Tuesday, September 28, 2010

Book: The Westerners (1901)

While the title of this novel has “cowboy” written all over it, not a single man of that breed appears between its covers. The Westerners was Stewart Edward White’s first novel. Before publication as a book by Grosset & Dunlap, it was serialized in eight parts in The Junior Munsey in 1900-1901.

1901 edition
White was all of 26 years old at the time, and it shows. The book is more interested in character and relationships than story, and it probably should have been the other way around. Still, the central plot when told in a few paragraphs shows promise.

The story. The setting is the Dakota Territory of the Old West, and it takes place mostly in a mining camp called Copper Creek in the Black Hills. A half-breed by the name of Lafond has a hate on for a white man, Billy Knapp, that goes back 20-plus years. Because of Lafond’s mixed race, Knapp once refused to let him join a wagon train.

After that long-ago incident, we learn that Lafond “went native” for a while, joining a hostile band of Sioux. Then after the Battle of Little Bighorn – in which Lafond kills Custer (now you know) – he became a successful entrepreneur in the white man’s world. He has built a saloon and dancehall franchise, setting up wherever there are mining camps. 

He finds Knapp, a prospector in Copper Creek, and hatches a scheme to bring the man down. A trio of venture capitalists from Chicago gives Knapp a bundle of money to develop a proper mine, and like a dot com startup, he overspends and goes bust. Meanwhile, Lafond has worked out a deal with the investors to take ownership of the mine for himself.

Knapp loses everything and is supposed to leave town a broken man. But he is too tough to break.  Instead, he rides off into the sunset with a prospector buddy from younger days who has made a fortune in Wyoming.

Lafond meets his end when he is captured by the Sioux tribe he deserted all those years before. They hold a tribunal during which he is found guilty of a crime he didn’t actually commit. Some irony there. And he is tortured to death. (Yeah, you read that right.)

Mining camp, 1890
What I left out. This actually gets interesting, because White creates a female character who dominates much of the novel – something we haven’t seen much of. There’s B. M. Bower’s ranch romance, Chip of the Flying U, which comes along six years later, but this is no ranch romance. It would not even qualify as a love story.

Molly is a young woman who believes Lafond is her father. She doesn’t know that he not only kidnapped her as a toddler but killed and scalped her real mother in an Indian raid. (Yeah, you read that right, too.) Raised by a white family, she is pretty, smart, and adventurous. Lafond brings her to Copper Creek.

There she is the first woman in camp and becomes the center of every man’s attention and a favorite. She discovers she has a natural talent for manipulating men and gets involved with two of them: Jack Graham, a thoughtful book-reader who respects her, and Cheyenne Harry, who does not.

She tires of discussing philosophy with Graham and “loses her reputation” by hooking up with Harry. The villainous Lafond delights in this development, apparently out of sheer meanness. When a shameless dancehall queen in the form of Bismarck Anne (cf. Calamity Jane) shows up in Copper Creek, Molly sees what fate has in store for her as a good-time girl and fallen woman.

Riddled by humiliation and in the grip of hysteria, she wants to commit suicide by jumping off a cliff. Graham, decent man that he is, saves her from that, and when she regains her wits, she declares, “I will go with you, Jack, forever, to the end of the world.”

How western is it? I’m still no big fan of stories about prospectors and mining. They lack the great themes of the open range and men on horseback. Still, White goes to some lengths to justify the title of his novel. He stops the story now and then, for the Eastern reader, to soliloquize on what it is to be “Western.”

Black Hills, South Dakota
Some of this is romantic stereotyping. His westerners are bigger, bolder, braver and not given to formalities. The villainous Lafond, however, being at the center of this story invites some consideration. His being a half-breed makes him “western” by definition. His being of mixed race opens up a murky subtext that resonates in the American psyche, East or West.

White writes about Indians in a respectful way, like an anthropologist. They are recognizably human, though still capable of savagery. They may be subject to heathen suspicions. But while uncivilized, they still live in ordered communities, with customs and rituals to preserve that order.

Still, they can be pretty scary. The women of the tribes strip and mutilate the bodies of the dead cavalry soldiers on the battlefield. We learn that Indian raiders are likely to kill a white child by dashing its brains out, rather than kidnapping it. These incidents, like the death of Lafond by torture in the last chapter, are related matter-of-factly. White lets the shock value speak for itself.

The mix of Indian and French blood in Lafond, however, is scarier for its unpredictability. The man is a loner in a world where men and women are specifically of one race or another. White suggests that the character faults that are there to be found in most white men are rendered more savage in a man with Indian blood in him.

Given what we know about racial hysteria in our own time, it’s easy to see what White – and his readers – would find compelling about this subject matter. A genetic heritage of Christian morality has been diluted in him by the amoral cunning of the uncivilized savage. The result is a dangerous psychopath – worse than the worst Indian, worse than the worst white man.

Wrapping up. This is potentially rich material. (Think of the Paul Newman film Hombre, in which the morality of a white man raised by Indians is contrasted with that of a stagecoach full of anglos held up by robbers.) And White wrestles manfully with it. He’s either not quite able to turn it into a story, or he trusts too much that we’ll be absorbed by the nuances of his character studies.

Maybe 150 pages pass without a strong plot to hold our interest. We may feel a vague sense of dread, wondering, “where will it all end?” But there isn’t quite enough to connect us emotionally to the characters. An interesting experiment, but safe for a modern reader to leave unread. Unless you’re a complete nut about literary history like myself. Then there’s much to ponder.

Picture credits:
1) Park City, a new mining camp, up Stray Horse Gulch, two miles east of Leadville; by B. H. Gurnsey (1833-1880); wikimedia.org
2) Photo of Black Hills, © 2001 by Doug Swisher, wikimedia.org

Coming up: cowboy memoirs


  1. Sorry Ron.............I`m afraid this one lost me.

  2. That cover reminds me definitely of childhood reading. In those days the covers were often so plain but it was the inside that counted for me. Maybe that's why I'm not a big "cover" guy today.

  3. Cheyenne, it wasn't an easy book to get through. White was just getting started as a novelist.

    Charles, yeah, I've found a lot of plain-cover books dating from that period. Have no idea, though, whether they had colorful dust jackets when they were new. They look very "serious" without them.

  4. The only White books I've read are the four in the Andy Burnett series, but I enjoyed them A LOT, and plan to read them again.

  5. Ron, I think you may be missing some good fiction by not liking stories of prospectors and mining. I know what you mean when you bring up the theme of the open range. I like these type of tales also.

    But the mining stories deal with greed for fast riches and a very hard life prospecting for gold, sometimes for years. Most miners never really made any money despite living lonely lives away from their families. I see alot of drama and conflict in such fiction. I love stories of the range but I also like to change off and occasionally read about prospecting, etc.

    Another very interesting review about one of the better western writers, but one not often discussed nowadays.

  6. Evan, thanks for the tip. After ARIZONA NIGHTS, which I really liked, I'm not about to give up on White.

    Walker, thanks for the comments. I may have my mind changed yet about stories of prospecting and mining.