Monday, September 13, 2010

Book: Bransford of Rainbow Range

The novels of Eugene Manlove Rhodes are short, and I’ve been reading more before moving on to another early western writer. He’s also fun to read and an increasingly curious character as I learn more about him.

Eugene Manlove Rhodes, 1913
This novel was published in 1913 after Rhodes had left New Mexico to live with his wife and his in-laws in upstate New York. The New Mexico he remembered was taking on a nostalgic glow. Anyone who has spent a winter in upstate New York will understand how deeply the warmth of that glow can be missed.

The set-up. We last saw Jeff Bransford being rescued by his friends from the cellar in Juarez where he was being held hostage (see last week’s review of Good Men and True). This novel finds him again up to his ears in trouble, pursued by the law for a bank robbery and the near-fatal shooting of a night watchman.

He is, of course, innocent of either crime. However, his one alibi is a pretty young thing, Ellinor Hoffman. She it is who was with him at the time of the robbery. But, alas, their meeting was unchaperoned. Given the Victorian-era regard owed to a woman’s respectability, it is an alibi he cannot use in his own defense.

Allowing himself to be arrested the following day and taken before the justice of the peace, he pleads not guilty, but to no avail. Not only is he unable to account for his whereabouts at the time of the robbery. There is evidence linking him to the crime scene. He’s looking at doing time – and far worse if the night watchman croaks.

There’s only one thing to do, and he does it. He makes a dramatic escape – leaping through a second story window of the courthouse. In a moment he’s borrowed another man’s horse and is well out of town before a posse is organized to give chase.

Prospector, 1916
The ruse and another chase. Jeff finds himself pursued by four men on horseback while the rest of the posse heads off in another direction. When two of the men catch up with him in the mountains, he has transformed himself into a prospector and offers to help them catch the man they’re after.

A night and another day pass with no success, of course. Grub is sent for from the next town, and when it arrives it’s delivered by a youth who then assists Jeff in making a getaway. Under cover of darkness, they head south toward Mexico, the other men in hot pursuit.

Jeff makes it safely south of the border and doesn’t return to New Mexico until a friend comes after him with news that the coast is clear. The real bank robber has been fingered, and the night watchman has not only returned from certain death but is thriving.

Only one thing is left – Jeff’s looking up the girl who got him into all this trouble in the first place. And in the last scene, Rhodes treats us to a twist ending, which would have had O. Henry applauding. No spoiler this time. You’ll have to read it to find out.

The book as a western. We get plot elements here that are part of what was to become the standard western novel. Our hero is a cowboy, and in much of the story he’s on horseback. His first entrance, in fact, involves his headlong fall from a horse as they make their way down a steep bank.

New Mexico sky
The landscape is certainly western, and the action of the story is specifically placed in the Tularosa Basin above White Sands. Rhodes’ fondness for this landscape gets full expression in his descriptions of the desert, the mountains, even the frontier town of Arcadia.

Mining and prospectors were also part of the western landscape. And Rhodes displays his familiarity with the details of that line of work. His description of how Jeff transforms his appearance to pass as a prospector is thorough and meticulous. For just one example, he makes his hands look like a miner’s by giving himself burns from hot irons and then rubbing dirt into the blisters. A cowboy’s hands, by contrast, would be protected with his leather gloves.

The presence of Mexicans as part of the ambiance accounts for another layer of westering. Rhodes is unusually free of racial stereotyping for his time and portrays Mexicans respectfully – if not a little sentimentally. The family-run hacienda where he seeks shelter is a kind of Eden, the Mexicans all decent, honest, hard-working folk. He regards them with warmth, and they do the same to him.

Meanwhile, the East and citified social values collide with the West, as often happens in an early western novel. They are imported from elsewhere by the wealthy – the bankers, businessmen, lawyers, and professional people with educations. Folks with big houses and leisure pastimes.

Football player, c1900
The latter show up in the throwing of a masked ball, which Jeff attends, uninvited. He’s there because he wants to see the girl who has taken his fancy. Now, he might have gone as Zorro or a road agent, even an Indian. But instead (and Rhodes must have been tickled by this), he goes dressed in a borrowed football uniform. So, for a while, the novel steps with at least one foot out of the rural West and into another world entirely. For a writer who made no secret of his affection for Alice in Wonderland, this makes perfect sense.

Rhodes’ kind of fun. There’s a sophistication in Rhodes’ novels that is of his own invention. I’m guessing that’s why his fans (and he has them) find him so enjoyable. Book lovers are a tight-knit clan.

Rhodes’ parents were both educated, while Eugene was mostly home schooled. He fell in love with books and read widely. His first writings were poems. When he wrote stories, he graced them (I think that’s a fair word) with snippets of and allusions to a whole body of Victorian-era poets and story writers.

He wasn’t showing off a bookish erudition. He was demonstrating how literature can be absorbed easily and playfully into the everyday world of scrabbling for a living in a rough-hewn world. I think he understood that the first purpose of poetry and fiction is to entertain – and that life would be dreary and dull without them.

He’s happy to mix together high brow and low brow. Poets like Tennyson, Robert Burns, and James Whitcomb Riley appear along with unknowns long forgotten. Serious goes side-by-side with silly. Hamlet and Mother Goose.

More next time.

Picture credits:
1) Photo of Rhodes from Journal of the Southwest, 1967
2) Prospector George Warren, 1916,
3) New Mexico sky,
4) Lawson Fiscus, football player, c1900,

Coming up: More early western movies


  1. The escape in that book reminds me quite a bit of Billy the Kid's escape. Something resonates there for sure.

  2. Charles, interesting fact: Rhodes was a Garrett sympathizer and regarded Billy as a low-life thief.