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Picturing a World

Mountain Meadow (or Sick Heart River)

I have just finished my third reading of Sick Heart River by John Buchan, published as Mountain Meadow in America (always read it in winter!). The first time through, I thought it was one of the strangest and oddly powerful novels I'd ever encountered. I still do. The second time, I looked forward with relish to its strong evocations of bitter cold and the harsh beauty of the Canadian wilderness. It delivered. This third reading brought out for me its structure and a consequent narrative technique.

First, a warning: if you can't handle a colonial outlook that ranks ethnicities, don't try to read Sick Heart River. If you disagree with the assumption that English gentlemen are by race and training superior beings but can still roll your eyes at need and pay attention to the novel's virtues, it may win you over. If all you're expecting is a Boy's Own Paper thumping good read, you may be surprised by its seriousness.
With those caveats out of the way, on to that narrative technique: In Chapter 1, Sir Edward Leithen, a successful London barrister and politician, learns that he is dying from TB. In Chapter 2, he resolves to undertake some task rather than twiddle his thumbs awaiting death. In Chapter 3, he is approached by an American acquaintance with a favor to ask. When he tells Blenkiron, "I have about a year to live," Blenkiron backs off; but Leithen tells him: "Sit down and talk to me. You may be the very man I want." End of chapter. Opening of Chapter 4: "His hostess noticed his slow appraising look round the table …"
Boom! Just like that, Buchan has skipped over Blenkiron's story, Leithen's acceptance of a mission, and his passage from London to New York. Again and again in the novel, we come to what seems like a crucial scene and then jump past it to land in the consequences as though the narrator can't be bothered with supplying expected entertainments. Compression forces the mechanics of plot development right off the page. In a thriller, this can cause the action to hurtle along. In Sick Heart River, it strips away superfluities to focus attention on theme and character, on how— to use his own phrase—Leithen "mends his soul."
The lesson driven home to me is that transitions can sometimes be dispensed with, provided the reader is subsequently given enough information to surmise what has happened between dramatized scenes. This is especially true if the storytelling sets up a rhythm of its own, so that gaps can still surprise but never feel inadvertent. Genre fiction follows rules. Art explores.
And sometimes serendipity rules: Why show this jacket with the alternate title? Because it's by Rockwell Kent, and I was delighted to find a used copy of the Literary Guild edition with it for $5.95. Pandemic retail therapy.

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