emptyhands

I absolutely loved this book by Arthur Stringer. My aunt told me about it while we were camping in Montana in May, saying it was my great-grandpa’s favorite book but it had been lost on lending it to someone who never returned it. I went on amazon and got a 1924 edition very cheap right away but never started reading it. Last week I was staying home all week for the first time in over a month and made a point to do some reading, finally picking up this book. It’s about a young woman who is just drifting in life, finding no purpose and just wasting time. Her father gets home from his travels in time to see a wild party she’s having and wants to take her away from it all.

“Can’t she, Oh God, can’t she be saved from all this?”

He owns some mining claims up in Northern Canada and decides to take her with him next time he goes. Clannie (nickname for Claire apparently) had meanwhile been planning on running away with a married man, but on seeing the ghost of her dead mother warning her not to go, she runs to her father in the middle of the night and agrees to go with him to the mining camp, despite their strained relationship. Once they get there, she meets his young foreman, Grimshaw, who is quite brusque and has no liking for the shallow girl. She goes out fishing in a canoe on the lake, and despite being warned against getting too close to the canyon edge, ends up being sucked over the waterfall. Grimshaw had seen it starting to happen and hopped into another boat, hoping to overtake her. He followed her over the falls and through all the rapids, and when their boats are finally smashed to pieces, he manages to save her from drowning in a whirlpool and get them both to shore. There is no way to get back up the canyon walls. The story then goes on with their survival, being quite detailed in telling how Grimshaw at first makes them mean clothes out of leaves and braided vine, and a temporary shelter from branches and boughs, but then as the days go by, they build tools, pottery, warm clothing from animals hides, even a kiln and a wooden cabin. Clannie at first is not much help, and even worries that Grimshaw is working too much and will overdo it.

“People, I’ve noticed, don’t get sick at this sort of thing. They harden up. And even a wound, in this clean air, heals without infection. It’s your city people who suffer from that, the softlings who have no endurance because they never endure.”

Clannie couldn’t get that last sentence out of her head and neither can I.

“Time and again she found herself thinking of Hillcrest, of her home with its unconsidered luxuries, with its bewilderingly complicated apparatus of service, with its illusory banishment of actuality. Homes like that had taken the gift of labor away from the modern woman, had left her pathetically idle and empty-handed. She was no longer bothered by this frontier business of wood-getting and water-carrying, of weaving and stitching and tanning, of the grinding of meal and the gutting of animals. Their grandmothers and their grandmothers’ mothers had done that, she remembered, the pioneers of a century ago, the sturdier men and women who came to a new country and built houses for themselves and found ore and smelted it and made plows and axes and felled trees and cleared their own land and cut their timber into planks and grew grain and ground it into flour and tanned hide for their footwear and spun wool and wove it into clothing. Yet their happier children’s children, immured in their latter-day machinery of comfort, had to turn to play, to play like the play of children, to keep from going mad. Their toil and their tasks had been taken away from them and to avoid dying of inertia and ennui they desperately invented games and fashioned trivial little pastimes and turned to cars and cards, to games and clubs and clan-rivalries, to the end that they might not remember their own helplessness.”

Clannie learns to survive in the wilderness with Grimshaw at her side. It turns into a love story as well and when, months later, her father finally gets a pilot to take him to look for the bodies of his daughter and foreman, he is shocked to see the cabin and other signs of human life and hikes in from the lake where the pilot lands to find them. He is further shocked to see his daughter so healthy and competent.

“…perhaps his Clannie had wrung a sort of comfort out of such discomfort, that perhaps in her sheer empty-handedness she had found some stranger sort of wealth.”

It is perhaps very middle class of me to think of the comfort I live in as something that is not quite fully living, or fulfilling, or something. Yet I have always been fascinated by pioneers, by those who can live off the land, getting their own sustenance and building their own products according to need and their own cunning. That is probably not completely possible any more. If you could even find “open” land, it has already been claimed and the government will have its due so you need to have money somehow. I also have no desire to become a complete hermit as I am quite social and love having family and friends surrounding me. But I just can’t resist the idea of living in some similar way for a little while, if you can call having brand new technical gear and still going through towns to stock up on food similar.

Written by Siren

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