Saturday, July 6, 2013

Book Review

The Big Rock Candy Mountain

by Wallace Stegner

This book moved me to tears.  Perhaps that is because I am in my seventies and have lived and witnessed much of what Wallace Stegner writes about.  Perhaps it is because I have come to understand how complex human beings are and how easily they can bring injury and hardship upon the people they love.
The novel begins in the year 1905 in Minnesota and ends in Utah in the 1930s.  Its central character is Harry “Bo” Mason, a physically powerful, aggressive person who left his parents’ home at the age of fourteen, survived working hard-labor odd jobs, is self-reliant, fiercely stubborn, and, given to “chasing dreams of acquiring quick wealth,” unrealistically ambitious.  According to his son Bruce he is “a self-centered and dominating egotist who insists on submission from his family and yet at the same time is completely dependent on his wife.”  He is conscious of the great injury he inflicts on them and suffers much remorse, but he does not change. 
Early in the story Bo’s decision to become a bootlegger is challenged by his wife Elsa.  “For a moment he stood, almost hating her, hating the way she and the kids hung on him and held him back, loaded him with responsibilities and then hamstrung him when he tried to do anything.” 
“I made up my mind that I was your wife and I’d stay your wife, no matter what,” Elsa responds.  “I never asked for more than we had.  I’d have been satisfied with just a bare living, if we could only keep what we’ve had up here.  So don’t ever say you did this for me or them.”
Seemingly strong, Elsa is soft in that she is unselfish, loving, and accepting.  Late in the novel she counsels Bruce.  “Some day you’ll learn that you can’t have people exactly the way you want them and that a little understanding is all you need to make most people seem halfway decent.”  In many ways Bo is a sympathetic character.  I wanted him to succeed in each of his risky endeavors.  Nevertheless, Elsa is whom I cherished and respected.
Essential to the story is how Chet and Bruce, the two sons, affected by the characteristics and actions of their parents, develop.
I was fascinated with what Stegner does with the theme of risk-taking and reward, an issue every person is confronted with as an adult.  How much is a person willing to risk to achieve an ambitious goal?  How much less is that person willing to accept?  What makes a person happy?  Stegner explores as well the importance of heredity: how much a person is shaped by past generations.  Reflecting upon his parents and then himself, Bruce decides: “Perhaps it took several generations to make a man, … several combinations and re-creations of his mother’s gentleness and resilience, his father’s enormous energy and appetite for the new, a subtle blending of masculine and feminine, selfish and selfless, stubborn and yielding, before a proper man could be fashioned.”
“The Big Rock Candy Mountain” is a remarkable book.

Thursday, July 4, 2013

Dramatic Violence

From "Crossing the River"

He [Major John Pitcairn] had his first good look at them. They were dressed in jerkin; they were wearing wide brimmed hats. They were few in number, fifty or sixty maybe. They were standing wide-legged. He had expected 500.

He despised exaggeration. If he were to effect a peaceful resolution, his men would have to march to Concord with charged muskets. Who in the ranks would fire a ball into the back of the cove in front of him? Fate, craving entertainment, pounced upon such opportunity!

He could not ignore the townspeople’s disobedience. Encountering them armed upon his return would not answer. To confiscate their weapons, he would have to threaten them. Two hundred fifty against sixty. Mustered sullenly in the middle of their parade field, they had the look of street brawlers outside an oft-frequented kiddley. Prideful men! Behind upstairs window curtains the town’s cowards watched!

He didn't want to slay them. Neither had General Gage. Neither he nor the General could prevent these men from insisting on it. Damned, prideful rebels!

Any account of the events that occurred at Lexington April 19, 1775, must attempt to answer this question: Why did Captain John Parker position militiamen provocatively on the town common?

Most historians believe that Samuel Adams, using Reverend Jonas Clarke’s influence, persuaded him.

Captain Parker had met with many of his militiamen at about 1 a. m. They had decided not to take a stand against the British but place themselves instead where they would not be “discovered.” The decision was in keeping with the way militiamen preferred to fight, from behind walls and trees and out of houses. It would be what we would expect from Parker and those of his militia who were veterans of the French and Indian War. Nevertheless, when the British troops arrived at the Common, Parker had placed a majority of his men in a clearly visible location.

Reverend Jonas Clarke had been Lexington’s preacher for two decades. A graduate of Harvard, Clarke was learned, domineering, and physically imposing. Over the years Clarke and Parker had developed a companionable albeit inequitable friendship. Clarke, the advisor and teacher, had sought to elevate in different ways the simple, sincere farmer.  Clarke loaned Parker numerous books.  He was responsible for Parker being elected captain of the militia.

Jonas Clarke's opposition to Parliament's restrictive colonial policy is clearly stated in the town's resolves, all of which he wrote. About the Stamp Act he declared: “We have always looked upon men as a set of beings naturally free … that a people can never be divested of those invaluable rights and liberties which are necessary to the happiness of individuals, to the well-beings of communities or to a well regulated state, but by their own negligence, imprudence, timidity or rashness. They are seldom lost, but when foolishly forfeited or tamely resigned.” In 1773, after Parliament had awarded the East India Tea Company a monopoly of the colonial tea business, Clarke wrote that any citizen of Lexington discovered purchasing or consuming the tea “shall be looked upon as an enemy to this town and to this country, and shall by this town be treated with neglect and contempt.” In response to Parliament’s Coercive Acts, Clarke, writing for Lexington, declared, “We shall be ready to sacrifice our estates and everything dear in life, yea and life itself, in support of the common cause.” Clarke's political position during these years was identical to that of the radical Boston patriots.

Samuel Adams's long opposition to England's coercive policy is well documented. Achieving a complete separation from England was his consuming passion. His greatest political skill prior to the war was his ability to manipulate. Arthur Bernon Tourtellot in "William Diamond’s Drum" states: “In his long and persistent effort Samuel Adams made use of every person, every prejudice, every element, every fear, and every aspiration in colonial society. By patient, skillful, strong-minded, and often ruthless work he finally welded together forces of such dynamic drive that it is difficult to believe that any of his contemporaries fully understood them.”

An important facet of Adams' manipulative skill was a technique that Tourtellot calls “dramatic violence.” Beginning with his use of the mobs of Boston to thwart stamp tax collectors, he used this technique “again and again, always at an opportune time and always with masterful effect--not least of which was the mobs' inciting of the British troops to fire on a group of mobsters in 1770, creating the long politically useful Boston Massacre.” [Tourtellot]

Notwithstanding his manipulative skills and tenacious willfulness, Adams knew he couldn’t control historical events. He did believe, however, that some events could be inspired. In the spring of 1775 he needed such an event, a dramatic happening that would destroy the inertia of timidity within the Continental Congress and Massachusetts's Provincial Congress, an event that would unite all the colonies “in such furious indignation … that they would never be reconciled.” [Tourtellot] When it was clear that General Gage intended to send an armed expedition through Lexington to Concord to destroy that town’s military stores, Adams saw his opportunity.

Adams and John Hancock had chosen to stay in Lexington during March and April while they attended the sessions of the Provincial Congress in Concord. Reverend Clarke accommodated them. Clarke's wife was a cousin of John Hancock. The Clarke House had been the house of Hancock's grandfather, the town minister whom Clarke had succeeded. Whether their stay there had been suggested by Adams or not, he definitely wanted to make use of Clarke's political standing. “Nobody could give Adams a more reliable appraisal of the capacity and willingness of the country people to resist any coercion from Gage.” [Tourtellot] Frequently, Adams and Clarke sat up late into the night reading and conversing. During these exchanges Adams must have taken an accurate measure of Clarke’s pervasive influence.

From "Crossing the River"

The High Whig leader rested his head against the cushioned chair back. … During Adams and Hancock’s stay Clarke had been Adams’s advisor and obliging confidant. This particular night Adams wanted much more.

“So, Samuel, once again you will have your Tea Act.”

“Your meaning, Jonas?” Adams answered, not the least surprised at the Reverend’s insight.

The minister placed the book he had been about to read on the circular table next to his chair. He covered his yawning mouth. “You will devise a way to capitalize on this forthcoming invasion.” He crossed his left leg over his right, placed his huge hands on his left knee.

“An opportunity our timorous friends who assemble at Concord would forfeit!    We do not need finely-worded resolutions! We need an event, Jonas, that will enflame the passions of our people, an event that will embolden, nay compel, every half-way patriot to one course of action!”

Red fissures in the bottom log snapped.

Independence, Samuel, can only be obtained by force. What precisely would you have happen that would inspire the most cautious of our people to fight?”

He knows. Am I surprised? I am not. But I will say it. And he will agree. “Martyrs, Jonas. A dozen martyrs.”

Reverend Clarke had summoned John Parker to his house after midnight. Thereafter, Parker had met with his men. Their majority decision had been not to muster on the common but to gather where they would not be “discovered.” Parker met a second time with Clarke, with Adams likely attending. Later, when John Hancock walked to the village common to interact with Parker’s militiamen, Sam Adams accompanied him. Adams and Clarke had had both the time and the opportunity to change Parker's mind about how the captain’s men were to be employed.


Three ships -- the Ayde, the Gabriell, and the Michaell -- and a complement of 150 men, including miners, refiners, gentlemen, and soldiers set sail May 27, 1577, for Frobisher Bay to claim English possession of Arctic America and to mine and bring back what was believed to be rich deposits of gold. Queen Elizabeth had sold the 200-ton ship, the Ayde, to the Company of Cathay and contributed 1,000 pounds to the commercial venture. Appointed high admiral of all lands and waters that he might discover, Martin Frobisher had been instructed specially to "defer the further discovery of the passage [to Asia] until another time."

Sailing by the north of Scotland, the ships reached Hall’s Island at the mouth of Frobisher Bay on July 17. Immediately, a landing party climbed a high hill and erected a pillar of rocks to signify that the Arctic territory, named Meta Incognita (Of Limits Unknown), was now English land. Crew officer George Best would write: “our men made a Columne or Crosse of stones heaped vppe of a good heigth togither in good sorte, and solempnely sounded a Trumpet, and said certaine prayers, kneeling aboute the Ancient, and honoured the place by the name of Mount Warwicke.”

As the Englishmen descended the hill, Inuit men appeared beside the pillar. Waving the flag that the sailors had left, the Inuit called out, indicating their desire to trade. Two Englishmen and two Inuit conferred between the two parties, gifts were exchanged, the Inuit invited the Englishmen to visit their territory, and the Englishmen invited the Inuit to come aboard their ships. Each party decline the other’s offer, “neyther parte (as it seemes) admitted or trusted the others curtesie."

Late in the day, having climbed Mount Warwick and traded with the Inuit, Frobisher decided to capture an Inuit and use him as an interpreter. A skirmish resulted. Frobisher was wounded in the buttock by an arrow. His men seized one Inuit as others escaped and immediately took him aboard the Ayde.

Several days later, visiting an abandoned Inuit camp on the south shore of Frobisher Bay, the expedition’s leader and a contingent of soldiers found a few items of European clothing. Although this camp was more than 200 kilometers from where the five sailors had disappeared the previous summer, Frobisher assumed that the clothing had belonged to them. Following a hastily devised battle plan, they attacked a nearby settlement. Five or six Inuit were killed, three of them drowned after jumping off a cliff to avoid being captured. One Englishman was seriously wounded. An old woman and a young woman and her infant son were taken hostage. The infant had been wounded. The old woman was released after her shoes had been pulled off “to see if she were cloven footed.”

Frobisher, his soldiers, and the three hostages sailed to the north shore of Frobisher Bay, where the Company’s miners had found on a small island the black rock they believed contained gold ore. Mining operations on what they named Countess of Warwick’s Island commenced.

A party of Inuit made contact. One of them spoke to Frobisher, who, using his captive/interpreter, thought that he had been told that his five lost men were still alive and that the Inuit would take a letter to them. Frobisher wrote, in part, the following:

"I will be glad to seeke by all meanes you can deuise, for your deliuerance, eyther with force, or with any commodities within my Shippes, whiche I will not spare for your sakes, or any thing else I can doe for you. I haue aboord, of theyrs, a Man, a Woman, and a Childe, which I am contented to deliuer for you, but the man which I carried away from hence the last yeare, is dead in England. Moreouer, you may declare vnto them, that if they deliuer you not, I wyll not leaue a manne aliue in their Countrey. And thus, if one of you can come to speake with me, they shall haue eyther the Man, Woman, or Childe in pawne for you."

The letter brought no response. The Inuit made several unsuccessful attempts to capture Englishmen to make possible an exchange. They also provided food for the captured man, young woman, and infant child, all not being able to digest English food.

In late August, Frobisher’s three ships, carrying the three hostages and 200 tons of ore, set sail for England. His party arrived home to great acclaim.

A few scattered hints tell us about the lives of the three captives aboard ship and later in England. George Best wrote:

"These people are in nature verye subtil, and sharpe witted, readie to conceiue our meaning by signes, and to make answere, well to be vnderstoode againe....They will teache vs the names of eache thing in their language, which we desire to learne, and are apt to learne any thing of vs. They delight in Musicke aboue measure, and will kepe time and stroke to any tune which you shall sing, both with their voyce, heade, hande and feete, and wyll sing the same tune aptlye after you. … They are exceedingly friendly and kinde harted one to the other, & mourne greatly at the losse or harm of their fellowes, and expresse their griefe of minde, when they part one from an other, with a mournefull song. ... They wondred muche at all our things, and were afraide of our horses, and other beastes, out of measure. They beganne to growe more ciuill, familiar, pleasaunt, and docible amongst vs in a verye shorte time."

The captives were a great attraction where they landed at Bristol. Their portraits were painted several times but only one set of paintings has survived, watercolor portraits by the artist John White, who would later be the governor of the Virginia Colony. Lee Miller in Solving the Mystery of the Lost Colony Roanoke wrote: “Sealskin parkas trimmed with fur; Calichoughe [the man] holding a bow; the kayak paddle. Egnock [the woman], with her little girl, Nutioc, tucked inside her coat, peering out from the hood. There is a certain sensitivity and realism in these paintings not found in others’ works.”

To the delight of spectators, the Inuit man demonstrated on the Avon River the use of his kayak and bird-spear to hunt ducks, killing two with darts. “He would hit a ducke a good distance of and not misse.”

The Inuit man died soon afterward from pneumonia aggravated by broken ribs, an injury sustained when he had been captured. He was buried November 8 in the St. Stephen’s Church in Bristol. The young woman was forced to watch his burial to prove to her that the English did not practice sacrifice or cannibalism, as the Inuit believed. The woman died the following week from a disease that caused boils to erupt all over her skin. The infant was sent to London in care of a nurse. He had been wounded in the arm by an arrow during his capture. The ship’s surgeon had applied salves, but his mother had pulled them away and had healed his arm by licking it. The child fell ill and died while being transported to London, before he could be presented to Queen Elizabeth.

Assayers gave widely differing estimates of the value of the ore. The science of assaying at that time was imperfect. Its practitioners could be deceived. The chemicals used in the assaying process might occasionally have been contaminated with small amounts of gold or silver, causing misleading results. The Company of Cathay chose to believe the most optimistic assays, and began to organize a third expedition to the Arctic that would involve starting a colony and extracting huge quantities of black rock.

The collection of Inuit as trophies and their subsequent, quick death seemed of small consequence.