John Gale watches soldiers building a military post on the Yukon River and thinks, “The trail ends here!”
Necia Gale, his daughter, sees Lieutenant Burrell and thinks her trail is just beginning.
The Barrier by Rex Beach
[Harper’s, 310 pp.] 1908. 1908 bestseller #2.
Project Gutenberg ebook #4082. My grade: B.
In its first chapter, The Barrier prepares readers for a romance in which the Kentuckian’s bias against non-whites will have to be overcome.
Predictably, the young people fall in love.
But prejudice is trivial compared John Gale’s problem.
Gale’s difficulties are revealed slowly while readers see the kind of man he is and speculate on what he might have done in his early years.
Stark, a saloon-keeper, and his rascally companion, Runnion, arrive in Flambeau just as “No Creek” Lee finds gold. Stark puts up a tent and by nightfall is in business taking money from those who aim to strike it rich.
Poleon Doret, who has loved Necia for years, gets only sisterly love and a commission to find out if Burrell means to marry her.
I won’t reveal the ending which is as quarter-turn left of predictable.
Aside from Necia, the characters, too, are just unusual enough to keep readers’ full attention.
Necia, sad to say, is just a pretty face with nothing between the ears.
The best of the 1906 bestselling novels for most twenty-first century readers are books that clothe social or political criticism in a strong story: Coniston by Winston Churchill, The Jungle by Upton Sinclair, and The Spoilers by Rex Beach.
Each of the novelists had some first-hand, emotional connection with his subject, which makes their stories especially powerful. The characters may have been invented, but the situations are true.
The Spoilers is probably the most accessible of the three for today’s readers. Rex Beach’s novel is a thriller with the requisite amount of romance.
Two film versions of the novel were made. Gary Cooper played the male lead in one and John Wayne was leading man in the second, which tells you all you need to know about Beach’s characterization.
The protagonists of The Spoilers confront a scheme cooked up by politicians to legally rob Alaska miners of their gold. The scheme, promoted as a plan to protect the miners, has the blessing of the federal government and its courts.
The intrepid heroes not only have to figure out what’s going on but also defeat the men in suits back in the lower 48 with little more than their wits and shovels.
The Spoilersis based on true events that Beach observed while in Alaska. He had trained for the law in Chicago, but the gold fields had more allure than the law courts.
During the Klondike Gold Rush, Beach spent five years unsuccessfully prospecting for gold.
In The Jungle, Upton Sinclair follows a fictional Lithuanian immigrant family who have come to America early in the 1900s seeking new opportunities.
They find only the same old oppressions.
They arrived with little and, despite their hard work, that little is gradually taken from them.
Sinclair uses the family to expose the working and living conditions experienced by immigrants who found jobs in Chicago’s stockyards, slaughterhouses, and meat packing plants.
The lead character in the novel turns toward socialism which offers some hope of a better future.
Sinclair himself was a socialist and a muckraker (the Progressive Era term for an investigative reporter). He went undercover, working in the Chicago meatpacking plants to get a first hand look at conditions.
The Jungle was first published as a serial in the Socialist newspaper Appeal to Reason for which Sinclair worked.
Besides writing on political topics important to socialists, Sinclair became a socialist politician. He ran as a Socialist Party candidate for Congress, and in 1934 ran for governor of California as a Democrat.
He was unsuccessful both times.
Coniston focuses on the figure of Jethro Bass, a cloddish country lad from the lower socioeconomic class, which in the middle half of the 19th century was usually called “the wrong side of the tracks.”
Jethro becomes a a deal maker, a behind-the-scenes string-puller. Smoke-filled rooms are his natural habitat.
Jethro exploits the vulnerabilities of the New Hampshire political system to amass great power.
Coniston‘s author Winston Churchill knew a thing or two about New Hampshire politics. He was twice elected to the New Hampshire state legislature.
The same year that Coniston was topping the bestseller list, Churchill lost a bid to become the Republican nominee for governor. Six years later he ran for governor again, this time as a Progressive, and was again defeated.
The Spoilers, The Jungle, and Coniston are novels whose subjects readers will remember but whose stories will slip the mind.
The value of such books is that they can be picked up and read again without ruining the story or lessening the value of the writing.
Their downside is that they aren’t memorable enough for readers to seek them out for a second reading.
It is easier to name the novels from the 1912 bestseller list that are not my favorites than to pick the ones I like best. Here in no particular order are my favorites.
Their Yesterdays by Harold Bell Wright is either nostalgic or sentimental depending on how charitable you are feeling when you read it. I’ll admit it tugged at my tear ducts.
On a more cerebral level, however, Their Yesterdays is rather amazing technically. Wright breaks all the accepted novelistic rules and yet makes the novel feel right.
The Melting of Molly by Maria Thompson Daviess has to be on my favorites list because it made me laugh again and again. Molly is so droll, you just know you’d love having her live next door.
The Net by Rex Beach and Tante by Anne Douglas Sedgwick look at the dark side of human nature. Beach based his guns-and-gore novel on the true adventures of a New Orleans sheriff who took on the mafia. Beach’s fictional characters are not entirely believable, but the story overall was one I couldn’t put down long enough to eat dinner.
Guns are too physical for Tante, the aging pianist in the title role of Sedgwick’s novel. Tante’s weapon of choice is a sharper, less traceable instrument. Reading about how Tante schemes is like watching a snake eyeing its prey in one of those up-close-to-reptiles PBS nature shows. Sedgwick shows in shuddering detail how one twisted woman can ruin lives with a few ill-chosen words.
Remember, you can read any of these bestsellers free. They are all available from Project Gutenberg.org. My reviews give a link direct to the download page.
Norvin Blake arrives in Sicily in 1886 for the wedding of his best friend, Martel Savigno, who is a Mafia target. When assassins ambush them on the eve of the wedding, Norvin is unable to save Martel and his overseerer. Margherita is widowed before she is wed.
Norvin is called home his dying mother. Margherita and her companion, Lucretzia, have left Sicily and disappeared in New York City before Norvin gets his mother’s affairs settled in New Orleans.
Norvin enters the family cotton business. Mindful of his cowardice during the ambush, he trains himself to behave courageously.
When Sheriff Donnelly gets letters about Mafia activity in New Orleans, he recruits Norvin to help root it out. When Donnelly is murdered, Norvin takes over the chase personally.
Rex Beach lets readers enjoy seeing their predictions of the plot realized, then destroys their expectations in an astounding American version of Mafia mentality.
Beach ties up the story neatly, leaving nothing but the definition of justice unsettled.