The Wild Olive by Basil King, published 1910 by Harper & Brothers.
I thought I’d start with a book published in 1910 to get myself warmed up for my 100 Years. 100 Books reading project, which begins in January 2011 as part of the 100th anniversary celebration of the Rochester Public Library.
The Wild Olive was a best seller in 1910 and I can understand why. It has all the classic elements of good fiction – likable protagonists, exotic locales, a “good man gone wrong” plot, and, of course, a love story.
We begin with a condemned man’s desperate flight through the wilds of the Adirondacks, from a logging town where he was found guilty of murdering his uncle, to a secluded mansion inhabited by the judge who passed sentence on him, to a tiny hidden room in the side of the mountain where he is kept hidden by a mysterious girl, to the bustling, newly opened ports of Argentina.
Nory Ford, a pampered city boy from New York, finds himself shipped off to live with an uncle in a remote logging town in northern New York, where he finds little welcome from his cruel relative. Nory is accused and found guilty of murdering the old man, but is helped to escape by the residents of the town who apparently all hated the uncle. As fate would have it, Nory finds himself on the doorstep of a grand mansion perched high above a pristine lake, a mansion that just happens to be owned by the very judge who sentenced him to hang by the neck until dead.
There’s a nice little interlude where Nory and the judge converse about the nature of good and evil and right and wrong, highlighted by this wonderful passage:
The law assumes all men to be equal…Just as it assumes all men to be intelligent–only they’re not. The law is a very fine theory. The chief thing to be said against it is that five times out of ten it leaves human nature out of account. I’m condemned to death, not because I killed a man, but because you lawyers won’t admit that your theory doesn’t work.”
The two continue to argue the law, with Nory claiming to have been found guilty only because the law in the town couldn’t find anyone else to pin the crime on. Finally, Nory’s attention is captured by the appearance of a woman in white, beckoning him from the drawing room to the woods outside. He eventually finds the girl waiting for him in front of a lovely little, hidden cabin that she has made into an art studio. There she conceals him for several weeks until the search for him is called off. She refuses to tell him her name, so he eventually comes to think of her as the “wild olive” – the olive that is grafted into the olive of the orchard and introduces a new strain of flavor.
The girl eventually contrives to get him away from New York and from his death sentence. She just so happens to be independently wealthy and arranges passage for him to Ireland under the name Herbert Strange.
Eventually, Strange ends up in Argentina working for a firm that the Wild Olive had mentioned in passing. He works his way up from dock worker to manager, and on the way catches the eye of the company owner. Throughout the story, Nory/Strange struggles with the feeling that he has been discarded by organized society and forced to live just outside its reach.
Just as Strange begins a courtship that may bring him inside that organized society again, the Wild Olive makes a reappearance in his life and it all falls apart. However, the two declare their love for one another and vow to stay together and fight for Nory’s/Strange’s freedom back in New York.
Convoluted? You bet. Full of coincidence? Absolutely. Indicative of the times. Yes indeed.
Good Man Gone Wrong Saved By the Love of a Beautiful Woman.
The writing is also indicative of the time. Very flowery and descriptive, with lots of philosophy thrown in for good measure.
Not something I would normally pick up and stay with, but I plowed through and could imagine the appeal to young lady readers swooning over the handsome Mr. Strange.
A suitable warm up to 1911. I think this project is going to give me a solid grounding in the changing literary styles in 20th century American writing.