The Half-Life

(Critical Survey of Contemporary Fiction)

Tina and Trixie are teenage girls living at a hippie commune in Oregon. Adults rarely enter their lives. When they need money for cigarettes, they raid the coin tray of parked cars. They play a risky game of “find and replace,” in which one girl steals something from a shopper’s purse and the other one has to replace it without getting caught. They read movie magazines and make elaborate plans to film a movie. To pay for camera, film, and props, Trixie has a scheme to grow and sell marijuana. Their friendship inevitably ends in tragedy.

A separate story interspersed with the other one tells about “Cookie,” the cook for a group of fur trappers in Oregon in the 1820’s. Cookie and a friend hope to get rich by extracting castoreum from beaver carcasses and selling it as a cure-all medication. They head for China where they have heard that there is a good market for herbal medicines. When they arrive in Canton, Cookie is arrested and put into jail for an indefinite time that stretches into many years. In the neighboring cell is a Chinese man with whom he develops an unlikely friendship, in spite of language and cultural barriers. Eventually they are released and travel to Oregon. However, Chinese immigrants are not welcome there and a band of vigilantes kills them both. Their skeletons are discovered 140 years later at the commune with the bones of their fingers linked together. They must have died while holding hands, a powerful symbol of their friendship.