Thursday, March 8, 2012

Florence Finch Kelly, With Hoops of Steel (1900)

Emerson Mead and young rider
This early western has a puzzling title unless you’re familiar with the fatherly advice of Polonius to Laertes in Shakespeare’s Hamlet. There in the same speech as “To thine own self be true,” you’ll find this nugget: “The friends thou hast, and their adoption tried. Grapple them to thy soul with hoops of steel.”

And, lo, the story Kelly has to tell is about three friends from Texas, as grappled together as the Three Musketeers. Two are young deputy U.S. marshals, while the third is a rancher, and when one of them is unjustly accused of murder, it’s all for one and one for all.

Plot. The story is set in New Mexico, in the deserts south of White Sands. There a range war has been going on between a Big Rancher, Col. Whittaker, and a bunch of small operators. Leading the colonel’s opposition is one of the three friends, Emerson Mead. Maybe not surprisingly, sympathies among the locals have divided along party lines, Republicans supporting Whittaker and Democrats siding with Mead.

Whittaker’s son Will has gone missing, and because he and Mead were known to be enemies, belief is strong that Mead has killed him. A search of the desert has not turned up a body, but Mead is tossed into jail anyway, where he stays until he is sprung by his two friends.

After the jail break, the ride into the night
Before long, he is arrested again and his friends engineer yet another escape. This time they take him from a train while he’s being transported to a jail in another town. Honorable man that he is, Mead eventually agrees to turn himself in and face charges if the body of Will Whittaker is ever found. When a search in the White Sands turns up a body, Mead is true to his word. He’s once more behind bars.

But not for long. While under escort to court on the day of the trial, he joins the frantic search for a lost child who has wandered off into the surrounding desert. He and the child’s sister find the boy, near death, and the often-feuding community is joined now in their support of him as he returns to trial. Talk of lynching is forgotten, and while apparently guilty of murder, it looks like he might get off with a prison sentence.

All is not over, however. Nick Ellhorn, one of the three “musketeers” returns from a trip to Mexico with convincing evidence of Mead’s innocence. And a tentative romance between Mead and a young lass, Marguerite, blossoms into matrimony.

Mead and the stampede in the storm
Themes. Though early in the development of what’s come to be known as the traditional western, Kelly’s novel has many of its elements and much of its spirit. The camaraderie of the three friends, their adventuring, and expert gunplay look forward to the Bar-20 novels of Clarence Mulford.

The friendship between the three central characters may be what male-bonding looks like to females. There’s a depth of devotion and loyalty in the portrayal that verges on the irrational. Of the three, Nick Ellhorn is arguably a clear case of arrested adolescence. When his buddy Tom Tuttle is held captive for a night by two men he encounters in the desert, Nick impulsively chases after them and doesn’t stop until he gets shot in the arm during an exchange of gunfire.

Later, he will open fire on Whittaker’s men when they follow Mead to arrest him. And when he sees Mead being taken prisoner, he gets weepy and emotional. That anything should come between the three men is more than he can bear. Both he and Tuttle assume that the three friends will never marry, and when Mead finally does, there’s a risk that Nick will go off on another of his benders.

Nick and Tom find a dying prospector
These, as his two friends know, often get him into trouble. On one of them during the novel, he assaults a Chinaman and Americanizes him by cutting off his queue. That incident costs Nick jail time and a hefty fine.

With Hoops of Steel is also an early example of a novel set in the desert Southwest. Kelly’s often comic treatment of small town politics would have found comparison with Alfred Henry Lewis’ stories of Wolfville, his fictional stand-in for Tombstone, Arizona. But she also has a flair for life-and-death drama, as when a character nearly dies in the desert from dehydration. There’s also room for a little romance

Romance. Nick Ellhorn and Tom Tuttle, we learn, have had many “sweethearts,” as they call them. These are, we gather, not romantic affairs. Their friend Mead, perhaps because of distant New England roots, has a more reserved attitude toward women. He is drawn to Marguerite Delarue, a pretty young thing, whose heart skips a beat in his presence.

But the flames of romance never quite catch, as he is too hopelessly shy to court her. He can be no more direct in his affections than to take her young brother for rides on his horse. Inexperienced in matters of the heart, she assumes the man does not care for her.

Wellesley lost in the desert
Another man also takes notice of her. Wellesley is a promising young commercial and financial wizard, a smooth operator from Denver, who is in the employ of Whittaker. He confidently considers himself a good match for any woman and coldly calculates that marriage to Marguerite would be in his best interests. Loyal to him and easy to manipulate, she wouldn’t get in his way.

Ironically, it is Wellesley who nearly dies in the desert and Mead and his two friends who save him. Neither man knows of the other’s interest in Marguerite, until Mead hears rumors started in town that she and Wellesley plan to marry. Meanwhile, her father, a Frenchman and therefore knowledgeable in such matters, counsels her not to believe the word of a man who speaks easily of love. The one to trust is the man whose romantic feelings leave him tongue-tied.

It’s only in the final chapters that Mead is able to let the whispered words “I love you” escape his lips. Standing fortunately within earshot, Marguerite understands by the feelings that suddenly swell in her breast that this is the man for her. Wellesley can go hang.

Wrapping up. Florence Finch Kelly (1858-1939) grew up on farms in Illinois and Kansas and attended the University of Kansas. A journalist, she wrote for newspapers in Massachusetts, California, and New Mexico and was for three decades a writer for the Book Review section of The New York Times. Her first novel, With Hoops of Steel is said to have been based on an actual murder. It was made into a feature-length film in 1918.

Edward T. James ed., Notable American Women: A Biographical Dictionary

Image credits: Illustrations by Dan Smith (1865-1934)

Coming up:  Robert Ryan, The Day of the Outlaw (1959)


  1. Shakespere sure has generated a lot of titles. This one I wouldn't have recognized. I have long intended to write a tale entitled "We mourn in Black. Why mourn we not in blood?"

    1. I'm wondering if it was common back in the day of memorizing Shakespeare and other poets in schools to learn that whole Polonius speech.

  2. I have my first full western story tomorrow on Cullen's site. It's been done for a good while but until that site came along I didnt't know where to send it.
    Shakespeare sure had. It's always amazing when you find yet another title that came from a play or sonnet.

    1. Patti, that's good news. Looking forward to reading your story; having read your other work, I'm really interested in what you do with the genre. Unless Cullen changes his mind, I should have one coming up there soon, too.

  3. Yeah! We had to learn by rote, at least one of ol`" Willy Wagglesticks" speeches! I always got it wrong.

    But sure enough, Polonius speech seemed to stick, at least some of it did!!

    1. I thought so. What I don't know for sure is whether Shakespeare meant us to take Polonius seriously.

  4. I love titles that borrow from the classics. Great review, Ron. And I'm excited to read Patti's story.