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the river's end

15 december 2018

Literary Hub recently ran a feature by Emily Temple on English-language fiction bestsellers of the past century. One of their themes was that nearly every bestseller ends up forgotten, while we now think of much-lesser-sellers as being the great literature of the past. Naturally, with me, this project slightly backfired. I immediately wanted to read the books that everyone had forgotten.

Not that every item in every long-ago-year's top ten is all that readable. Many bestsellers c1920 were society romances, edifying Christian sagas, or tedious comedies of manners. I had to reject quite a few from that era before hitting on one I could actually get through more than a few pages of. And after a hundred pages, I was not sure I wanted to finish the one I chose.

James Oliver Curwood's River's End wastes not a sentence getting into its high-test plot. Derwent Conniston of the Mounties has tracked his man, killer John Keith, across the tundra near Hudson's Bay for three years. Being a Mountie, Conniston gets his man, but then succumbs to a "frosted lung." You know how it is when you get a frosted lung. Or maybe you don't. But anyway, when you have a frosted lung, your days are strictly numbered, but up till the last moment your health permits you to tell your captive your life story and insist that he assume your identity and make his way back to civilization as yourself. A scheme facilitated by the fact that Curwood's narrator keeps breaking into ALL CAPITALS to tell you stuff like THE RESEMBLANCE BETWEEN KEITH AND CONNISTON WAS UNCANNY!

As soon as he's back on the broad Saskatchewan river, the impostor has to convince his Mountie superior McDowell that he is indeed Conniston – easy enough ‐ and also to fool the inscrutable Chinaman Shan Tung, whose memory for faces (as both Keith and Conniston apparently forgot) is infallible. Keith doesn't do as well there. Shan Tung is in some sort of fiendish cahoots with Miriam Kirkstone, daughter of the man that Keith killed. And to round things off, a beautiful maiden shows up, flings herself into Keith's arms, and starts to kiss him passionately. Who the hell is she?

Mary Josephine turns out to be Conniston's sister. Great! Unless, in the process of falling in love with her, you convince her that you're her brother. Why didn't Conniston mention he had a sister? Well, letters crossed at some point between Conniston's native England and adoptive Canada, informing each of the siblings incorrectly that the other had died. Or something. Suffice it to say that Mary Josephine has tracked down the man she thinks is her brother, and commenced a rather creepy relationship with him out in the mostly-still-wild West, all the while under the gaze of the insidious Oriental Shan Tung.

The River's End is quite "unreadable" today because of its racial rhetoric, despite Curwood's storytelling talent and his evocation of a pristine wilderness that fits well with the ecologically progessive thought of the year 1920. Perhaps the signal thing that a reader learns from books like The River's End, a century later, is that anti-Asian racism was vigorously alive in North America at the end of the first world war. Not just alive, but celebrated in Anglo rhetoric, and the stuff of bestsellers.

Curwood's plot kind of unravels just when he gets it nicely wound up. Since I don't recommend you read this book, I will spoil it here, sort of. The climactic confrontation is between Keith and Shan Tung, who is revealed as a Princeton-educated nobleman. Little good does this do Shan Tung, because Keith promptly plugs him with the handgun he's carrying. This rather cold-blooded move is celebrated by the rest of the characters who see it as justifiable homicide, even though Shan Tung hasn't done much of anything except plan to have sex with Miriam Kirkstone. Of course, this plan doesn't endear Shan Tung to Keith or any (white) body else. What makes it really dastardly is that Miriam is so blonde.

It was her hair that roused the venom in him when he thought of her as the property of Shan Tung. If it had been black or even brown, the thought might not have emphasized itself so unpleasantly in his mind. But that vivid gold cried out against the crime. (Ch. 18)
Racism in 1920 was positively fractal.

With Shan Tung out of the way, the rest of the plot disintegrates. Keith turns out not even to be a murderer – sure, he'd wanted to kill old Kirkstone, but he'd only knocked him out; Kirkstone's vile, obese son had finished the job. Miriam forgives him, and everyone is pleased with Keith's recovery of his proper identity – not least Mary Josephine, who can now direct her nuzzling and soul-kissing in a less incestuous direction.

That was a bizarre reading experience, but it didn't take long, and one of my missions here is to sample actual popular culture. I just hope that all my forays into what my grandparents were reading are not quite as noxious.

Curwood, James Oliver. The River's End. 1920. iBooks.