Bertrand Sinclair, Big Timber

Modern times: we're so much smarter than our forerunners, you know? Writers from the past are lucky to be mocked by us, because we see so much more clearly than they do that if they only knew what we're doing to them, they'd count themselves lucky that we're insulting them, since otherwise they'd deserve their ignominious anonymity.

Plus it's, like, the golden age of television, or whatever.

Probably a lost film
When we look back at any previous literary period, however short it might be, the texts that remain visible to us are really just the recovered teeth that allow archaeologists to theorize, accurately, the divisions and overlaps between species or evolutionary stages. Those teeth (so to speak) were anchored in jaws, which were wrapped in muscles, which were dangling from skulls, etc etc, and we only get the full picture if we read the forgotten works, including works that maybe don't have much claim to live on in memory.

But the thing is, and here's where we start belatedly to approach the point of this post, novels from the first years of the twentieth century sometimes got abandoned for strange reasons, including just plain randomness. Dig around, and you'll find some seriously cool stuff. Possibly not something great, but wouldn't it be tiring if you could read only great novels? (I've said before that the pre-WW2 period produced some odd novels, though: here, and also here, and most definitely here and here.)

In 2012, Ronsdale Press reprinted Bertrand Sinclair's 1924 logging novel The Inverted Pyramid, and I immediately assigned it for my UVic course on British Columbia literature. Ronsdale made the right call in not reprinting Sinclair's 1916 novel Big Timber (Gutenberg version here), because The Inverted Pyramid was more ambitious, more literary, more politically charged, and I'm comfortable that we read it in ENGL 456 last fall. But when a prolific author has only one book in print, students are going to get limited access to the worldview behind the book, so it's a shame that Big Timber hasn't made it into reprint status yet.

Plus it's a shame for its own merits, really, because the world needs more romance novels set inside logging camps. In Big Timber, Bertrand Sinclair moves between reflections on the nature of nature as landscape and as resource; rumination on the gendering of social restrictions; and doubts about the exploitive capitalist structure of colonial resource extraction industries. Also, fisticuffs and opera, so we all win!

Plot summary blogged here
The book opens with 22-year-old Estella Benton arriving by train at what appears to be Harrison Hot Springs, from Philadelphia. Her father has died, leaving no estate to speak of in spite of his enormous income from working in finance, throwing her onto the tender mercies of her brother Charlie who has been seeking his fortune as a rapacious small-time logger on the BC coast. Stella has been trained to no useful end, and through a variety of elliptical phrasings, Sinclair makes it clear that her family have fitted her only for some version of servitude, either through marriage, ill repute, or low employment. Her brother makes her a low-paid cog in his logging operation, from which perspective she judges the moral lapses of all the men in camp, including Charlie, coming over time to develop bitterness as well as wisdom, and the tension between these attitudes toward the world is what animates the remainder of Big Timber (bearing in mind that this is just the novel's set-up).

As the novel develops, we encounter competing would-be lumber barons, a shooting, babies, an inevitably homoerotic fight scene, a lengthy visit to Seattle, forest fires, a white picket fence, and a First Nations female character who rather blows up Stella's naive notion of Indians. Something for everyone, really, and I'm serious when I say that Big Timber would be a really enjoyable book for an awful lot of readers who are much, much too cool for this sort of thing.

I confess, yes: aesthetically the pulling together of narrative threads leaves something to be desired at the end of the book, and politically the novel's apparent push towards feminism and away from both colonialism and capitalism falters badly as it all wears on, but come on: the novel's from British Columbia in 1916, and it's out of print at this point except for an over-priced uncorrected print-on-demand facsimile version from a dodgy publisher. You look only for nuggets, you'll miss all the gold dust. This is one heck of a dusty novel -- up to you to decide whether it's also just a heck of a novel!


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