Turpentine is best known as an essential oil that’s used as a solvent and thinner, and was key to the manufacture and upkeep of sailing vessels and the country’s early naval industry. But turpentine has its dark side, too. Inhalation of turpentine vapors can result in difficulty breathing, a swollen throat, burning in the eyes, nose and throat, and possible loss of vision. Turpentine applied to the skin can burn a hole through the flesh. Swallowing turpentine can be fatal: It can flat-out burn the esophagus and stomach away.
The making of turpentine is backbreaking work, too. It relied on cheap labor—mostly African-American—in the pine forests of the South, who had to literally scrape pine resin off the trees, which was distilled to make the solvent. The work went from sunup to sundown, six days a week, all year long, and earned its workers just enough to sink into debt with the company store.
And that’s where turpentine, the chemical, meets Turpentine, the novel, the first work of Wyoming native Spring Warren. In the book, an old man, Amos Even, driving his buckboard across the arid plains in the 1870s mountain West, recounts to his passenger his days at toil in the turpentine pines of the South. “If they make maple syrup in heaven,” says Even, “turpentine’s made in hell. Thought I’s a free man after the Civil War, workin’ for a wage. I scraped sap from the suicide forest—southern longleaf pine, yellow pine. It were another slavery, black man an’ white.”
Even’s passenger is the protagonist of Turpentine, Edward Turrentine Bayard III, an abandoned and ailing Connecticut boy of aristocratic lineage who was sent West to cure his health, and never heard from his family again. The book’s name derives from the nickname given Bayard by the rough Westerners who can’t be bothered with the correct pronunciation of the aristocratic “Turrentine.”
Bayard—a character of telltale Dickensian influence—is on a rambling and wild quest after the secrets of his abandonment, and travels from Nebraska to Connecticut and back, making stops in a Pennsylvania coal mine, Yale’s paleontology department, and a Great Plains buffalo skinners’ camp. Bayard tries his hand at trick shooting, art, bone collecting and is even so desperate as to join a Mormon wagon train. He falls in love twice—once with an upper-caste beauty who had fled West after murdering her fiancée, and the other time with a cigar-store clerk and dancehall opportunist who eventually wins him over.
Bayard and his friends meet all sorts of mayhem and mishaps. Death and pain are no strangers to Bayard. He’s accused of theft and murder, of tossing an anarchists’ bomb, and is chased across the country by a renowned bounty hunter. He nearly dies in a mining accident. He nearly dies of exposure in the desert. He is nearly murdered by Indians—twice. Those he befriends are often entangled in his mishaps, from his first boarding-house matron, Avilina, and her husband Tilfert, to a 14-year-old mine laborer and petty crook, Curly, whom he rescues from the coalmines. Bayard’s world is filled with malice and violence.
But in the end, all is well for Bayard, whose tribulations teach him how to cultivate and cherish simple virtues, like contentment, friendship and quiet, as he settles down in a quiet Wyoming settlement with his second love, whose strengths are loyalty and honesty, not dash and beauty. The novel also displays a strong dose of Western egalitarianism: In the course of his adventures, Bayard’s aspirations of money and social status are wrenched from him, and he gets by
on pluck, ability and luck, the trinity of Western values.
In any case, all the classic elements of a Dickens novel are there: the abandoned child, the run-in with the law and the collection of colorful characters with equally colorful names. And turpentine is as good a metaphor as any for the kind of sprawling, rough cut, dramatic and prolonged agony suffered by Bayard and his Dickensian brethren. It takes a lot of abrasions, burning and hard work to turn near-comic fictional calamity into something useful, both for the protagonist and the author.
If there are faults in the book, it’s that Warren writes too broadly, not plunging deep enough into her characters. This is not a book of psychological insight; it’s a book of action. If this shallowness and the sometimes too-predictable plot are demerits against Warren, she more than makes up for these faults with inherent humor and sweetness that make the characters more than palatable. They are instead endearing and interesting.
Spring Warren reads from and signs copies of Turpentine at Fact & Fiction Wednesday, Oct. 17, at 7 PM.