Novel Update – June 2022: Main Street and Bear Slaying

The Hole in Philadelphia remains a going concern. I still plan to publish by April of next year and release a sample this October at the latest.

It is a work of historical fiction, so I’ve been studying history. One of my favorite ways to do so is to read fiction written in my period of interest. Museums and textbooks can share the dry events of an era. Even contemporary non-fiction, which is enormously valuable, still tends to be limited by aim and tone. But fiction unveils the spirit of its time. Storytellers have a knack for dropping little remarks that suddenly shine the past in a new light.

I recently bought the novel Main Street by Sinclair Lewis. It was published in 1920, a little later than the setting of my story but close enough to earn my attention. And I was curious to read something from the guy who wrote about revolting conditions in turn-of-the-century meatpacking plants*. I later realized I was thinking of Upton Sinclair, who is not Sinclair Lewis. I was further embarrassed when I looked up Sinclair Lewis, and the first sentence of his Wikipedia page was “Not to be confused with his contemporary, Upton Sinclair.”

Anyway, Main Street begins with a description of a young woman’s experience at her little Midwestern college. On the very first page, we are told that the college sits on land that only two generations ago was a rustic frontier. It includes this line:

“The days of pioneering, of lasses in sunbonnets, and bears killed with axes in piney clearings, are deader now than Camelot…”

I doubt Lewis thought much of it, but one small detail caught my eye:

“… bears killed with axes …”

Bears, plural. That sounds like a pattern.

I don’t know much about bears, but I had always assumed they were very dangerous, even if you had a large firearm. If you weren’t armed and a bear attacked you, I thought the best you could hope for was to survive. You couldn’t win the fight, no more than you could win a plane crash. The bear decides how many limbs you get to keep, axe or no axe.

I’d actually heard one tale of a person slaying a bear with an edged weapon before. The famed KA-BAR knife company claims they got their name from some grizzled frontiersman who killed a bear with one of their knives and, pleased with his purchase, wrote the manufacturer that he “ka bar”, or killed a bear**. True or not, I assumed it was a singular feat by a modern Hercules, a story fit to be told around campfires or emblazoned on a memorial woodcut.

Now, thanks to one page of this little book, I must confront a world where not only might men armed with axes reliably win bear fights, but it was a chore so common it defined a generation.

* Yes, I’m aware Upton Sinclair was mostly concerned with correcting labor grievances when he wrote The Jungle, and he wasn’t thrilled that the public was shocked into promoting food purity and not socialism. He said, “I aimed at the public’s heart, and by accident I hit it in the stomach.”

** The company adopted the name KA-BAR in 1923, shortly after Lewis’ mention of a lost age of bear killing. Coincidence?

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