Thursday, May 6, 2021

Story Spotlight: “The Test” by Rex Beach

 


Out on the trail, nature equalizes the work to a great extent, and no man can shirk unduly, but in camp, inside the cramped confines of a tent pitched on boughs laid over the snow, it is very different. There one must busy himself while the other rests and keeps his legs out of the way if possible. One man sits on the bedding at the rear of the shelter, and shivers, while the other squats over a tantalizing fire of green wood, blistering his face and parboiling his limbs inside his sweaty clothing. Dishes must be passed, food divided, and it is poor food, poorly prepared at best. Sometimes men criticize and voice longing for better grub and better cooking. Remarks of this kind have been known to result in tragedies, bitter words and flaming curses---then, perhaps, wild actions, memories of which the later years can never erase. It is but one prank of the wilderness, one grim manifestation of its silent forces.”

Passages with such verité resonance can only be written from experience. The author, Rex Beach, had that. Beach joined the Klondike Gold Rush at the turn of the last century and took his chances with pick and spade, but it turns out his fortune was to be found in the tales of what he saw while there.

Beach was no mere Jack London knock-off, although he is accused of that. Some of his tales do descend into melodrama, but there is always a tincture of hard-earned verisimilitude that mere legwork or “good research” cannot replicate.

His plots may veer to melodrama, but his protagonists exist in a real world of hard-effort, sometimes drudgery, and living on the knife-edge of existence.

In his autobiography, Personal Experiences [1940] he refers to the writer’s responsibility that “however fertile may be his inevitable genius, it seems to me that he owes it to his readers to respect the realties of his environment and, if he proposes to make use of facts, he should see that they are accurate. All of which is perhaps another way of saying that I’m a sort of longhand cameraman.”

Such clear-eyed pragmatism strikes me as useful [and appealing] in fiction, but far more useful in actual life. How many plans, dreams, resolutions, goals are composed of one one-part reality and two-parts assumption of “wishes”?

The “lived-in” “been there, done that” approach of this story seems to be a microcosm of Sebastian Junger’s excellent non-fiction work, Tribe, which details how very often it is the hardship shared that creates the strongest bonds and forges individual character more than any creed, sermon, or copiously consumed “wise” pages of philosophy.

One more extract from the story. On its face it is about a rare commodity in the Yukon—women. But the final five words can be applied to all desires.

Beach argues that living starkly can remind one of what you didn’t do when you “didn’t know you had it so good.”

Now it is a penalty of the Whie Country [The Yukon] that men shall think of women. The open life brings health and vigor, strength and animal vitality, and these clamor for play. The cold of the still, clear days is no more biting than the fierce memories and appetites which charge through the brain at night. Passions intensify with imprisonment; recollections come to life; longings grow vivid and wild. Thoughts change to realities, the past creeps close, and dream figures are filled with blood and fire. One remembers pleasures and caresses, women’s smiles, women’s kisses, the invitation of outstretched arms. Wasted opportunities mock at one.

If we are wise, we are spurred by all longhand cameramen and seize dreams now, reward kindness now, embrace outstretched arms now.

If we are even wiser, we will seek the occasional rough-hewn, razor-lived hardship that will bring all we take for granted into stark counterpoint and return from that experience with grateful eyes and appreciative hearts.

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