The Octopus – Frank Norris

The Octopus is the story of the conflict between wheat farmers & the railroads in California in the 1880s. If, like me, you thought that this was hardly an exciting premise for a novel, you’d be wrong. The Octopus was chosen by my 19th century bookgroup and, as usual, I’ve been surprised & enthralled by a book I would never have picked up if it hadn’t been on our schedule.

The novel is based on a real story, a dispute between farmers & the railroad that took place at Mussel Slough, California in 1880. Frank Norris is a writer I’ve heard of but hadn’t read. He planned a grand trilogy of novels about wheat. The Octopus tells the story of the wheat farmers, The Pit tells the story of the wheat merchants & is set in Chicago. He planned a third novel set in Europe where the wheat was sold & marketed. Only The Octopus & The Pit were written as Norris died suddenly at the age of only 32 of a ruptured appendix & kidney failure.

California in the late 1800s was the last vestige of the American West. The gold rushes of the 1850s had led to speculation in other commodities. Wheat was one of them & the protagonists of The Octopus are wheat farmers & their families. Chief among them is Magnus Derrick, known as the Governor, who made a fortune from gold & is set on doing the same with wheat. His ranch is Los Muertos & he runs it with his son, Harran. His other son, Lyman, is a lawyer & lives in town. One of Derrick’s tenant farmers is a German immigrant, Hooven, who lives with his wife & daughters.

Presley is a poet, an outsider to the community. He has spent the last months staying with the Derricks after being threatened with consumption. He’s a Romantic who observes events with interest & wants to write an epic about the West. In the first chapter of the book he is cycling around the district, ostensibly to pick up the mail for Mrs Derrick. On his journey, he meets all the main protagonists & we get a feel for the country & the way of life. Presley stays on the outside, observing events, wanting to help but powerless to become involved. At the railroad, he meets Dyke, an engineer, working for the Pacific & South Western Railroad. Dyke is a widower, living with his mother & daughter, Sidney. Dyke has just quit his job after a dispute over pay & plans to grow hops with his brother. The power of the railroad to set freight charges will ultimately destroy Dyke & lead him to take a terrible revenge.

Buck Annixter farms at Quien Sabe. Annixter is a rough, crochety man who is tough on his workers & spends his free time reading David Copperfield & eating prunes for his digestion.. He has few friends & is wary of involving himself with women. Nevertheless, he is attracted to Hilma Tree who works in his dairy. Unfortunately he has no idea how to court her. He & Presley are friends although they are opposites in ambition & temperament. Vanamee is a wanderer. Currently a shepherd working for the Seed ranch, he & Presley meet infrequently but always with pleasure. Vanamee’s life has been blighted by the rape of his lover, Angele, seventeen years before. She subsequently died in childbirth & her rapist was never caught. Vanamee periodically returns to the Mission of San Juan de Guadalajara to visit his friend, Father Sarria, who knows his story.

The ranchers don’t own their land. They were permitted to take up the land for free by the railroad company with a promise of being able to buy the land in the future at a nominal price. The farmers have improved the land & are keen to buy it. However, the Railroad has now decided that they will charge much more than the original amount per acre. As the ranchers have no legal basis for their case other than an ambiguously worded agreement, they’re trapped on land that they’ve improved but can’t sell or buy. However, their relationship to the land is, in some ways, as exploitative as the Railroad’s. They have no feeling for the land but only for what they can get out of it. They will exhaust the land growing wheat as they exhausted the gold mines in the 1850s & then move on to the next opportunity.

The Railroad is the octopus of the title. Its tentacles reach out to encompass everything from the title to the ranchers land to the cost of freighting their materials & crops & its power is absolute. The Railroad, represented by S Behrman, is said to have bought the co-operation of the members of the Railroad Commission that sets the freight rates among other things. The ranchers form a League to fight the Railroad in the courts. They also make the fateful decision to fight the Railroad on their own terms & Magnus Derrick, against his better wishes & his conscience, reluctantly agrees to use bribery to get his son, Lyman, a seat on the Commission. In this way, the ranchers hope to get a favourable decision on the freight costs & the price they will pay for their land. Unfortunately, the courts uphold the Railroad’s case &, when the ranchers refuse to pay the price set by the Railroad, the ranches are put up for sale. The League & the Railroad are set on a collision course that will destroy the lives & livelihoods, of many.

The Octopus is an involving, exciting story that reads like a Western with elements of the industrial novel & mysticism in the story of Vanamee. There are some terrific set pieces – the barn dance on Annixter’s property, the train robbery, the brutal jack-rabbit hunt & the final shootout between the League & the Railroad. The first chapter, where Presley tours the district is repeated at the end of the book in a very different atmosphere. The characters of the men are beautifully drawn although I felt the women, especially Hilma, were quite thin & idealized. The older women, especially Mrs Dyke & Mrs Hooven, were much more believable & even more at the mercy of events than their men as they had no ability to do anything to help or hinder their fate. One of the main characters of the book is the wheat itself & what it stands for. It’s a symbol of progress & wealth, just as the railroad is & Norris often capitalizes the word, Wheat, as though it really were one of the characters,

And there before him (Presley), mile after mile, illimitable, covering the earth from horizon to horizon, lay the Wheat. The growth, now many days old, was already high from the ground. There it lay, a vast, silent ocean, shimmering a pallid green under the moon and under the stars; a mighty force, the strength of nations,the life of the world. … To Presley’s mind, the scene in the room he had just left dwindled to paltry insignificance before this sight. Ah, yes, the Wheat – it was over this that the Railroad, the ranches, the traitor false to his trust, all the members of an obscure conspiracy, were wrangling. As if human agency could affect this colossal power! What were these heated, tiny squabbles, this feverish, small bustle of mankind, this minute swarming of the human insect, to the great, majestic, silent ocean of the Wheat itself! … Men, Liliputians, gnats in the sunshine, buzzed impudently in their tiny battles, were born, lived through their little day, died, and were forgotten; while the Wheat, wrapped in Nirvanic calm, grew steadily under the night, alone with the stars and with God.

Norris was criticised by reviewers for being so very much on the side of the ranchers but public feeling at the time of the original incidents that inspired the novel was very much against the railroad. He was also compared, both favourably & unfavourably, with Zola, for his naturalistic, often brutal depictions of reality. I can see the similarities to a novel like Germinal, in the portrayal of man against the machine, even though the ranchers ostensibly have more power than the poor miners in Zola’s novel. I would love to read the second novel, The Pit, & also the novel that has been called Norris’s masterpiece, McTeague, which was also based on a true story.

Kinsey and Me – Sue Grafton

I’ve been taking a nostalgic walk down memory lane with Kinsey Millhone through reading this collection of short stories by Sue Grafton. I accidentally left my current book at home the other day & realised I had nothing to read at lunchtime. Thank goodness I work in a library! I saw this among the new arrivals & thought a short story or two would be perfect lunchtime reading.

I can remember when I first met Kinsey. It must have been the early 1990s & the first book in the series I read was G is for Gumshoe. I’d read a few other series featuring female private investigators, I particularly remember Sara Paretsky & Marcia Muller (who I’m still reading). I was working at my first library & I must have picked up G is for Gumshoe from the shelves as it was published a couple of years earlier. I loved it & went back to A is for Alibi & read all the earlier books. Since then I’ve read all the books as they’ve been published & I see that the next book, W is for Wasted, is due out later this year.

The attraction of these books for me is that Kinsey is still living in the 1980s. When the series began in 1981, Grafton decided that Kinsey would age one year for every 2 1/2 books. So Kinsey has aged from 32 in 1981 to her early 40s in the latest books but it’s still the 1980s in Santa Teresa, the fictional Californian town where Kinsey lives. She conducts her investigations without mobile phones, computers, the internet or many of the forensic tools available to modern day investigators. She relies on a phone with an answering machine, writing notes on index cards & physically going to government offices or the reference library to look things up. The books have become historical novels which for me is a large part of their charm.

The first half of Kinsey & Me consists of a selection of short stories Grafton has written featuring Kinsey that were published in the late 1980s. For me, the books published in the 1980s & early 90s represent Kinsey’s Golden Age. Reading the first story, Between the Sheets, was so nostalgic. A woman is sitting in Kinsey’s office telling her that she’s found her lover dead in her apartment. They’d argued the night before which several neighbours overheard. She threatened to kill him & had just bought a handgun which she describes in great detail. She didn’t call the police but, after finding him shot dead & lying in her daughter’s room, she picks up the gun lying beside him, puts it down again & runs out of the apartment,. When Kinsey arrives at the apartment to investigate, the body is gone & there’s no evidence that the story is true at all. Kinsey has the case worked out before the police arrive.

The charm of this series is Kinsey’s voice. The narrative is first person & Kinsey has the wry, amused voice of all the best private investigators. She’s not quite the loner that Marlowe & Spade were, though, even though she was orphaned young & grew up living with her Aunt Gin. Twice divorced & wary of new relationships, Kinsey nevertheless has a circle of friends that have become her family. Her landlord, Henry Pitts, is the most important of these but his siblings (all in their 80s & 90s) & restaurant owner, Rosie, all make regular appearances.

Here’s the opening of another story in the collection, The Parker Shotgun. All the novels & stories begin in a similar way, introducing Kinsey for new readers & making fans settle down with a smile.

My name is Kinsey Millhone. I’m a private investigator, licensed, bonded, insured; white, female, age thirty-two, unmarried and physically fit. That Monday morning, I was sitting in my office with my feet up, wondering what life would bring, when a woman walked in and tossed a photograph on my desk. My introduction to the Parker shotgun began with a graphic view of its apparent effect when fired at a formerly nice-looking man at close range. His face was still largely intact, but he had no use now for a pocket comb. With effort, I kept my expression neutral as I glanced up at her.
“Somebody killed my husband.”
“I can see that,” I said.

The book opens with an essay about the beginnings of the series & the second half consists of more personal stories Grafton wrote after the death of her mother. I have to admit that the Kinsey stories were the reason I picked up the book & I’ve had a lovely time reading them over the last week.