Thursday, January 20, 2011

H. H. Knibbs, Overland Red (1914)

Old West meets New West in this novel set in Southern California by early western writer Henry Herbert Knibbs (1874-1945). Most of the story, in fact, would happily take place in the 19th century. There is a ranch with cowboys on horses, gold prospecting in the Mojave, and a big gunfight outside a saloon. But for good measure, Knibbs also throws in a motor car, Los Angeles, and references to movie-making.

Reality meets myth in the book, as well. The title refers to its central character, a former sheriff of Abilene, now an itinerant (hobo) on the run from the law in Barstow, where he’s mistakenly believed to have killed a man. Living rough, he has his wits and plenty of grit to keep him going.

The novel’s subtitle, A Romance of the Moonstone Cañon Trail, gives a whole different impression of the book’s contents. You might guess that you’re in for some poetic renderings of landscapes and sunsets or a dew-fresh story of young lovers. You get all that, too. The novel even begins with a long, long prose poem about the Camino Real.

Becoming a man. At the heart of the novel is a study of how a teenage boy, Collie, becomes a man. An outcast, he has been adopted by Overland Red, and the two have been traveling together for four years when we first meet them. Collie is then taken under the wing of a ranch foreman, Brand Williams, who gives him a job as a ranch hand and helps him learn to be a cowboy.

For Knibbs, as for many of the early western writers, the achievement of manhood involves the discovery of longing and tender feelings for a young female. In this case, we get the spunky niece of the ranch owner, Louise.

Love between Collie and Louise smolders for a long time, dampened by the social distance between them. She is well-to-do and educated, he is neither. Both are pure-hearted and innocent. Collie knows nothing of love but the confusion his feelings generate. She wants him as a friend, but keeps deeper feelings at bay. It’s safer being a coy mistress of her doting uncle.

East also meets West in the novel, as yet another young man falls under the influence of Overland Red. He is Billy Winthrop, who arrives on the scene in a motorcar. He is rich and bored with life, looking for adventure. He is also a lunger, afflicted with consumption and expecting a short life. (Readers today need to be reminded that 100 years ago TB was the cause of 1 out of 10 deaths in America.)

Billy’s is yet another story of growing into manhood. He gladly puts up the capital to underwrite Overland Red’s gold prospecting in the Mojave. Though Red objects, Billy follows him into the desert. And so, working side by side with Red, Billy recovers his health. Honest labor and the dry desert air work their wonders.

Romance. Tuska and Piekarski’s Encyclopedia of Frontier and Western Fiction faults Knibbs’ novels for their weak plots and their too-heavy reliance on ranch romance. Such is not the case with Overland Red. There is enough of everything in the way of character and action to go around.

Romance in these early westerns seems an honest attempt to portray the inner life of characters to balance out the physical action required of them. You can see the stirrings of male-female attraction either as superfluous to the plot or as an important aspect of characterization. The theme of personal growth, especially for males, is a common theme of these novels. As finding a rewarding relationship with a woman is part of a man’s personal growth, romance seems an appropriate part of the story.

And it doesn’t have to be a woman. Friendship between single men, whether as equals or as mentor to a younger man, appears often for the same reason. Knibbs actually gives us both in this novel. Knibbs makes no secret of Red and Collie’s fondness for each other. In fact, it’s hard to think of an early western novel in which the central character is a loner, content with his own solitary company, distrusting everyone, male or female.

The romance between Collie and Louise complements the male-bonding that is celebrated in this novel. Both are there in service of a larger theme, the dependence of people on each other and the way attachments grow between them. These may be observed in a context of either guns or roses.

While Collie and Louise have their moonlight meetings, the cowboys on the ranch strap on six-shooters and spring into action to show what’s in their hearts. They quit their jobs to go to the aid of one of their number, who lingers between life and death after a near-fatal shooting. And they gladly follow Red as he settles a score with an outlaw, resulting in a Clarence Mulford-style shootout with multiple casualties.

Yet all of this fits together into the same spectrum of emotional connections between people who live in the same world. And the young Collie exists at the center of it all. Rejected by a drunkard father, he is embraced by everyone else his life touches, from Red who adopts him, to Louise who seals her love with a kiss on the closing pages. In the end, all that caring has gone into making a man of him.

Picture credits:
Illustrations from the first edition by Anton Fischer

Coming up: Along the Rio Grande: Cowboy Jack Thorp's New Mexico, White & White, eds.


  1. Knibbs is another writer who was a regular in POPULAR MAGAZINE, like so many of the authors that you have been discussing. I don't recall reading this one but I've noticed that Tuska in his ENCYCLOPEDIA often slams western writers because of the so called "formula elements". However, Knibbs seems to me to be one of the better early western writers.

    By the way, I once asked Tuska when the revised and updated edition of his book would be out and he indicated there would not be another edition. Probably because he doesn't have time to do the extensive reading that such an effort would require. He is quite busy with his editing and publishing of westerns from the pulps.

  2. Looks interesting...I think I'll have to pick up the free ebook version for my Kindle.

  3. Evan (dave) Lewis is collecting the links this week. If he misses this, let him know. MY husband is reading THE TIME IT NEVER RAINED. And I hope to twist his arm to do a forgotten book.

  4. Have read very few of these old westerns -- but thi one sounds pretty good, maybe I can discover some new, old guys to read.
    And Pattinase, The Time It Never Rained is one of my all time top 5 best westerns.

  5. Walker, do you know whether to pronounce his name with or without the K? As for Tuska, I'm guessing his co-author did much of the work for the ENCYCLOPEDIA.

    Elisabeth, with the free book, you can't go wrong.

    Patti, I've yet to get around to Kelton's RAINED. At the rate I'm going, it may take me a couple decades.

    OGR, my review covered only a small part of what's good about this book. Overland Red is an entertaining western character.

  6. Another awesome review. You should put together a book on Forgotten Western Writers.

  7. Sorry Ron, I don't know the correct way to say his name. But I second Evan's suggestion about a book on Forgotten Western Writers.

  8. Evan and Walker, I'm working on one. If I don't see the end of the tunnel before long (these guys keep popping out of the woodwork), I'm going to turn it into a two-volume project.

  9. Ron, another writer you may want to take a look at is Francis Lynde. He wrote all types of fiction including many westerns with a modern day setting. By modern day I mean around the early 1900's like the westerns written by Knibbs, Coolidge, Chisholm, Tuttle, etc. He was another regular in POPULAR MAGAZINE. When you publish your book, or books, on forgotten westerns I hope you emphasize the importance of this forgotten quality pulp magazine, as well as the other pulps that published so many westerns like ADVENTURE, SHORT STORIES, ALL STORY, ARGOSY.

  10. "Overland Red" was made into a movie in 1920, starring Harry Carey (Sr.) as Overland Red, Harold Goodwin as Collie (who also appeared in films with Buster Keaton and Mary Pickford), and Vola Vale as Louise. The film, as with all seven films based on Knibbs' stories, is considered lost. However, I have discovered that it survives in the National Film Archive in Rome, Italy. I have viewed the surviving film, and it's a solid silent western. Harry Carey makes a very good Overland Red. The plot adds an element that may not be in the novel. Both Collie and Red start to fall for Vola Vale's Louise...but when Red realizes that Vale may be interested in Collie, he steps aside and gives Collie a gift for Louise that he had planned to give her himself. I hope that this film may someday be copied and brought back to America where it can be restored with English-language titles.