Tuesday, March 1, 2016

The Protector by Harold Bindloss

Extracting resources and romance from British Columbia
Harold Bindloss
Harold Bindloss, an English-born Canadian author, was a prolific early twentieth-century writer of popular adventure novels set in western Canada. The Protector, published in 1918, takes place in the city of Vancouver and the surrounding wilderness of British Columbia. I had previously read Bindloss’s novel Northwest!, and though I wasn’t thrilled with it, it was good enough to convince me that this author deserved a second look. As an enthusiast of outdoor adventure fiction and a fan of all things Canadian in general, Bindloss’s work should be right up my alley. Once again, however, I find myself disappointingly unimpressed.

Wallace Vane came to Canada from England nine years earlier to try his hand at wresting a living from the natural riches of the land. One of the lucky ones, he discovered a mine in a remote corner of Vancouver Island and has struck it reasonably rich. The money has not gone to Vane’s head, however, as he is content to spend his time paddling, sailing, and trekking around the forests, islands, and waterways of the region with his right-hand man Carroll. Nevertheless, duty calls, and Vane must attend to business matters in Vancouver. His fortune may be in danger as some sneaky shareholders attempt to launch a hostile takeover of the mine. At this inopportune moment, a promise to a dying man sends Vane and Carroll on a wild goose chase into the wilderness, searching after a legendary grove of spruce trees that can be lucratively converted into wood pulp.

As the previous sentence indicates, this is hardly a typical wilderness adventure novel. The Protector is really more Jane Austen than Jack London. Within the first few chapters, at least three female characters are introduced as prospective brides for Vane, and the rest of the book more or less revolves around which one will end up the lucky lady. The plot combines the financial adventures of the rugged-outdoorsman-as-businessman from London’s novel Burning Daylight with the West Coast urban society rom-com of Frank Norris’s Blix, but the resulting amalgamation is less compelling than either. Tedious chapter after chapter of sailing in hard weather is meant to inspire thrills, but the reader just ends up thinking that Vane and Carroll should have been better prepared before venturing into the wild. One distinctive quirk of Bindloss, that’s common to both The Protector and Northwest!, is his decision late in the game to make the sidekick the protagonist. After spending the greater part of the novel building up Vane as an ideal hero, the climax of the novel ends up resting on Carroll’s everyman shoulders.

The message of The Protector is that a life lived in touch with wild nature can be more satisfying than all the money in the world. While that may seem like an admirable lesson to impart, the characters of Bindloss’s novels primarily enjoy nature by extracting its resources. The trees are beautiful because they can be chopped down. The rivers are picturesque because they can carry the logs to port. The mountains are majestic because one can imagine the mineral riches hidden beneath. One can’t be too judgmental towards the environmental ethos of a century ago. The main offense of The Protector is not its view of wilderness as something to be conquered by man. That could be forgiven as an artifact of its time, if the story weren’t so darn boring.
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