Nebraska does not have a lot of homegrown writers, but you can certainly add western-writer John Reese (1910-1981) to the list. Born in Sweetwater, on the fringe of the Sandhills, he knew frontier old-timers who remembered the 1880s and 1890s. The oldest of six children, he described his father as a horse breaker and former cavalryman. His mother was the daughter of a blacksmith and woodworker.
Sweetwater is a wide spot in the road in north Buffalo County, in central Nebraska. It’s on Highway 2, next to the Burlington Railroad line, which today hauls coal from strip mines in Wyoming. Nearly as remote a place on earth as my own humbly rural origins some 50 miles to the east, it gives me a particular feeling of kinship with the man.
Reese was a prolific writer and a good one. He produced hundreds of stories that were published in pulps and slicks, including The Saturday Evening Post, plus numerous novels, mostly westerns. His widely praised and wonderfully named Jesus on Horseback trilogy dates from 1971, and he also produced the long-running Jefferson Hewitt series (1973-1980).
|Farmstead, Buffalo County, Nebraska, 1903|
Plot. Halter-Broke is a short novel that is cleverly constructed of different kinds of plot elements and an ensemble of characters. Rather than a central plot, it closely interweaves the threads of several stories, so that as a reader you’re always a little unsure how the pieces are going to come together. But come together they do in a way that’s both darkly comic and leavened with sentiment.
Reese’s familiarity with rural western attitudes and people, his knowledge of horses, and the sparks that flare up between the genders combine here in a perfectly believable way. Add to that the mechanics of well-digging, and you know we’re in the hands of a writer with his boots on the ground.
There’s also a playful kind of bait and switch with readers’ expectations as characters you don’t immediately warm to turn out to be OK after all. They don’t change or redeem themselves. By the end of the novel, you just get around to seeing things their way.
|Bridge over Mud Creek, Sweetwater, Nebraska, built 1909|
Character. The central character in this case is Alec Pitman, a well-to-do rancher, kind of a hardass and plain spoken, who has worked himself to the bone over the years. He’s unmarried, thirty-something, and has the worn look of a much older man. Oh, yes, he’s under the thumb of his domineering mother, who can’t abide the one woman he cares for, a young widow, Mrs. Butterworth, who owns a neighboring ranch.
Actually, “cares for” doesn’t quite describe his interest in her. He wants her ranch, too. And he isn’t so much sweet on her as he'd like to involve her in some good old-fashioned lovemaking. These feelings are further complicated by his rivalry with another rancher, a maybe shady guy who is courting her by digging a new well at her ranch.
That’s only one thread, and mixed together with it is Pitman’s foreman who’s a few bricks shy of a load, a runaway boy who has “walked down” a horse, two villains who have brutally murdered a local blacksmith and his wife, an old-timer living in fear of a younger partner with plans to take his ranch away from him, a doctor/coroner, and a played-out sheriff.
|John Henry Reese|
Wrapping up. If there isn’t a John Reese cult, there should be. The guy understands the western and puts a spin on it that’s full of surprises and poker-faced amusement. In the midst of the comic world he creates there is bloodshed and some nasty violence. The mix shows a wryly-entertaining intelligence at work. I intend to read more of his work and will review it here.
Reese’s novels are out of print and used copies can be found at amazon, Barnes&Noble, and AbeBooks. Several titles are available online at OpenLibrary.
Author’s photo, goodreads.com
Sweetwater bridge, fhwa.dot.gov
Farm family, loc.gov
Coming up: Audie Murphy, 6 Black Horses (1962)