Monday, December 19, 2016

Conjuror’s House: A Romance of the Free Forest by Stewart Edward White

Harsh wilderness, tame plot
Conjuror’s House, published in 1903, is a novel by Stewart Edward White, a popular American author of adventure fiction in the early 20th century. The title might lead one to believe the book has supernatural elements, but such an assumption couldn’t be farther from the truth. Conjuror’s House is the unexplained name of a trading post in the remote Canadian wilderness, located where the Moose River flows into Hudson Bay in northern Ontario. Here resides Virginia Albret, a young woman who has lived her entire life in this far-flung corner of the North. Her father, Galen Albret, is the Hudson Bay Company’s head factor of the region. The isolation of the outpost invests his office with an authority far greater than a typical businessman. Albret is the only law in this land, and he rules his little kingdom with a stern hand.

A party of French and Indian trappers arrives at the post to conduct their usual business, but this time they’ve brought with them a stranger. Ned Trent is a free trader, unattached to the Hudson Bay Company, who feels the bounty of the wilderness should be free to all. Galen Albret, however, sees Trent as a poacher encroaching on the Company’s territory. The punishment for this offense is a tradition known as “La Longue Traverse.” The offender, allowed only minimal provisions and no weapon, must walk hundreds of miles through the wilderness to reach the nearest sign of civilization. As if starvation and the forces of nature weren’t enough to contend with, the sentenced man will also be hunted down by Indian trackers in the Company’s employ.

This may sound like the premise of a great Jack London novel, but this book really has more in common with the northwestern romances of Canadian author Harold Bindloss. Galen Albret may be one mean and grizzled gangster, but he still maintains the illusion of gentility in his makeshift manor house. His inner circle dresses for dinner every evening and observes the rules of etiquette, thus allowing Virginia to grow up as a proper society lady. Despite her rugged surroundings, she’s still very much a damsel waiting to be plucked from her father’s house by some knight in shining armor. Not surprisingly, she falls in love with Trent.

To its credit, the story is not entirely predictable and does offer some unexpected twists and turns. On the other hand, such departures from convention end up robbing the reader of the very action and confrontation he was hoping for. Like most of Bindloss’s books, this is primarily a Victorian romance novel that just happens to be set in the North, rather than a Jack London-esque adventure where the love story is subservient to the thrills. I really enjoyed White’s writing in the early chapters. His depiction of trading-post life is filled with interesting details, and his descriptions of the wilderness include some beautiful naturalistic passages. He may very well have a great adventure novel in his body of work, but Conjuror’s House isn’t it. Ultimately, the plot let me down as everything fell into place a little too conveniently, resolving conflicts in ways that only squandered the potential for excitement. Conjuror’s House was published the same year as London’s The Call of the Wild. While the latter novel was clearly the harbinger of a new movement in American literature, White’s novel feels like a relic of a bygone era.
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