This 1901 novel by Frank Norris feels quite squarely with a foot in both the 19th and 20th centuries, and of course in publication in 1901 suggests that it quite literally does. The book is subtitled “A Story of California”, so it has the trappings of California novels — references to the old Spanish inhabitants, a blending of American and Mexcian people, culture, food, a reverence for the land, wine, and a struggle between the greatest potential of lived experience and the truly harrowing exploitation of fetterless capitalistic monopolies. It also prefigures books by Upton Sinclair and John Steinbeck, and more or less sits between them in terms of literary achievement and quality. At times, it’s a meditative and thoughtful expression of humanity, and sometimes it’s a clipping, staccato (and not always in a good way) narration of economic politics.
The story is a small town in California that is at the literal crossroads of the rail industry and California agriculture. This creates a tension primarily between the rail company, its owners and financiers, and the wheat farmers who held a kind of captive by the shipping rates. There’s also the uncomfortable erasure of the workers throughout most of the work, with the owning class of one realm fighting the owning class of the other. That gives this the flavor of modern politics, where Sinclair and Steinbeck almost always used the lowest level of exploitation to tell their stories. That doesn’t mean this is a character study in its own way, it just means that the characters are not always the characters we might immediately identify with in a 21st century context. After all, the characters who get to have their stories told in this novel are more close linked to the people who would be reading this book 120 years ago when it was published.
The conflict here is that the railroad is able to set policies and fees that are predatory, exorbitant, and arbitrary. Some examples: a former employee who quits his job working with the railroad as his salary was consistently cut decides to begin farming hops, since the low price of shipping them is advantageous. He soon learns that the price of hops dictates the fees, and that he won’t be able to make any money on them. Asking the relevant question: what does the price of hops have to do with the cost of shipping them? He is met with the same kind of indifference that Job gets at the seat of God. Another: one farmer buys a supply of heavy farm equipment to be shipped just in time from the East for his harvest. When the equipment arrives in town, the railroad refuses to unload it from the train because this particular hub does not except shipments from the East. All Easterly shipments must be first routed from Barstow, some 50 miles away, and then shipped on local lines to their terminal destinations. So while he can see the equipment, internal policy will not give him his property. This causes a delay, but worse, the local rates are far higher than national rates. It costs him more money to receive his property later, all the while he can see it on the train.
The response to this overall is for the local farmer owners to form an organization called “The League” where they hope to use their collective power to stand up against the railway, with violence if necessary. Again, this is a long novel, so each of these elements are both episodic at times or woven through over the course of the novel. At times we spend a more meditative time period with individual characters who generally question their continued participation in the system.