Empty Hands

June 22, 2018

Robert Endicott, early in Arthur Stringer’s Empty Hands, compares his employee Shomer Grimshaw to a Diesel engine, efficient and emotionless, and wonders who would win out if Grimshaw had to deal with Endicott’s modern, spoiled daughter Claire. As a reader, you know what this signals: they will meet, and probably fall in love, and we’ll find out just how human Grimshaw can be. And I guess we do, but — and I suspect Stringer didn’t intend this — the answer is “not very.”

Endicott’s been too busy with his mines and lumber camps to pay attention to Claire, so when he gets home and finds that she’s fallen in with a bad crowd and is being haunted by her mother’s ghost, he decides to bring her up to Canada with him. She’s been there less than two days when she gets too close to some dangerous rapids in her canoe and gets caught. Grimshaw, the boss of the camp, goes after her, and they both get swept through many miles of white water. They wash up on a small beach with nothing — even their clothes have been stripped away in the water. But that’s fine,  because it turns out that if any group of indigenous people has ever learned to do a thing, Grimshaw can do it, too — by himself, in about an hour. He immediately weaves them both dresses out of willow bark, builds a sturdy shelter out of driftwood, dams a pool, wrestles a fish, and makes a knife out of a convenient deer rib. None of these things are individually implausible, but they all probably ought to take longer. Meanwhile, Claire spends the day sitting on the beach, wanting to die. She gets it together the next day, and asks how she can help, but all he’ll let her do is carry stuff and braid rope. She’s also not very good at anything, which would be realistic and fine if he wasn’t superhumanly competent.

I already thought things were moving too fast at the end of day two. I don’t think Arthur Stringer understands why survival novels are good. Sure, the process stuff and details are fun — but not if they’re too easy. Not if things happen on too large a scale. Not if there’s very little indication of effort. Anyway, I was already furious, and then Grimshaw gets up in the middle of the night and ATTACKS TWO MOOSE. Moose are terrifying. Moose are huge. One of them runs away and Grimshaw spears the other one in its shoulder, then jumps on its back and starts stabbing it in the head. It throws him off, and apparently tramples him underfoot, only that definitely doesn’t happen, because he emerges with a few scrapes and bruises, and not as a mangled corpse. Claire comes to the rescue, stabbing it in the spine with her spear until it dies. Why the moose allows her to do this, I don’t know.

Grimshaw spends the rest of the night dragging chunks of moose meat back to a storage platform he’s built, but he’s up bright and early the next morning. By breakfast he’s pounded some dried roots into flour, started preparing the moose hide for use, and turned its tendons into thread. Then he finds a scrap of iron from his wrecked boat and promptly constructs a forge (from stone and clay) complete with bellows (moose hide, moose bone, and wood), which is finished by lunchtime.

Things slow down a little after that, which is good, because I was getting exhausted. But everything is still too much too fast, to the point where stuff about making pottery and clothes and building a house isn’t fun–and it should be. The house, by the way, is made of logs, and has three rooms, whitewashed walls, a brick fireplace with two ovens, a chimney with an adjustable flue, a wood floor, and two windows.

Meanwhile, Claire is getting better at living in the wilderness, although she’s aware that she would be screwed without survival robot Grimshaw. She tells him that if he wasn’t there, she’d kill herself, and he says, “That doesn’t sound like you,” as if she hadn’t said she wanted to die the day they got there. As if they’ve ever had anything resembling a real conversation.

I don’t know how two people who live and work together in total isolation can avoid ever having a personal conversation, but Grimshaw has repressed everything but wilderness lore. Like, yes, soon it turns out he’s in love with her, but I wasn’t convinced he had any idea what that meant. Or that he had any kind of inner life. Claire…isn’t actually that much better. We get to see inside her head a bit, but I never felt like I had much of a sense of what she was like as a person. I think that’s mostly just bad writing, though. Stringer clearly spent a lot more time thinking about her body than her personality.

Once they decide they’re in love, they spend the rest of the book arguing about whether or not they’re going to have sex. Grimshaw thinks they shouldn’t, in case they get rescued someday or lose their grasp on civilization. Claire wants to, and thinks rescue is unlikely. They spend a lot of time on this debate, but honestly, it’s not that interesting. Or sympathetic, especially when every time Claire is like, “Okay, that’s fine,” everything suddenly becomes about Grimshaw having a hard time restraining himself physically, which is…boring, mostly. I’ve lost patience with books where the author wants so badly for their man to be The Manliest Man that they write him as constantly barely under control. Especially when the book has little else to recommend it.



  1. “Robot Grimshaw” haha, are you sure this isn’t an episode of Westworld? 🤔

    • I…don’t think I know enough about Westworld to get this.

  2. I began your review thinking that I’d read this Arthur Stringer novel. A widowed timber tycoon finds his spoiled daughter has fallen in with a bad crowd and believes a spell in the Canadian wilderness will offer a cure. Yes, I did read that novel! But why didn’t I remember Shomer Grimshaw? I mean, who could forget that name? And didn’t the spoiled girl have a sister? Weren’t both girls sent to the Canadian wilderness?

    Half-way through the second paragraph of your review I realized Empty Hands wasn’t the book I’d read at all. The Stringer I was thinking of was White Hands. The similarities between the two are striking… and to think that they were published only three years apart!

    If interested, here’s my review of White Hands:

    It’s not one of my favourite Stringers.

    • That’s kind of bizarre. I guess Stringer was working through some stuff.

      What are your favorite Stringers? Do you think he’s worth reading?

      • I think Stringer is worth reading. White Hands is far from his best… and it seems Empty Hands is subpar. Of the five Stringers I’ve read to date, I recommend: The Wine of Life. A semi-autobiographical novel inspired by his marriage to Gibson Girl Jobyna Howland, it stands head and shoulders above his commercial work. It’s interesting to note that after being turned down by Bobbs-Merrill – then his usual publisher – The Wine of Life ended up with the more prestigious Alfred A. Knopf. I wrote a piece on the novel several years ago for Canadian Notes & Queries in which I speculated that it might just be the most depressing Canadian novel of all time.

        You’ve been forewarned!

  3. This… does not sound like a winner. I would normally be all about the building-stuff thing, but you can’t enjoy things like that when the book is playing whack-a-mole with your willing suspension of disbelief.

    Maybe, as a kid, he read Swiss Family Robinson and thought “man, that stuff’s taking them way too long”?

    I’d love to know how the “hero” had the calluses necessary to accomplish half of those things.

    And how exactly will them not having sex be helpful for future societal censure? If they’ve been unchaperoned for that long, it will be communally assumed anyway. (I do not think societal censure is the only/main reason to not have sex with someone, but… can’t they just figure out how to marry themselves to the best of their abilities and call it a day? Presumably if he can do all the rest of this stuff, he could also deliver a baby or two [probably, given how talented he is at extracting things from the wilderness, by anesthetized cesarean section].)

    (also: why is Endicott a familiar name?)

  4. I just ran across this in a book, and it reminded me of this book review:


    “That’s a wonderful bed of mine,” commented Philip at breakfast. “Tell me where in the world did you get your camp equipment?”

    “I made the bed myself,” said Diane happily, “of red willow shoots from the swamp, and I carved these forks and spoons out of wood Johnny gathered.”

    “I do wish I were clever!” grumbled Philip in acute discontent. “After breakfast I’m going to whittle out a wildwood pipe and make a birch canoe, and likely I’ll weave a rush mat and a willow bed and carve some spoons and forks and a sundial.”

    “Will you be through by noon?” asked Diane politely.

    Philip laughed.


    (the “politely” gave me a chuckle.)

    Also, I wanted to recommend Mother Carey’s Chickens by Wiggin; I recently rediscovered it after having labored under the delusion, for a while, that it had been a Nesbit book [I first read it while I was reading through the obscure back-catalogue of non-Project-Gutenberg but public-domain Nesbit books] and that its title was The Yellow House [indubitably affected by the actual Nesbit book, The Red House]; these two things substantially hampered rediscovery, and it was only by opening up Mother Carey’s Chickens to confirm that it was a rubbishy poetry-extract book that I discovered that it was actually this highly-entertaining book. It has moving-into-and-improving-a-house, some reasonably good character growth, some fascinating bits of insight, and… also, unfortunately, a hefty dose of syrupy Victorian Motherhood Idealism. But if you can get past that, the rest of the book is great.

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