Tuesday, September 8, 2015

Northwest! by Harold Bindloss

Mild adventure in the Canadian Rockies
Harold Bindloss was an early 20th-century English author who wrote many novels set in Western Canada. Northwest! was published in 1922. I have heard Bindloss described as an adventure writer, and—always on the lookout for the next Jack London or Bret Harte—I thought I’d give him a try. If this book is any indication, however, Bindloss barely qualifies for the adventure genre. Northwest! is like an English society novel that just happens to be set in the Canadian wilderness.

The story takes place somewhere between Calgary and Vancouver, at a luxury hotel perched in a scenic mountain locale. Jimmy Leyland is an Englishman, the heir to a cotton mill fortune. Forced to undergo a waiting period before he assumes his portion of the family business, he drifts around Europe for a while before deciding to explore Canada. Jimmy hooks up with a mountaineer named Stannard who acts as a sort of mentor, instructing him in the ways of the idle rich. The two live the lives of extravagant tourists, lounging around the hotel and engaging in all-night bouts of gambling between hunting, fishing, and climbing trips. Traveling with them is Stannard’s daughter, who just happens to make a convenient love interest for Jimmy. British Columbia is a long way from London or Lancashire, and life in a western town can be a great leveler of class distinctions. As a result, Jimmy and Stannard find themselves associating with rougher characters like Deering, a professional gambler, and Okanagan Bob, a local jack-of-all-trades with Indian blood in his veins. A fine English gentleman but a bad card player, Jimmy soon finds himself racking up debts that may lead him into trouble.

The main thrust of the story revolves around a pursuit through the Rockies, but it takes a dozen chapters of dining room conversations just to get the ball rolling. Regrettably, the whole business hinges on a stupid mistake—a literal shot in the dark. The action is slow and the attempts at suspense are tame. The dangers of the wilderness never seem perilous enough. In Bindloss’s hands, the wilds of British Columbia come across like an English game preserve. There is a stretch of the book in which Jimmy is “alone” in the wilderness, yet he isn’t really alone. He has an Indian guide and packer with him. Yet the Indian is basically invisible, and never speaks. Bindloss treats him like a backpack, not worthy of notice, even though he might very well be keeping the hero alive. Contrast that with London’s tales of the Canadian wilderness, in which Native Americans are integral players in the narrative.

This book is not terrible, but there’s little to distinguish it from the ordinary. Adding to the mediocrity is Bindloss’s repetitive prose. His favorite adjective is “keen,” and he uses it 86 times. People are keen, glances are keen, temperatures and winds are keen. To the book’s credit, at times I did care about the characters—Jimmy is likeable for the most part, even though he’s a bit stupid and naive—but often I couldn’t care less.

Bindloss was a prolific author, and I still think he might have a good book in him, but Northwest! isn’t it. It’s an OK read, but not worthy of the audacious exclamation point in its title. I have heard his novel The Gold Trail is good, so I might give that a try.
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