Last Updated September 5, 2023.
The story begins with the first-person narrator and her friend Clara taking a chairlift to a ski resort in the mountains above Lucerne, Oregon. They have been waiting to meet a French boy called Eugene de la Rochefoucauld, whom they met a week before and who invited both of them to the gala opening of the Evergreen Lodge, a prestigious new resort overlooking the town. After almost an hour’s wait, at sunset, the two women (they are nineteen and twenty-two) decide to go to the party without Eugene.
The story is set in the 1930s, and the Evergreen Lodge is to be one of President Roosevelt’s most magnificent New Deal projects to lift the country out of the Great Depression. The narrator and Clara, both of whose fathers were obsessed with the Klondike Gold Rush, work together as “prospectors.” They have no money and no means of support, so they use their youth, their attractiveness, and some social connections of Clara’s to get themselves invited to parties at grand houses, where they then steal what they can from “the closets and jewelry boxes of our hosts.” They begin this criminal career in Florida, but Clara is being physically abused by someone there (she refuses to tell the narrator who is doing this). When she turns up one day with two black eyes, they set off across America, living off wealthy men they meet and stealing whatever they can. Eventually, in winter, they end up in Oregon.
This is told in retrospect, as the women ascend the mountain via chairlift. They arrive at the party and are plied with drinks. Suddenly, Clara notices that they are the only women in the room. There are none of the socialites they had expected to see. All the twenty-six male hosts and guests appear to be men who worked on building the resort, “masons and blacksmiths and painters and foresters.”
When one of them mentions “the Emerald Lodge” and appears never to have heard of the Evergreen Lodge, the narrator realizes that they must have taken the wrong chairlift. The Emerald Lodge was crushed by an avalanche two years earlier, killing the twenty-six men who were working there. This means that not only are they at the wrong lodge, but all their hosts and fellow guests are dead—ghosts of the workers who were killed two years ago.
The women retire to the powder room to decide what to do. Clara sees no reason to abandon their usual procedure. Even though their hosts are dead:
We’ll charm them. We’ll drink a little, dance a little. And then, come dawn, we’ll escape down the mountain.
The women return to the party and pretend to be enjoying it. The narrator meets a boy named Lee and kisses him, saying “it felt no different from kissing a living mouth.” However, she is frightened when he calls her by real name, Jean, instead of Candy, the false name with which she generally introduces herself. Her legal name is Aubergine, which her parents gave her because they thought it sounded glamorous. When they discovered it was the French word for “eggplant,” they decided to call her Jean for short.
Jean likes Lee and goes upstairs with him. She wants to tell him that he is dead, which he seems not to know, though he knows and understands a great deal about her. They are interrupted when everyone goes to have their pictures taken and Jean meets Clara on the staircase. She was also with a boy, and both feel they were in danger of falling asleep. They decide to leave...
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as quickly as possible, for it is almost dawn. Clara, however, refuses to leave empty-handed, insisting that even among the dead, they are still “prospectors.”
The men are having their pictures taken, but the women have an intuition that they have to avoid the light of the flashbulb and that if they allow their photographs to be taken, they will have to stay at Emerald Lodge forever. Clara avoids being photographed by suddenly revealing to the men that they are all dead. At first, they do not believe her. The narrator thinks that perhaps “they’d buried the knowledge of their deaths, and we had exhumed it.” The building then begins to shake, as though the avalanche that killed the men might be returning. The women run to escape from the lodge. As they leave, they see a yellow bird, which is the only living thing in the lodge except them. They rush out of the lodge and jump into the chairlift, which carries them to safety. Clara opens her bag and lifts out the yellow bird she has taken. “In all our years of prospecting in the West, this was our greatest heist.”