15 February 2013

Curing the Flapper; or, Tough Love in the Jazz Age

White Hands
Arthur Stringer
Indianapolis: Bobbs-Merrill, 1927

Imagine returning to your spacious Manhattan mansion after having spent five months away on business. It's after midnight, the place is unlit, sleeping servants do not serve, and your daughters – Patience ("Paddy") and Janet ("Jinny") – are nowhere to be found. Cocktail glasses, cigarette butts and a half-emptied carton of dried fruit have made a mess of the library. Your reading-table is covered with mauve-jacketed French novels. Paddy's room smells like a Turkish harem. Amongst powder-boxes, lip-sticks, rouge, mascara and "unidentifiable war-paint" you find copies of Ulysses and Casanova's Homecoming. The floor holds "a scattering of slippers, satin and suede and serpent-skin, some buckled and decorated with brilliants, vivid-colored and incredibly small and bewilderingly gay-looking, even in their careless disorder, as though they had been kicked aside by tiny feet tired of dancing , tired of the moan of saxophones and the throb of drums and negroid music that once pulsed along the banks of the Congo."

This is the scene that confronts widower John Winslow, the millionaire Pulpwood King. His nightmare worsens some time after two when Jinny – cold, beautiful Jinny – finally returns home:
"Where is your sister Patience?"
   His daughter's small shoulder-movement, insouciant and defiant, did not escape him.
   "Probably Daniel-Booning through the black-and-tans," was the deliberately callous retort.
   "Does she still sleep at home?" he demanded, prompted to match savagery with savagery.
   "When she sleeps," was the laconic reply.
Paddy does show up eventually, bandaged and brought home by young Peter Summers, the Winslow family doctor. Seems she's totalled yet another automobile, this time running into a baker's wagon carrying cream puffs.

What's a father to do? How to save his girls from becoming "empty-headed and selfish-spirited sensation-hounds?"

Winslow's answers come through his consideration Jinny's hands:
He could see the soft white skin over the phalanges, the skin that had been so carefully protected from wind and weather, from the casual blemishes of toil and time. They were futile and helpless hands, openly proclaiming their aloofness from manual labor, a symbol of her character, an index of her soul, a tribal advertisement of incompetency.
This, he realized, runs against nature. Those white hands were meant "for grasping, for intricate and cunning movements, for the accomplishment of womanly tasks."*

The Pulpwood King's plan is to install Paddy and Jinny in a rustic cabin at Adananak, his private island in Northern Ontario. A place without "beauty parlours and padded limousines and saxophone-bands and night-clubs and pink teas and putrid farces," he'll ground the girls by grounding them down, forcing them to live a life similar to their great-grandmother.

The sisters have some help in silent Indian Pierre Pecotte, who brings the odd morsel of food and instructs both in the fine art of moccasin-making.

You know, like great-grandma used to make.

How do the girls do? Well, Paddy has more than enough pluck to make a go of it, but Jinny is just too hardened.

Aside from Pierre, the only other contact with the world outside Adanak Island comes in the personages of Chief Black Hawk and brash bush pilot Casey Crowell. Like Pierre, the latter is a stereotype, but not so Black Arrow. A self-described Carlisle Indian, educated at Dickson College and Oxford, he became something of a hero in serving as a sniper during the Great War. "Then came a different kind of a fight," he tells Jinny. "I had an offer or two of inside work, after I got my discharge in Winnipeg. But I couldn't stand being shut up between four walls." He tried his hand at cow-punching, horse-breaking, but found himself turning increasingly to drink. Tired of it all, he made a decision to return to the ways of his ancestors.

Jinny is smitten by Black Arrow and her romantic vision of the noble savage. Such are her own charms that she woos the war vet into taking her back to the world he'd rejected. What happens next is all very exciting, with Casey Crowell, Peter Summers and John Winslow taking to the sky in order to save Jinny's virtue.

They needn't have worried.

Jinny might have fantasies about showing off Black Arrow at swanky Manhattan dinner parties, but beads of sweat form on his brow and body odour builds as he paddles and portages, carrying her southward. The romantic dream dissipated, Jinny strikes off on her own, gets lost and collapses, only to be rescued by Black Arrow. Unfortunately, her ill-fated trek has led both to the wall of an advancing forest fire. Black Arrow carries Jinny to safety – quite literally – but dies in the process.

Jinny learns of Black Arrow's death only after she's found by young Doctor Peter in the final pages. Any sadness and trace of guilt is swept away in what might be, before The Last Canadian, the very worst ending to a Canadian novel:
"Poor Dad," said Jinny, as Peter took her up in his arms. "I s'pose he's lost about empty million dollars' worth of timber in this awful fire."
   "But he's got you," Peter reminded her.
   "Will he want me?"
   "Well," said Peter, breathing a little heavily as he carefully lifted her over the cock-pit side, "if he doesn't, I do."
   But she wasn't listening to him. She was looking down at her hands, her sun-reddened and briar-scratched and work-hardened hands.
   "He won't be ashamed of 'em now, will he?" she said with a catch in her voice.
   You're talking too much," growled Peter, as the turning propeller flashed in the pallid sunlight. "I want you to keep quiet."
   "I won't," asserted the blanketed woman nested so close in his arms.
   "You'll have to," commanded Peter.
   "Well, I won't unless you kiss me," conceded Jinny. 
No, not Ulysses. Not even Casanova's Homecoming.

Object: My copy, fairly fragile and lacking jacket, was purchased last December at a London bookstore located just two kilometres from the author's second childhood home. I'm guessing that it's at best first edition, second state, coming after copies bound in red cloth with gold lettering.

Access: The Bobbs-Merrill edition appears to have been printed as a split-run with McClelland & Stewart. A cheap A.L. Burt reprint followed, which in turn was followed by nothing. The novel is in the public domain in Canada, but I'm not about to suggest that any publisher take it on.

Anyone wishing to add the Bobbs-Merrill White Hands to their collection will find plenty of decent jacketless copies going for five dollars and less. Expect to pay six times as much for the uncommon McClelland & Stewart Canadian edition. The only first edition – American – listed with dust jacket is going for US$165.

The novel is found in the public libraries of Chatham-Kent and London, as well as eleven of our university libraries. Once again, Library and Archives Canada fails.

* See: Case 90 in Richard von Krafft-Ebing's Psychopathia Sexualis.

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