Thursday, June 25, 2009

Between the Ages

Robbie Trent, protagonist in Sterling North's The Wolfling, stands on the brink. The brinkbof manhood, the brink of maturity, as the comely Inga Skavilain courts him, making him jealous first of the portrait painted of her by Frithof Kumlein, then making it a present to him.

But Robbie Trent, and Sterling North's wonderful, yet relatively unknown novel, also live and take place at a brink of American history. The Civil War is ten years old, and its veterans and the nation's people are set to wander into the wilds of the plains and of the Rocky Mountains. The railroads, the political machines, the smoke-filled rooms, have established their dominion. Technology and the wonders it brings, the savings in labor, are emerging, mass-produced for the common man. Country is beginning it's fight with City, as farmers unite under the umbrella of the Grange to protest railroad rates and the power the railroad holds over entire industries and state legislatures. Montgomery Ward publishes its first one-page catalog, signaling the beginning of a mass consumer society.

Yet for the people living in rural areas, like that of North's beloved, idealized Lake Koshkonong, are still united with nature. True, the unity is in varying degree, with farmers connected to the cultivated plant, the domesticated animal, and young boys like Robbie and men like naturalist Thure Kumlein, connected with nature in its wild state. But the connection is there, the community is there, as citizens come together to raise a house for the Kumleins.

It's a bittersweet descent, from the closeness of the time to the speed of today. North writes:

And off they went in a beautifully varnished cart behind a fast little Morgan who tossed her head on sheer delight and made her mane fly like a silken shawl in the lake breeze.

"She's a fast horse, Robbie."

"We're going to win that race."

"And then what?"

"I'm going to race her at county fairs."

Inga went silent.

"Well, say something! Don't you want me to win, Inga?"

"I don't want to spoil this beautiful day. Please drive slower, Robbie, we're coming to Lotus Lake and I want to see those big yellow water lillies and that beautiful swan."

The boy gently pulled the reins. Spinney had a sensitive mouth. She slowed to a walk.

"What is the Latin name for these flowers?"

"Nel . . . Nelumbo something," Robbie faltered. He pulled Spinney to a stop.

"You knew it last year."

"Nelumbo Lutea," the boy said triumphantly.

"Oh Robbie," Inga sighed "will there be time in your fast new world for swans and
lotus blossoms and wolflings?"

Wolf, who by this time had caught up, acted as though he understood Inga's question. He looked up pleadingly.

"You really don't want me to win, do you, Inga?"

"Not if it means changing your whole life."

"But how will I ever buy my time? I thought, with a few purses . . ."

"How much is the prize ok the Fourth of July?"

"One hundred dollars to win, fifty to place, twenty-five to show."

The trumpeter swan, with neck beautifully arched, kept the other birds from his mate's hidden nest.

"That's a late nesting," Robbie said in the ensuing silence.

"You are even talking a new language: 'win, place, and show'!"

Robbie clucked to the bay mare, who again began to trot. The well-greased wheels spun noiselessly through the dust. The boy and girl were silent for several minutes as they climbed the hill, where on the moment of midnight, they had welcomed the new year.

Literally, Inga Skavilain is asking Robbie Trent to slow down, to consider whether he wants to pursue a life of heightened competition to get what he wants, or a more contemplative life that will help him continue down the same path to what he wants, but without succumbing to expediency.

Metaphorically, North seems to be asking -- this was the country on the brink. Do we continue to seek the expedient path, or do we wait, watchful, for a better path towards progress? Expediency seems to have won out, and at an ever-accelerating pace.

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