BASS 2016: Karen Russell, “The Prospectors” from TNY 6/8/15

Those first weeks alone were an education. The West was very poor at that moment, owing to the Depression. But it was still home to many aspiring and expiring millionaires, and we made it our job to make their acquaintance. One aging oil speculator paid for our meals and our transit and required only that we absorb his memories; Clara nicknamed him the “allegedly legendary wit.” He had three genres of tale: business victories; sporting adventures that ended in the death of mammals; and eulogies for his former virility.
We met mining captains and fishing captains, whose whiskers quivered like those of orphaned seals. The freckled heirs to timber fortunes. Glazy baronial types, with portentous and misguided names: Romulus and Creon, who were pleased to invite us to gala dinners, and to use us as their gloating mirrors. In exchange for this service, Clara and I helped ourselves to many fine items from their houses. Clara had a magic satchel that seemed to expand with our greed, and we stole everything it could swallow. Dessert spoons, candlesticks, a poodle’s jewelled collar. We strode out of parties wearing our hostess’s two-toned heels, woozy with adrenaline. Crutched along by Clara’s sturdy charm, I was swung through doors that led to marmoreal courtyards and curtained salons and, in many cases, master bedrooms, where my skin glowed under the warm reefs of artificial lighting.

~ Complete story available online at TNY

Somehow, Russell has managed to combine the realism-into-fantasy of Erdrich’s “The Flower” and Bynum’s “The Bears”, the humor-over-tragedy and momentum of Smith Henderson’s “Treasure State”, historical fiction, mystery, and religious allegory into one very readable story. It’s one of the longer stories in the anthology, but it zips right by.

The Timberline Lodge in Oregon serves as the historical basis for the primary setting of the story. It was indeed built during the Depression as a WPA project, and is maintained as an Historic Site even as it currently operates as a high-end ski lodge. The project provided work for those who desperately needed it, and left a permanent reminder of its purpose. And now it serves a purpose as the model for the Evergreen Lodge, the destination of Aubergine and Clara, two girls from opposite sides of the tracks who ran away together, from very different things.

But winter hit, and our mining prospects dimmed considerably. The Oregon coastline was laced with ghost towns; two paper mills had closed, and whole counties had gone bankrupt. Men were flocking inland to the mountains, where the rumor was that the W.P.A. had work for construction teams. I told Clara that we needed to follow them. So we thumbed a ride with a group of work-starved Astoria teen-agers who had heard about the Evergreen Lodge. Gold dust had drawn the first prospectors to these mountains; those boys were after the weekly three-dollar salary. But if government money was snowing onto Mt. Joy, it had yet to reach the town below. I’d made a bad miscalculation, suggesting Lucerne….Day after day, I told Clara not to worry: “We just need one good night.” We kept lying to each other, pretending that our hunger was part of the game. Social graces get you meagre results in a shuttered town.

Prospecting for gold and the more pejorative “gold digger” are thus linked. And all they need is a decent strike. Enter the shadowy Eugene, who suggests the grand opening party at the Evergreen Lodge. But nothing’s ever that simple, and the story takes a turn from real to surreal when Aubby says, “I think we may have taken the wrong lift.” The prospecting goes awry, though they eventually encounter gold of a sort: they never call it a canary but the yellow bird bursting with song is clearly the canary in the coal mine, the warning.

I found it to be an exciting story, keeping my curiosity high and the pages turning. At first, it was, I wonder what’s going to happen. Then, almost without realizing it, that changed to I wonder if, how they’re going to get out of it. Although I didn’t feel a lot of strong emotion, I did feel protective of these girls. Yes, they’re playing a dangerous game, they’re walking on the wild side, but between Clara’s bruises and Aubby’s background (Aubergine is the French word for eggplant, but it’s also a color: the deep purple of a bruise) and the Depression, can we really blame them? Aubby isn’t without insight, however belated it may be:

She flicked her eyes up at me, her gaze limpid and accusatory. And I felt I’d become fluent in the language of eyes; now I saw what she’d known all along. What she’d been swallowing back on our prospecting trips, what she’d never once screamed at me, in the freezing boarding house: You use me. Every party, you bait the hook, and I dangle. I let them, I am eaten, and what do I get? Some scrap metal?
“I’m sorry, Clara . . . ”
My apology opened outward, a blossoming horror. I’d used her bruises to justify leaving Florida. I’d used her face to open doors. Greed had convinced me I could take care of her up here, and then I’d disappeared on her. How long had Clara known what I was doing? I’d barely known myself.

As with most stories, I wouldn’t call it perfect. The “wrong lift” feels a little manipulative, sprung on the reader as there’s no indication of more than one lift until it’s needed. The symbolism is a little on-the-nose. But it’s an engrossing read, kind of a whirlwind you can’t stop watching. And the girls tugged at my heart despite, or maybe because of, their foolish choices; I was cheering for them. And, most importantly, it says something: you may have to go through hell, but if you keep yourself honest and heed warnings, you might come out of it with something better than gold. Clichéd? Sure, but I take comfort where I can these days. Any story that does all that, isn’t half bad.

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