by Joy Ralph
It so happens that serendipity led me to read Ken Kesey’s Sometimes A Great Notion and Molly Gloss’ The Jump-Off Creek essentially in tandem. I had not planned to review these two novels together, but the more I thought about each of them, the more I found that they illuminated each other.
At first glance, the only thing they really have in common is their location: the wilds of the Oregon timberlands. The Jump-Off Creek is set in the Blue Mountains, a good deal east and north of the fictional town outside of Eugene where Sometimes A Great Notion takes place. However, the weather is equally crushing in both areas, and the land, if not strictly unfriendly, is certainly indifferent to human fate.
Kesey’s book has an epic scope and a theatrical quality that reminds me of the Paul Bunyan tales, in contrast to the Gloss work, which is part journal and part straightforward narrative. In the world of Sometimes A Great Notion everyone has an agenda, no-one is entirely reliable or certain of themselves, and the symbolism is pervasive, almost tangible. Comparatively speaking, the population in the surrounds of Jump-Off Creek is perversely single-minded, and the struggle to survive leaves little enough room for emotional indulgence. Both novels take us through the hard work of surviving off the land, whether in pioneering or more modern times. Both also take a hard look at the sort of personality that thrives under woodland conditions, and the ways the unforgiving land brings out some of the harsher aspects of those trying to wrest a living from it. The toll exacted is as equally deadly in the 1960s as it is in the 1890s.
The Jump-Off Creek is short, pithy, and takes place over the course of eight months. While the year is never specifically pinned down, conversation reveals it to be some twenty-odd years after 1873. The core of the narrative comes from the journal of widow Lydia Sanderson, which was recorded after her arrival to and occupation of a run-down ranching homestead she purchased sight unseen. An emotionally neutral account of the travails of Lydia and the others in the sparsely populated area north of the settlements of Meacham and La Grande is interwoven with these raw and heartfelt entries. Her fellow homesteaders are, if not overtly friendly, at least civil and unthreatening. The wolf-bounty hunters patrolling the area are another matter, happy to kill and bait-up the domestic cattle with strychnine rather than fussing with leg-traps and the chance of dealing with a live wolf. Misunderstanding and resentment grow as wolves are replaced by their hunters as the main danger to the livestock. Eventually human lives are forfeit to the circumstances, as well.
Gloss presents an interesting look at the social hierarchy of movement vs. staying put: the hunters look down on the homesteaders as too settled, while the homesteaders look down on ranchers who fence their property, keeping the cattle penned year-round rather than turning them loose to forage in the open and then rounding them up again at the end of the season. Those ranchers in turn look askance at the ‘softer’ folks in the larger cities of the more eastern parts of the country. Some of this has to do with the gradual encroachment of the fenced-off land on the open range, and the economic changes that follow; frontier people tend to be stubborn and wary of change in spite of having altered their lives dramatically to come out West.
Lydia forms guarded friendships and trades milk and cheese from her goats with some of her nearer neighbors, especially the wife of a cattleman (most of a day’s ride away) who is the only other local woman. Tom Whiteacre and Blue Odell, a couple of cow-hands with a small holding are Lydia’s nearest neighbors. Tom and Blue are confirmed bachelors, and there is no overt speculation about whether their relationship has an intimate aspect. Indeed, the settlers seem too exhausted to worry about sex, and far too formal to mention it.
The women do briefly discuss child-raising and the difficulties of keeping offspring alive; Lydia has lost several to miscarriage. Whiteacre visits a woman for sex while he and Blue are in La Grande for the yearly cattle trade, but the encounter is perfunctory and almost ritualistic, like the fight that breaks out at a bar over Odell being part Indian. Lydia cherishes her widowhood more for the independence it gives her, and when she writes of mastering her loneliness it never appears to have much of a physical component.
Sometimes A Great Notion, on the other hand, hinges strongly on the sexual mis-deeds of the Stamper family, coupled with a legendary stubbornness. The household motto of Never Give A Inch (sic) is symbolically reflective of the clan: idiosyncratic, given to extremes, and utterly unwilling to correct themselves or compromise. The Stampers are loggers, non-union and proud, and the patriarch Henry lives in a huge and solitary house on the bank of the river, in spite of the constant erosion that has forced more sensible folk to move their houses away from the water’s edge. The edifice stands alone like the family, shored up and girded all around with fences, decking, rebar, booms and concrete that have accreted over the years as both Henry Stamper and his son Hank have fought to keep the house out of the river and intact. The family defenses are less visible, but they have worked to isolate the Stampers socially while at the same time ensuring their notoriety.
The novel tells the story of the two generations of Stampers currently employed in the family logging concern, and the ongoing conflict they have with the union organizers and members during a strike. The book is thick enough with symbolism that it really seems designed for dissection as classic literature. What keeps it from that fate is might be the sexual themes, or it may be the language issues, not unlike those plaguing Huckleberry Finn. The narration moves back and forth between the various family members in a manner reminiscent of Faulkner without the run-on sentences. It is mildly confusing in places but Kesey makes good use of typography and names to indicate the shifts in perspective. A somewhat awkward framing device has the reader eavesdropping on a conversation between Mr. Draeger, the union boss, and Hank’s (soon-to-be-ex) wife Vivian. Kesey at times breaks in and asks for indulgence in allowing his characters to give us evidence of thoughts and motivations they could not in actuality know. In service of the story it mostly works; the situation is complicated enough that without this extra illumination it would be impossibly opaque.
Vivian is rehearsing the whole tangled situation of past and present infidelities to explain why the Stampers insist on breaking the strike the union is trying to organize. She is waiting for the next bus out of town when Draeger corners her in the diner during his search for some perspective. He has just witnessed his settled strike situation from the night before come entirely to pieces as it wrecks itself on the inflexibility of the Stampers, who have promised logs to the mill.
Vivian, like all of the women in the book, is a cipher for most of the novel, even as she acts as quasi-omniscient storyteller. She reveals she has had a brief affair with Hank’s younger brother Leland, in the aftermath of which she is leaving town, escaping the tangled situation to follow her childhood dreams. Doing this, she echoes the actions of Henry’s second wife, Hank’s step-mother Myra, who had an affair for several years, while Henry was oblivious in his stubbornness and egotism. Only her son Leland, whose room shares a wall with his mother’s, is fully aware of the situation. When Hank is drafted for the Korean War, Myra leaves Henry to return to her family in New York, taking Leland with her. Leland is the antithesis of the older Stamper boys and alien to the family line, prone to illness and ill-suited for the rigors of logging. It is this prodigal half-brother’s return that carries us through most of the narrative, Vivian aside. In the end Leland is slowly becoming part of the family, which may also be a symptom (or symbol) of its decline.
Of the two novels I find myself preferring The Jump-Off Creek, though it is the more grim in overall tone. I might have been happier with Sometimes A Great Notion if I had not sat down to analyze it for review, and perhaps I am answering my question above when I recommend reading it less as a work of Literature and more as an entertaining tale. If you have an eye for metaphor, however, you may find yourself with questions.
For example, the characters of Indian Jenny and Simone are colorful and sympathetic women who appear to be the town prostitutes. They mingle with the loggers, and we are privy to some of their hopes and experiences but none of these affect the plot. If Kesey intends them for comparison with Myra and Vivian, the four women share little besides a habit of transgressive sexual affairs. The implication is that all women are promiscuous and unfaithful, swayed by whim and passing circumstance while men are feckless but steadfast. An alternative reading holds the women (the Stamper wives in particular) in contrast to the Stamper men.
There are no Stamper women, after all; the bloodline is entirely male. Women marry in, and carry the next generation, but they never truly become Stampers. When the family is in crisis, the women prove this by leaving, while the men are inured to hardship as their lot in life. Neither reading finds much in women to admire. Lydia Sanderson of Jump-Off Creek is much more realistically drawn in far fewer words. She is prickly but manages to have actual human interaction with her fellows. Unlike the Stamper family, Lydia, Tom Whiteacre and the Indian Blue Odell (as he is spoken of when named; both books portray fairly casual racism in the general populace) deal with the consequences of their actions in far less grandiose though no less dramatic ways.
Nevertheless, power and control of destiny ultimately belong to the weather and the landscape of wilderness Oregon. Those who prosper best are not too stubborn to make peace.