Wednesday, January 10, 2018

The Lure of the North by Harold Bindloss

Pleasantly predictable
Harold Bindloss was a prolific author of adventure fiction during the first half of the 20th century. Though he was born and died in England, most of his sixty-plus novels are set in Canada, where he lived for some time during the late nineteenth century. Bindloss’s work is an interesting mash-up of the wilderness adventure stories of Jack London and the romantic moral novels of someone like Anthony Trollope. As in London’s novels, Bindloss’s heroes, usually British-born like himself, wander the northern wilds seeking fortune in minerals, timber, or furs. Bindloss, however, takes a much more genteel approach to adventure fiction by tempering the thrill of exploration with the practical needs of civilized society. The daring characters in a Bindloss novel return often to the city to don evening dress for dinner, raise capital for their expeditions, or investigate potential matrimonial interests.

Bindloss’s novel The Lure of the North was published in 1918. In England it was published under the title Agatha’s Fortune, apparently because “the North” means something different in Britain. While most of Bindloss’s Canadian adventures take place in the West, The Lure of the North is set in Ontario and Quebec. Jim Thirlwell is an engineer at a struggling silver mine in northern Ontario. When one of his coworkers drowns in a canoe accident, Thirlwell begins a correspondence with the deceased’s daughter Agatha, a school teacher in Toronto. Before he died, the old man, named Strange, raved about a silver lode he had found in the remote wilds and even brought back a few rock samples to support his story, but because he was an alcoholic no one really believed him. Eventually Thirlwell meets Agatha in person, and she informs him that she intends to go searching for her father’s long lost lode. Though Agatha is a plucky gal, she has little experience in mining or the wilderness. Thirlwell doubts her ability to survive in the wild North, so he agrees to accompany her and lend his expertise to the expedition.

From the brief plot description above, it’s not difficult to tell where this story is going, and it pretty much goes everywhere you’d expect it to. At least it does so, however, in an enjoyable manner. Bindloss crafts a mystery around whether Strange’s death was really an accident, which creates the suspenseful possibility of some danger for the heroes. A businessman from Winnipeg hears the rumors of Strange’s lost silver mine and decides to go after the lode himself, providing a villain for the story. And of course, when a man and a woman cooperate on a quest, there is bound to be some romance. Bindloss tells the story in a very understated manner that doesn’t glamorize the wilderness or over-romanticize the love story. He depicts the landscape in an earthy naturalistic manner that transports the reader into the Canadian North of a century ago, including the environmental mindset of the time, which was mostly concerned with resource extraction, though perhaps with a dash of Ralph Waldo Emerson thrown in. The romantic subplot between the two leads is refreshingly free of emotional impetuosity as they both very practically and properly consider the long-term prospects of a merger.

This is the third book I’ve read by Bindloss, following Northwest! and The Protector, which were both set in far western Canada. The Lure of the North is the best of the three. Though Bindloss’s plots can get somewhat formulaic, this novel is actually a welcome relief from the typically glorified, overly macho gold-hunting narrative. Bindloss may have faded into obscurity over the past century, but his books are still worth reading.
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