Monday, October 1, 2012

Jane Candia Coleman, Moving On

Writers of western fiction owe it to themselves to read this fine collection of short stories. There are lessons in it to be learned about characterization, pacing, and narrative voice. All are so strong that reading them is like being sucked in by an undertow.

Coleman's stories are all set in the West—some of them 150 years ago, some more recent. They concern human experience so elemental that they could take place anywhere, but not in quite the same way. Coleman taps into an experience of the West that has to do with its isolation and what that isolation does to people.

Isolation and loneliness. Many of her central characters are women. They deal with being both geographically isolated but having to live in a world where the social order is dominated by those with physical strength. And that fact makes it a world more suited to men than women.

Tejon Pass, California, 1868
So in “A Small War in Lincoln County,” a young Mexican bride sees her white husband killed by a sociopathic family on a murderous rampage. Stricken with grief, she assumes the toughness and identity of a man to avenge her dearly loved husband’s death. In “Are You Coming Back, Phin Montana?” a woman stifles every softly feminine impulse in a stoic surrender to a disappointed teenage love.

The title story “Moving On,” tells of a young woman abandoned by her family, who takes up with a traveling peddler. When he becomes ill, she keeps them both alive through a bitter winter, discovering along the way that she’s become “supple and tough as a sapling.”

The loneliness of isolation is a theme that runs through most of the stories. It is linked to the stark beauty of the land. Of the woman in "Moving On" she writes,

She had only herself to talk to, only her own questions that she could not answer. Was the whole country empty? Where were the people? She had seen only the rabbits she shot, and antelope, and once a herd of buffaloes like a dark river passing over the land. And there were always a few small birds buffeted by the wind that never stopped, that sang in her ears like the deepest notes of a fiddle, dark and mournful.

Coleman's characters steel themselves to their loneliness. What can’t be cured must be endured.

Western white pine
Narration. Coleman is especially skilled at first-person narration, which in other hands can get awkward because interesting characters don't always make good storytellers. They want the reader to like them and thus dilute the energy that needs to be in the narrative to hold our interest.

There’s a sharp edge to her first-person stories because her characters don’t care whether you like them or not. They are unembarrassed by themselves. Warts and all are what you get. Take it or leave it. The narrator of “Belle Starr’s Race Mare” starts out this way:

The world’s full of fools, and most of ’em own horses. That’s good luck for me because I was born with an eye for a horse, and what I haven’t learned about horse trading isn’t worth knowing.

The vulnerability belied by that boast makes the character immediately real and three-dimensional.

Snow Capped Mountains, Albert Bierstadt (1830-1902)
Romance. When it appears in this context, romance is often moving because it’s so down to earth. First of all, it comes as a surprise, sneaking up on a character without warning. In “Home,” a ranch wife’s friendship with a schoolteacher in town awakens in her a yearning for what she has missed in her lifeless marriage.

Second, the man who comes to love her is no lean, muscular, handsome cowboy with smoldering steel-gray eyes. He’s a big man, she merely observes, “capable looking, as if he knew his strengths and limitations through experience.” What she notices about his eyes is that they “were watching her kindly, without threat.”

Sex, when it happens, makes the earth move, sure enough, but it grows more from a surrender to this tenderness than to carnal desire. Her new lover lying naked beside her, she notices of all things “the hair on his groin.” It was, Coleman writes in the closing paragraph,

like the innocent curling of a child’s hair, and the sight of it moved her, cracked her heart, as if she, with her strong hands and quicksilver moments were all that stood between him and chaos, the nighttime of despair. And in that discovery was something awful, as if she no longer had a will but was governed by need, and that need was not even hers but his and every woman’s who had ever loved.

Vulnerability and strength meet there in the same paragraph. And they bridge the gap between the idealized worlds of the traditional western and the western romance. Coleman isn’t the only writer who has done it, but she’s way up there with the best of them. She shows where a rejuvenated interest in the western can take us, both as writers and as readers.

Jane Candia Coleman
Moving On, first published in 1997, collects stories that first appeared in several publications, including Louis L’Amour Western Magazine. It was nominated for a Pulitzer Prize, and Coleman has received numerous awards. Fantastic Fiction has a short bio and a list of her published works. Her books are available at amazon and AbeBooks.

Photo credits: 
Wikimedia Commons
Author's photo, New Mexico Culture Net 

Coming up: Randolph Scott, The Nevadan (1950)


  1. I have been a huge fan of hers since those Louis L'Amour Magazine Days, and snapped this volume up as soon as it was released in 1997. It holds a place of honor on my shelf, with short story collections by Dorothy Johnson, Elmore Leonard, and others. I found "Are You Coming Back, Phin Montana?" especially powerful when I first read it in the mid-90s, and it still resonates with me years later.

  2. Wow, never heard of her but will take your advice to heart. Off to see what I can find.

  3. Jane Candia Coleman's "Doc Holliday's Woman" impressed me so, that I was compelled to seek her endorsement of my 2008 historical "Hearts on the Wind." Mine was a midwestern romance, a humble literary contribution compared to her literary achievement. Surprisingly, she jumped at the request and I am still honored! The short story form was my first love. I must find a copy of "Moving On!" Leslee Breene

  4. This sounds like a great collection, by one of the most gifted of all western writers, past, present, and future. I've always admired her narrative fiction, and her poetry.

  5. Love Jane's openness and spirit. Wonderful to have her as a mentor. The connection between loneliness and living is fabulous.

  6. I like reading about the lives of women in the West. In spite of being central to a story, they're often hidden behind some of the main characters in western fiction. It's nice to know that authors like Jane Candia Coleman are writing about women from a woman's point of view. Their stories need to be told and read. Ron, thanks very much for initiating me into Coleman's work.