Monday, April 3, 2017

Saxon Roberts

Charmian London
When we meet Saxon, the heroine of Jack London’s The Valley of the Moon [1915], she is ironing fancy linen in a steaming laundry in Oakland with many other women. Paid by the piece, Saxon does better than some of the women who become hysterical and are miserable in the situation. She and a friend plan to go to a union picnic and dance on Sunday.

At the dance, Saxon meets Billy, a teamster and prize fighter. Billy immediately feels nice to Saxon, big, blonde and calm. Both of their ancestors crossed the plains into California as pioneers. Saxon idealizes her mother, a poet who died when she was young. Saxon was in an orphanage until her half-brother took her into his home. Billy asks Saxon to go buggy riding, admires her grit. Very soon they agree to marry. Saxon leaves the laundry and moves into a little house with Billy, with furniture not yet paid for.

As a wife, Saxon strives to retain Billy’s love, making pretty things for herself. She becomes pregnant, but there is much labor unrest. The men talk socialism. Billy’s friend Burt says they should not “bring children into the world with no guarantee you can feed them.” When striking men, scabs and policemen fight in the street in front of Saxon’s house, she has a miscarriage, losing the baby. Burt dies in the melee and Billy begins drinking. He enjoys the fighting, talking dynamite, sabotage, revolution. Life becomes senseless to Saxon.

Hard times comes to everyone in Saxon’s Oakland neighborhood. Billy goes back to prize fighting to earn money and is beaten. When he goes to jail for 30 days for assault, Saxon is left with no money. She is lonely and doesn’t have a strong sense of reality. She goes down to the beach and lives on mussels and oysters she finds there. “All the natural world was right, and sensible, and beneficent. It was the man-world that was wrong, and mad, and horrible,” she decides. Saxon decides she will fight, for Billy, love and happiness.

One day she meets a young man named Jack who reads and wants to go to sea. The two of them go out to Goat Island for rock cod. Jack says that “Oakland is just a place to start from.” This is a revelation to Saxon. She comes back to life, cleans her house, plays her ukulele and prepares for Billy’s return. When he comes back, she confronts him with her plan to find a farm for them somewhere in the country. Billy agrees and they prepare to go tramping, with bedrolls, cooking pans and Saxon’s ukulele on their backs.

At first they go south. In San Leandro, they find that the Portuguese immigrants have been buying up land, getting great yields from intensive farming of their small plots. Billy and Saxon ask everyone they meet about farming, wanting to learn how not to deplete the soil. Billy finds work plowing, because he is so good with horses. Everywhere they go, people are impressed with the two and offer them work, though Billy doesn’t want Saxon to work hard.

On Carmel beach, they camp, finding themselves in a company of artists who swim in the ocean and eat mussels and abalone, which they call "the food of the gods." They are offered a house for the winter and become members of this group. Saxon appreciates the childlike joy of the artists, but cannot understand their pessimism.

Saxon explains to one of the artists what she and Billy are looking for:  “There be hills and valleys, and rich land, and streams of clear water, good wagon roads and a railroad not too far away, plenty of sunshine and cold enough at night to need blankets, and not only pines but plenty of other kinds of trees, with open spaces to pasture Billy’s horses and cattle, and deer and rabbits for him to shoot, and lots and lots of redwood trees, and no fog!” He takes her out and points to the moon. “You are looking for paradise,” he tells her. “It’s like looking for a valley on the moon!”

Saxon and Billy move on, looking for their own land. Government land for the asking is no longer available in 1908, but they travel out to Sacramento and north as far as Oregon, looking for the perfect place. They buy a camping wagon and finally come back down to the Sonoma Valley, which Saxon recognizes as the place they are looking for. With luck and Billy’s horse trading, they acquire enough land to begin farming. Saxon sends for the baby clothes she has packed away at her brother’s house.

Saxon’s relationship to Billy is notable in that they talk to each other about everything, always returning to the first glimpses they had of each other when Billy thought, “that you was made for me,” and Saxon said to herself, “is he the man?” “I never talk this way to other girls,” says Billy. “It’s the same way with me,” Saxon says. It is a story of two people who, though they have little education, have large hearts and keen minds. Jack London spares us none of the details.

Behind Saxon Roberts, of course, there was a real woman, Charmian London, Jack London’s second wife. London called her his “mate-woman” and Charmian shared many adventures with him. London left most of his estate to her, because of "the love and comfort, & joy & happiness she has given me."