Wednesday, January 19, 2011

Entry 27: "The Travels of Jaimie McPheeters" by Robert Lewis Taylor (1958)

Joshua and I had an idea a little while ago: in 2011, why don't we pick little challenges for each other—in an effort to prod each other into reading our ways through this Pulitzer Project more fervently? We could pick a book and challenge each other to be the first one to read it in its entirety the quickest; or we could see who could read the most novels in one month, et the like.

For our first challenge, our January challenge, we decided to see who would be the first one to read their way through Robert Lewis Taylor's 1958 Pulitzer-winning novel, The Travels of Jaimie McPheeters.

Both of our editions are well over 450 pages (mine being 478 and his being a little over 600), we both have been working more hours during the week as of late, and we both figured this novel would be a bit of a burden to get through (with regards to subject matter, mostly—neither of us had much interested in pioneer novels and we were both sort of dreading the prospect of reading this particular novel).

And to tell the truth, we were right—this novel was a bit burdensome to get through. That is, until we actually started reading it. It took both of us 18 days to finish it, but once we really delved into it, and were both mesmerized by it, neither of us could hardly put it down. Personally, it took me 14 days to read through the first 78 pages, and four to plow through the next 400.

In the end, though I won the challenge by about an hour and a half, both of us came away from this experience with a new favorite novel. Much like Josephine Johnson's Now In November, I wasn't expecting much from this book (as aforementioned, I was actually sort of dreading it); but Taylor surprised me and offered up a diamond in the rough.

Or, perhaps more appropriately, the genuine article in the midst of fool's gold.


The Travels of Jaimie McPheeters is the story of a boy's (and his father's) journey from Missouri to San Francisco in 1849 to seek their treasures during the California Gold Rush. Their journey, particularly Jaimie's, is wrought with pains, heartaches, toils, and hardships at every turn. It was honestly as though Taylor hated his protagonists—the amount of muck and mire they have to wade through just to get to California is almost unbearable, even for the reader! Another appropriate title for this novel could have very well been The Travels of Jaimie McPheeters: A Tale of Murphy's Law. For this poor boy, anything that could possibly go wrong, did go wrong.

Here are just a few examples: he falls off a boat and nearly drowns in the Mississippi River, he is found and taken in by a couple farmers only to be turned into a slave, he escapes them only to be abducted by two highwaymen, he escapes them and reunites with his father only to get lost in a prairie and nearly killed by a tornado, he attempts to find his way back to camp only to wander into Pawnee territory, they hold him hostage and torture him, he escapes them only to be once again captured by them, he escapes them again only to have more run-ins with the two highwaymen, their wagon train is attacked three or four times by both Indians and Mormons (bizarrely enough), he accidentally almost kills his own father, they end up in California and strike it rich only to be conned out of all their money, his father relapses and turns to alcoholism, they end up penniless and homeless, begging in the streets of San Francisco... I could go on and on. The Universe conspired against this poor kid at almost every single turn.

And, as the reader, I cannot tell you how unbearably frustrating it was to get through it all. At one point, while I was on my lunch break at work, I even slammed the book shut and let out an exasperated "UGH!" In fact, I can tell you exactly when it was—Jaimie had just escaped the Pawnees with an Indian girl he had befriended, only to be duped by her and, once again, captured by the Pawnees. I wanted so badly for this kid to catch a lucky break and Taylor was just not supplying it.

However, after 465 or pages of these sorts of goings on, Taylor turned in one of the most beautiful, awe-inspiring conclusions to a novel I have ever had the good pleasure to read. I am not ashamed to tell you this—I cried a little. I was so captured and enthralled by the hope and the glory and the sheer beauty of this novel's ending.

I have to give credit where credit is due—Robert Lewis Taylor is a magnificent writer.

The thing about this sort of novel is that the conclusion is the most tender, fragile element of it. A lesser writer could have severely botched it up and offered either a trite and cliche "happily ever after" ending, or an equally trite and cliche tragic ending. Taylor, on the other hand, managed to combine an equal amount of hope and tragedy to create an altogether perfect ending. Upon reading it, I immediately recognized that this novel couldn't have ended so perfectly in any other way.

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