Monday, November 11, 2019

The Blazed Trail by Stewart Edward White

Entertaining Michigan timber adventure
A popular subgenre of adventure literature in the late 19th and early 20th century was the resource exploitation romance. In such novels, a plucky young man in dire financial straits ventures into the wilderness to seek his fortune in mining, timber, oil, furs, or maybe even reindeer herding (see James Oliver Curwood’s The Alaskan). While still maintaining a respectable quota of backcountry thrills, these novels differ from your typical wilderness adventure, treasure hunt, or gold rush novel in that they focus less on the call of the wild and the love of nature and more on business matters, real estate deals, and stocks and bonds. Jack London wrote a few of these resource exploitation adventures (Burning Daylight comes to mind). Canadian author Harold Bindloss made a whole career out of them. Michigan-born author Stewart Edward White was a prolific author of adventure literature in the first four decades of the twentieth century. His 1902 novel The Blazed Trail, about the lumber industry in northern Michigan, is an excellent exemplar of the resource exploitation romance and an entertaining and educational read.

The hero, Harry Thorpe, comes from a well-to-do family, but his father disgraced the Thorpe name by embezzling funds and then died soon afterwards, leaving Harry to support not only himself but also his teenage sister. Being a member of Detroit’s idle class, Harry has no profession, so he decides to start a career in Michigan’s main industry: timber. He ventures to the Saginaw region to seek employment at a lumber camp and ends up being hired by the successful firm of Morrison & Daly. Thorpe starts on the bottom rung of the ladder and gradually learns the ins and outs of the business. In his first winter in the woods, working under an ineffectual boss, he learns many things about how not to run a lumber camp. After that camp closes, Thorpe decides to try his hand at becoming a lumber baron himself. He ventures into Michigan’s Upper Peninsula to find his own piece of untouched timberland in hopes of finding a partner to help him finance the harvesting of millions of board feet of lumber.

Obviously, this story is written with the environmental consciousness (or lack thereof) of a century ago, which may seem a little off-putting now, but one can’t deny that lumber has been a big industry in Michigan’s history. The reader really learns a lot of fascinating detail about the cutting and transporting of logs and the hardships and dangers faced by the lumberjacks and woodsmen. Any worries that the narrative would get too bogged down in the business and financial details proved unfounded. It was really very interesting to learn more about the trade that some of my ancestors plied in the north woods of Wisconsin. White also manages to work in several fun and exciting adventure scenes, such as a breakneck race between two competitors to file a claim in the Detroit land office. Despite the tree-cutting subject matter, there’s also a fair bit of Thoreau-like appreciation of nature for its own sake, and the novel concludes with a good moral lesson.

Where the book falters is in its romantic subplot. The novel really takes a downward turn in Part IV: Thorpe’s Dream Girl with an overly saccharine, idealized love story. White is very good at writing the lives of men, but his women are rather two-dimensional and stereotypical. This romance, however, is almost an afterthought to the story, which concentrates more on Thorpe’s coming of age, his relations with his fellow men, and his contentious romance with nature itself. The Blazed Trail is a surprisingly exceptional read for this genre and demonstrates that White’s body of work deserves further investigation.

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