Thursday, May 3, 2012

Grace MacGowan Cooke and Alice MacGowan, Aunt Huldah (1904)

Aunt Huldah
This novel, set in West Texas, first published simply as Huldah, has the imposing subtitle, Proprietor of the Wagon-Tire House and Genial Philosopher of the Cattle Country. It was an early collaboration of two sisters, born in Michigan and growing up in Chattanooga, Tennessee.

The novel is what some would call a domestic western, having chiefly to do with the lives of women and children. The Aunt Huldah of the title is a benevolent older woman with a heart of gold. Humor and looking on the bright side keep her going, while she provides a home for a brood of abandoned waifs and other unattached women.

Plot. The novel is a series of episodes, strung loosely together as Huldah takes up management of a small hotel in a West Texas town called Blowout. Besides serving up three meals a day, she looks after the many children, with the help of a woman from Georgia in search of a husband who came West and is feared dead.

A young woman joins them, distraught and hysterical after witnessing a scene of violence and bloodshed at her father’s ranch. The local sheriff takes a romantic interest in her, but marriage, alas, is elusive as long as the otherwise honorable young man continues to run the town’s saloon.

An invitation to Thanksgiving dinner gets Huldah and her crew into a tight spot as they’re taken prisoners by a half-breed squaw brandishing a knife. When a circus comes to town, she is successful in helping a love-stricken cowboy elope with the highwire-walking daughter of the circus owner.

A sheriff in the kitchen
Town and ranch folk are entertained by a program of songs and dramatics put on by the schoolchildren. A sheriff from another county shows up in search of a wanted man, who turns out to be a local rancher and the long, lost husband of the woman from Georgia.

And so it goes. When the end comes, the wants and needs of its various characters are resolved. A sad girl, who has taken to mothering an abandoned baby, finds a home as a companion to the kindly widow of a well-to-do rancher. A father returns to reclaim his abandoned son. And the sheriff wins the hand of the young woman he loves—but only after he has given up running the saloon.

Women. If Huldah wouldn’t be offended by such language, you could say she’s a helluva woman. While others may grow weary, irritable, and despairing, she soldiers on, endlessly patient and positive. Once married herself and widowed for many years, she’s queen of her domain, mother hen and tireless caregiver.

Her philosophy is simply that there are no bad people in the world. Bad behavior comes from falling under bad influences. Raising the “orphant” boys under her charge, she refuses to find fault with them when they misbehave. Punishment only makes a boy bitter and rebellious, and what’s the good of that? Tender mothering brings them around.

A hotel guest loses his pants
Men themselves are overgrown boys, and she handles them with the same persistent good will. When a cowboy refuses to pay his dollar for a night’s stay in her hotel, she takes his pants and says he can have them back when he’s ready to pay. To save a man from a lynching, she puts him in a dress and a bonnet and sets him to work peeling potatoes in the kitchen.

Is it a western? It has cowboys, sheriffs and posses, gunplay, and a dusty West Texas town with a saloon. But these elements are present only as they happen to bump up against that part of the West that women and children inhabit. Though they may be marriage material, husbands, or fathers, men are still visitors in that world.

The novel offers a thick slice of western social history. The “school exhibition” is introduced as a “western” institution, and the authors provide a detailed account of the creative process that goes into putting the program together. The circus, though a shabby affair, is another highlight of the yearly calendar that gets an animated description.

Though all ends more or less happily, it’s still the West with high-risk dangers aplenty. A man is easily hanged for a crime he didn’t commit. Lives are lost to drink and crime-related gun violence. Children are abandoned; spouses disappear. It takes an upbeat, tolerant attitude to keep the worst of it from getting a person down.

Alice MacGowan, 1902
Wrapping up. Alice MacGowan, the older of the two sisters, must have been a pistol. In Who’s Who, she was credited with riding alone for two months in 1890 through North Carolina and Tennessee gathering literary material. She then lived and worked for a time in Texas, before appearing in New York in 1902.

In that year, Book Buyer noted that her series of articles about Texas was being published in a number of Sunday newspapers. In press, at the time, was an autobiographical novel, The Last Word, whose heroine has a soft spot for Texas cowboys.

Grace MacGowan Cooke seems to have become the more published of the two sisters. FictionMag index lists over 60 titles for her, compared to half that for Alice. Both produced a good many novels, and their work seems only partly collaborative. In later years, Alice and Grace settled for a while at the seaside artists’ colony in Carmel, California, with the likes of Jack London, Robinson Jeffers, Mary Austin, and Frederick R. Bechdolt.

Aunt Huldah is currently available at google books and Internet Archive, and for the nook. For more of Friday’s Forgotten Books, click over to Patti Abbott’s blog pattinase.

Image credits: Book illustrations by Fanny Young Cory (1877-1972)

Coming up: James Reasoner, Texas Rangers


  1. You've made me aware of some of these types of books that I would never have known existed. One can tell you're an educator!

  2. Thanks for the overview, Ron. This probably one I would have overlooked. I really like the illustrations. Not familiar with the artist. I'll need to look her up. Interesting to see a female artist on this domestic drama, at a time when mostly men cornered the book-illustration market.

    1. The illustrator is a little pistol of a woman from Montana who got her career going in New York and then returned to Montana, where she continued to work and lived into her 90s.

  3. I have downloaded this to read later. I appreciate the number of Westerns you have featured written by or about women. Adds another layer to the tapestry that was the American west.

    1. By my count, Shay, fully a third of writers of western fiction in the years 1880-1905 were women. I haven't finished my research, but male writers seem to have begun crowding them out after that.