Friday, November 2, 2012

Richard S. Wheeler, Yancey’s Jackpot

Review and interview

This novel won a Spur Award in 2005, and if the title doesn’t ring a bell, it went at that time under the name Vengeance Valley, which Wheeler has said was not his first choice. There’s little in the way of vengeance in this mining camp story and a great deal more about a lot of other kinds of human motives. There’s also no valley. Republishing the novel as an e-book, Wheeler had the opportunity to restore his original title and seized it—one might say with a vengeance.

Plot. There’s a lot to like about this story of greed for gold. The most compelling character is arguably the villain, Alfred Noble, a man without an ounce of nobility. On a technicality of the law, he is able to claim the gold strike of the novel’s title character, Will “Hard Luck” Yancey. Now kingpin of a mining syndicate, with capital from investors back East, Noble has taken over the entire town, lock stock and barrel.

Mining camp, Nevada, 1871
The only chunk of property he can’t claim as his own is a spring-fed patch deeded to a handful of nuns, who operate a small hospital. The hospital is run by a stalwart nun, Sister Carmela. Given the hazards of working in Noble’s mines, the beds there are usually full.

Broke and feeling more than a little lonely, Yancey has managed to hang onto his self-respect. While he has plenty of cause to take vengeance on Noble, who is now filthy rich, he remains philosophical. Despite what he has witnessed of the ruthlessness of the West, he is determined to remain an honorable man.

Fortunes, it turns out, are about to be reversed in chapter one as Yancey discovers a seam of gold running directly under the hospital. When he learns of it, Noble uses every trick in the book to oust the sisters from their property. Eventually, he simply seizes possession and throws them out, patients and all.

The one thing more precious than gold in the camp is water, and the sisters’ spring has been the only source of it for the whole camp. As Noble dynamites his way under the hospital, he disturbs the underground water flow, and without warning he finds himself and his enterprise confronting problems he never expected.

Miners, San Juan County, Colorado, 1875
Character. Wheeler draws a likeable and admirable character in Yancey, and for romantic interest, there is Adelaide Kearny, proprietor of a saloon. A young widow, she has become stranded in the West, barely making ends meet. Yancey’s tender affection for her deepens the yearning for companionship that haunts him.

Yancey’s strength as a character doesn’t materialize in action, as one expects in a standard western. He uses his intelligence and knowledge of geology and mineralogy to outsmart Noble. But he is powerless against the man’s relentless efforts to take advantage. With the town constable and the town banker in his pocket, he can run Yancey out of town if he wants. And he does.

The tougher nut for Noble to crack is Sister Carmela, who will not be cowed by him. She refuses to do his bidding or yield to his threats. He has to take the hospital from her by force. Her fearless faith in her calling and her physical stamina keep her going. She’s a memorable presence among the several threads of the story.

Two other characters deserve mention. Though both of them are physically disabled, they command readers’ respect for being tireless supporters of the sisters. There’s Rufus Borden, a doctor whose work is sometimes interrupted by grand mal seizures. And there’s Slow Eddie, whose head injury in a mining accident has affected his ability to converse freely.

Mining camp, Arizona, 1909
Themes. The matter of disability, in fact, is an underlying theme in the entire novel. How does a person resist despair when dealt an irreversible blow? When a miner is brought to the hospital having lost the use of his arm in an accident, Borden sees him at a decision point:

The mines mangled men and spit them out, and now Manx was another. But Doc had seen men make new lives out of what was left of them. And he had seen others who didn’t try, or want to try, and who sunk into bitterness.

Many of the central characters face insurmountable odds, seeming to lose everything but their own will to carry on. Call it grit or character or faith or moral fiber, they don’t give up. And among them all is a degree of selflessness that still puts the needs of others before their own.

In this regard, Noble is the foil to them all. Facing his ruin when the wheel of fortune suddenly turns, he remains his own worst self. Cold and heartless, though always with a smile, he tries to preserve his wealth at novel’s end with actions that are nakedly chilling.

Read in the company of mining camp stories from the turn of the last century, this novel shows some interesting ways that the genre has evolved. The harsh working conditions for miners are far more prominent, and there’s less respect for the get-rich-quick ethic we find in those earlier stories. Noble, like Hearst in the HBO series Deadwood, is a greedy and unscrupulous s.o.b.

Most curious to me was the realization that I’d not come across nuns before in reading early western fiction. Sister Carmela is true to type, as the hard-nosed bride of Christ we know from movies and TV, but religious folk in early westerns are typically Protestant. The nun as a stock character in popular fiction seems to have emerged sometime since Owen Wister.

Mining camp, Arizona, 1909
Wrapping up. Wheeler shows again with this novel that he is adept at telling stories that grip the imagination while using a western setting to explore ideas and values. The characters that come to life on these pages are genuine, and the portrayal of the West is a corrective to romantic notions that want to see it idealized.

It’s also an interesting take on violence that doesn’t feature gun duels and shootouts. The damage that Noble does to the people of the town, his total betrayal of public trust, his crassly callous disregard for the welfare of others wound and kill as thoroughly as any firearms.

And in the final pages, the vengeance taken on him is self-inflicted, though he does not yet know it. He walks away, free and clear of the financial disaster he sees coming. But he will eat his heart out when he discovers how he has been outwitted and outmaneuvered by Yancey. And that’s vengeance enough.

Yancey’s Jackpot and many of Richard Wheeler’s books are currently available at amazon, Barnes&Noble, and for kindle and the nook. You can visit his website here.

Richard S. Wheeler
Richard Wheeler has generously agreed to spend some time here at BITS to talk about writing and the writing of Yancey’s Jackpot. I’m pleased to turn the rest of this page over to him.

Richard, how did the idea for this novel suggest itself to you?
In researching Virginia City, Montana, I discovered that nuns, the Sisters of Charity of Leavenworth, operated a small hospital for miners, and had similar hospitals in several mining towns, thus filling a need.

Few mining towns offered any significant medical help to miners. It dawned on me that there might be a great story if the sisters’ hospital happened to be sitting on a bonanza lode. Thus the story was born.

Was the published version similar to how you first conceived it or somewhat different?
Pinnacle published it as it was written, except for the title. At that time, the publisher was hoping to bolster western sales by employing titles the evoked classic 1940s and 50s stories. Vengeance Valley had been used several times and had that classical western quality about it.

Unfortunately, it badly missed the mark, so much so that some reviewers were caustic about it. The company graciously reverted the title to me, enabling me to publish it under my original title.

Talk a bit about editing and revising this novel. After completing a first draft, did it go through any key changes?
When I finish a draft, I try to view the story as a new reader might, and look for things that could confuse or bore a reader. So my revisions are aimed at clarity and movement. I want to state things in ways that avoid confusion.

Elmer Kelton’s prose is more transparent than any other writer I’m familiar with, and I always hoped to reach his level of lucidity. In his case, it goes back to his pulp fiction days.

My other quest, when revising, is for plausibility. I just hate it when a reader says whoa! Just the other day I caught myself writing about bull oxen. If that had gone to print, I’d be drummed out of the company of western writers.

Virginia City, Nevada, c1876
Were you thinking of any previous mining-camp novels or stories while writing this one?
I suppose Ernest Haycox’s Alder Gulch was the portal to frontier mining. That was deepened by Mark Twain’s mining yarns, and Bret Harte’s great gold rush stories. But actually, it was a lot of nonfiction books, mostly histories of mining towns, that filled me with the belief that these were stories begging to be told.

I have a wide shelf devoted to mining nonfiction, including many technical books. There’s an amazing bookstore in Virginia City, Nevada, that loaded me up with fabulous books. A memoir, Deep Enough, by Frank Crampton, handed me one of my most powerful storylines in Goldfield.

Was there anything about this story that surprised you in the writing of it?
Yes, its resolution, or ending. I did not know how the story would end. But the ending leapt to mind one day as I pondered Yancey’s shrewd grasp of geology. He finds the magical, almost mystical, key to success and redemption, one that is deeply satisfying and just.

After more than a half-dozen years since its first publication, would you write this novel any differently today?
I would recast Yancey now. I wanted to portray a man whose gift was professional knowledge, in this case, of mineralogy and geology; a man who came west without any skill with firearms, a man very like the farmers and accountants and surveyors who flooded into dangerous country more or less unarmed, and in any case, hesitant to use arms. I think now I would have given Yancey a little more gravelly and rough personality.

Bodie, California, 1972
The word “jackpot” has numerous meanings. What was your thinking in choosing it for the novel’s title?
The good earth offers us many jackpots. In mining towns, these are often precious metals, but many western fortunes involved other things, such as grass or water or common minerals or rights of way or beef. There is another sort of jackpot, too. Yancey gets his girl. I like to think of jackpots as big payoffs to thoughtful ventures.

What sort of research went into the writing of this novel?
In addition to my large collection of mining histories, which I have devoured and bookmarked, I explored numerous ghost towns (mostly vanished now) and got a sense of how these amazing places sprang up in sheer wilderness and became bustling cities overnight. There is also wonderful stuff in the Montana Historical Society archives and library. I believe close to half of my seventy-some novels involve frontier mining.

Do you have a feeling for how common was the struggle to overcome disabilities among people living on the frontier?
The early West maimed countless people, both physically and mentally. There was little help for them, so they soldiered on, peg legged prospectors, one-armed cowboys, semi-blind bartenders, lonely madwomen in isolated cabins. They managed because they had to.

Artist: Paul Hoecker, c1900
How would you account for the absence of nuns in the westerns of 100 years ago?
I think most early western stories were romances about manhood, and their authors had spent little time in the actual west and missed the mix people immigrating into it. (I’m thinking of Frederick Faust.)

In fact there were several religious orders operating across the west, some involved with missions to the Indians, others in frontier communities serving their churches. It wasn’t until Tom Eidson’s novel, St. Agnes’ Stand, won a Spur Award in 1995 that I became fully aware of the story potential in this.

That was a superb novel about an outlaw who is drafted to help some sisters and the orphans in their charge fend off some Apaches. Sister St. Agnes turns out to be tougher and feistier than the wandering outlaw.

What has been the most interesting reaction from readers about this novel?
People who were weary of gunfighter stories liked this one. They liked having a hero win the day against dangerous adversaries without the usual shootout. It also struck people as being more real than stories revolving around gunfights. However, one nun in that order did read it, and my instinct was that she was far from enthused.

For readers who liked this novel, which of your books would you recommend to them next?
Any of my big historical novels dealing with the mining West. These include Cashbox, Sierra, Sun Mountain, Goldfield, and my most recent, The Richest Hill on Earth, about the copper kings of Butte.

What are you reading now?
I just finished Ivan Doig’s great novel, The Bartender’s Tale, set in Montana in the 1960s.

Who are some past writers of the American West that deserve a wider audience today?
Certainly A. B. Guthrie, Jr. Maybe Dan Cushman (I’m enjoying Stay Away, Joe just now). Frederick Manfred (especially Lord Grizzly).

You have been republishing your earlier fiction as e-books. How has that been working?
Fairly well. These have been supplying me with a little old-age income, which is valuable to me. I’m glad I pursued reversions when it was possible to do so; now, of course, publishers hang on to a book forever, converting it to electronic publication when the print run dies away. So, yes, these dead books are alive again at Amazon and Barnes and Noble.

What can readers expect from you next?
I’m without contracts now, but I did write a western called Easy Street and self-published it. It’s about a rich man’s son sent into the West by his father to make a man of him.

Anything we didn’t cover you’d like to comment on?
Yes. I want to tell you how much I enjoy and admire your superb blog, which is a great addition to our understanding of western literature, including scores of early titles I never heard of. I hope you will gather this material and publish it in collections. I think a lot of academics in the field would welcome these works.

Thanks, Richard. Your generous comments are much appreciated.

Image credits: Wikimedia Commons

Coming up: Saturday music, Ricky Nelson


  1. I have this one under that abominable title. I wish I had a book with it under it's correct one. Enjoyed it very much by the way.

    1. Randy, I believe the new edition is available only as an e-book.

  2. Replies
    1. Thanks, Troy. Ask Richard a question and you learn a lot.

  3. Ron, thank you very much for an excellent review of YANCEY'S JACKPOT and the interview with Mr. Wheeler. I haven't read any of Mr. Wheeler's novels yet but his writings over at his blog have been a revelation for me, especially his views on early and modern westerns, the comparison between the "character-driven stories" of the past and the "new, violent Western story" of today. Mr. Wheeler has a rare mastery over the genre of Western fiction as it should be and it reflects in this particular novel, as I'm sure it does in all his books. I'd like to think of Mr. Wheeler as a writer of gentle westerns.

    1. Thanks, Prashant. Richard has also written genre westerns as well. I have not sampled them and am drawn more to his historical fiction.

    2. Ron, I'm looking forward to ordering Kindle editions of some of Mr. Wheeler's novels, including westerns, from Amazon.

  4. I have this under the original title.

  5. For more about Richard Wheeler I recommend his autobiography, ACCIDENTAL NOVELIST. It's of great interest and value though I do think he is too tough on himself as far as the literary quality of his fiction.

    1. I intend to read the autobio one of these days. In the meantime, more of his fiction calls out to me.

  6. Thanks for this review--this is a must read for I have done a lot of research and some writing in the role church and religion played in the mining camps. There was also such a hospital in Virginia City Nevada, run by Catholic nuns. The first Catholic priest in Nevada (Patrick Manogue) would be an interesting character to explore. There is at least one book out on him ("The Miner was a Bishop" by William Breault, SJ). Manogue started in the California Gold Rush, then returned to France to study for the priesthood and came back to Nevada as the Comstock was just beginning. He later became a bishop. Another book from a woman's POV is Mary McNair Matthews, "Ten Years in Nevada" which was written by a woman who spent a decade in Nevada--mostly during the 1870s when the Comstock was booming.

    Thanks for this review and Richard is right, you blog is a wonderful gift to those of us interested in the west.

    1. Thanks, Sage, for the long and thoughtful comment. Religion figures often in novels about the West 100 years ago. It has become more trivialized these days in some respects.

  7. Great interview and I second the remark about your blog. I don't recall reading anything by Mr. Wheeler, but will be in the future.

    1. Thanks, Oscar. Wheeler has written dozens of western novels of different kinds. Much to choose from.