold air filled his aching lungs. Unceasingly the merciless frost cut his face like a keen blade, till he felt the numb paralysis which told him his features were hardening under the touch of the cold.
Some of the stories introduce humor and irony. Those with Bill Boyce as the first-person narrator remind one of the Old Cattleman of Alfred Henry Lewis’ Wolfville (1897). Taking colorful liberties with the English language, he is an unfailingly entertaining and lively yarn spinner.
|Rex Beach, 1925
Wrapping up. Rex Beach (1877–1949) was college-educated and an adventurer. He was preparing for a law career in Chicago when he raced off to the Klondike to prospect for gold, and he was there for five years. He never struck it rich as a prospector, but he turned the experience into a best-selling novel, The Spoilers (1906), which became a play and then a film.
During his career as a writer, he published nearly 100 short stories and serials in several publications, a great many of them in Cosmopolitan. Beach produced numerous novels, many with frontier themes. Besides The Spoilers, two others were among the year’s top bestsellers: The Barrier (1908) and The Silver Horde (1909).
“Pardners” was made into an Edwin S. Porter film in 1910. It was the first of many of Beach’s stories and novels to be adapted to the screen. The Spoilers appeared first in 1914 and was remade four more times, once with Gary Cooper (1930) and once with John Wayne (1942). Altogether, more than 50 of his titles were adapted to the screen.
Pardners 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 Abbott's blog.
Illustrations from the first edition by F. E. Schoonover, J. N. Marchand, Hy S. Watson
Author's photo, Wikimedia Commons
Coming up: Glossary of frontier fiction: B