|Mary Hallock Foote|
Set in a Rocky Mountains silver mining camp in 1877 Colorado, it describes a world already well known to viewers of Deadwood. She captures the atmosphere of a raw, turbulent settlement. It’s a town constructed on the fly, as it absorbs a growing influx of fortune seekers, mostly young men from everywhere and every rung of the social ladder.
Hilgard falls for Cecil in a big way, but the immediate obstacle to a full-fledged romance is a dispute between Hilgard and her brother, Conrath. He has followed a rich seam of ore underground and crossed over to (i.e., “jumped”) Hilgard’s claim.
Matters eventually escalate to an exchange of gunfire. Conrath gets killed, and though it can’t be known for sure, there’s an even chance the fatal shot was Hilgard’s. The shooting brings an end to any hopes for a future the two lovers might have had together.
The romantic conflict in the novel becomes simply this. Cecil cannot love both her brother and the man responsible for his death. Since she cannot imagine loving anyone else, she commits herself to mourning the loss of both men until the end of her days.
False dilemma, yes. Hilgard resolves it by tracking her down back East, where she’s been living with her aunt and grandmother and refusing to accept the fate that duty has committed them to. How she finally surrenders to his persistence, we don’t know, because Foote skips ahead to the wedding six months later.
A word should be said about blushing, which people in fiction of this period seem to do a lot of. Easily shamed, embarrassed, or made self-conscious, characters betray these feelings by turning color. Men and women alike. The word “blush” appears seven times in this novel. And there are multiple variations. Living, perhaps, in a shameless age, we can wonder at a world where so much in social relations is concealed—and thus in danger of self-betrayal.
We also get a glimpse of social life in the camp as an organization of young bachelors throws a fortnightly ball for invited guests. The handful of women who attend are guaranteed partners for every place on their dance card. Among the men, a late arriver might swap a dinner invitation for a dance partner on another man’s card.
If the novel has a weakness, it’s that Cecil is given too little to do. Most of her time is spent reacting. Prevented by circumstances and propriety from yielding to her interest in Hilgard, she wades ever deeper into the slough of despond. Before finding fault, we need to remember the moralistic constraints that confined a single young woman of her class in the 1880s.
Foote sometimes writes with a kind of over-dressed Victorian flourish, yet her novel also has a strong streak of irony, as when she describes a burial at the town cemetery. A volley fired by the town militia is executed so inexpertly it draws jeers from the crowd. Mourners on horseback then race back to town, where the occasion is marked by the consumption of a keg of whiskey.
While it’s maybe not a western as such, you can argue that her novel makes a claim for what it might become. Instead of exaggerated and clumsily written yarns and tall tales of daring and gunplay on the frontier, Foote has invented something else. Here are real-life characters in a real-life West.
The Led-Horse Claim is available free online at google books.
Source: The Literature Network
Image credits: Portrait of the author, Wikimedia Commons
Coming up: Old West glossary #16