Saturday, March 31, 2012

Saturday music: Billy Currington

Great easy-going live performance of this delightful story song. Always makes me grin.

Western writer inspiration, no. 30

Time for another omnibus of the week's #westernwriter inspirations posted each day at twitter, where you can follow me if your attention isn't already overloaded @rdscheer. As usual, click a pic to enlarge it.

San Luis Obispo, California, 1876
Miners of the North Star and Mountaineer lodes, Colorado, 1875
Freight wagon and ox team, Topeka, Kansas, c1870
Black Canyon on the Colorado River, Nevada, 1871
A general view of the Laguna Pueblo, New Mexico, 1879
Hunting party, Indian Territory (Oklahoma), 1870s; photo by William S. Soule
Deadwood, from Frank Leslie's Illustrated Newspaper, September 8, 1877

Photo credits: Wikimedia Commons

Coming up: Jack Palance, The Lonely Man (1957)

Friday, March 30, 2012

Photo-finish Friday: desert sunset

Something for a change of pace from LA. I snapped this photo at sunset recently while returning from a walk in the desert near where I live in the Coachella Valley.

Photo-finish Friday is the bright idea of Leah Utas over at the Goat's Lunchpail.

Coming up: Jack Palance, The Lonely Man (1957)

Thursday, March 29, 2012

Paul Leicester Ford, The Great K&A Train Robbery (1897)

This is a breezy short novel for turn-of-the-century railroad fans. It makes it onto the BITS list of early westerns for taking place in Old Arizona and involving a bunch of lynch-happy cowboys. It also happens to be a romantic comedy.

Plot. Dick Gordon, our young narrator, is a superintendent on the K&A, a railroad line that runs from Kansas to Arizona. It connects two other lines, the Missouri Western and the Great Southern. These are each owned and operated by mighty railroad barons, and each of them has members on the K&A board of directors.

It is 1890. The Great Southern (no doubt a fictionalized version of Leland Stanford’s transportation empire in California) is attempting a coup at the next board meeting. Thus three registered letters en route to that meeting in a K&A mail car become key elements in the plot.

Traveling on the same train is Dick Gordon. He is four years out of a mechanical engineering program with not much to show for his Yale education but a memorable career on the football field. He’s accompanying a party that includes an executive officer of the Missouri Western by the name of Cullen, his Oxford-educated son, and two of his aristocratic school chums.

Dick Gordon roped by cowboys
Along for the ride is the delightful Madge, Cullen’s charming daughter, who instantly steals away the heart of our Dick. She is, alas, out of his league. Besides his lowly position on the company’s organizational flow chart, Dick has a rival in the form of her brother's college friend, Lord Ralles, who has taken a proprietary interest in her.

Briefly, and not to give too much away, the train is stopped and robbed in a remote stretch of Arizona desert, and the three letters in question are taken. More mysteriously, the train robbers have taken nothing else, and they’ve left no sign of their coming or going in the desert sands surrounding the stopped train.

There follows a series of incidents in which the stolen letters get Dick Gordon into a heap of trouble. Pursued at one point by the aforementioned lynch-happy cowboys, he is eventually rescued by the cavalry, who after some delay arrive to save the day.

Romance. It will come as no great surprise that Dick Gordon finally wins the hand of Madge. The social distance between them fails to prevent her from finding him a suitable mate. Grateful for Dick’s efforts to keep the K&A out of the hands of the Great Southern, Cullen even sees to it that the young man does good.

Ford fleshes out an otherwise slim plot with a full-blown account of his young hero’s romantic aspirations and frustrations. We are there for every turn of his often-agonized emotions and each and every detail of his moments either with Madge or thinking about her.

Grand Canyon train station
Cowboys. Ford’s cowboys have their own stereotypical lingo. Asked if he is carrying a weapon, one responds, “Do I chaw terbaccy?” Threatening another man, one calls him a “stinkin’ coyote” and tells him to stay put “or I’ll blow yer so full of lead that yer couldn’t float in Salt Lake.”

In a word, they are ungovernable. They are drinkers, eager to accept a wild rumor as fact, and quick to rush a suspected wrongdoer to justice. While in the saloons, they are entertained by a “medley of cracked pianos or accordions.” Then when they overhear Madge playing a guitar and singing on the platform of the Cullens’ special car, they gather around and, “not being over-careful in the terms with which they expressed their approval, finally by their riotous admiration drove us inside.”

The Sunset Express at Yuma, Arizona
Villainy. The chief villain of the novel is Theodore Camp of the Great Southern, who is fighting for control of the K&A line, using any underhanded means available to him. When Dick Gordon refuses to cooperate, Camp has him thrown in jail on trumped up charges. Then he tries threatening him and, when that doesn’t work, buying him off.

The unseen organization itself would be the true culprit in the story. The company has a reputation for using hard-knuckle, extra legal methods to crush competitors—buying judges and legislators who will make laws that favor its interests. A reader is reminded of Maria Amparo Ruiz de Burton’s The Squatter and the Don (1885), which paints a similar portrait of the western railroads.

The Great Train Robbery, 1903
Wrapping up. Paul Leicester Ford (1865-1902) was born in Brooklyn, New York, the great-grandson of Noah Webster. An invalid, he was prevented from attending school, and he was largely self-educated, having access to his father’s private library of an estimated 100,000 books.

While he was well known in his time for his bibliographical and historical research and publications, he also wrote novels. Only one of them, The Great K&A Train Robbery, takes place in the West. Its familiarity with railroading may originate in his father’s years as president of the New London, Willimantic, and Palmer Railroad. Ford’s life ended abruptly in the library of his four-story home in Manhattan when he was shot dead by a mentally deranged brother.

The Great K&A Train Robbery was made into a movie in 1926 starring Tom Mix and Tony the Horse. The novel is currently available online at google books and Internet Archive and for the nook. Friday’s Forgotten Books is the bright idea of Patti Abbott over at pattinase.

Source: The New York Times

Image credits:
Illustration from the novel
Wikimedia Commons

Coming up: Jack Palance, The Lonely Man (1957)

Wednesday, March 28, 2012

Nik Morton, Bullets for a Ballot

Review and interview
Edward Grainger’s Cash Laramie and Gideon Miles “fiction factory” has produced another hard-hitting western. This one from the fevered imagination of Nik Morton, whose extensive writing credits include several Black Horse westerns, crime fiction, and a veritable truckload of short stories. He’s also an illustrator.

Bullets for a Ballot finds Cash Laramie involved with a fierce mayoral election in a Wyoming town. The incumbent is running a negative campaign—so negative that he's hired killers to eliminate his opponent. The man's widow has then taken up her husband’s cause and against all odds is running for office herself.

It’s 1885 in Wyoming Territory, where women have had the vote since 1869 and women’s suffrage is still decades away in the 38 states of the Union. Reasons vary for the early adoption of women’s suffrage in Wyoming. You can bet money that it served both political and business interests. Some no doubt saw it as a way to counter the votes of recently emancipated male African Americans. It may also have been a publicity stunt.

History, however, doesn’t factor into the brutal electoral contest in the backwater town of Bear Pines, a place so out of the way that Cash Laramie has never heard of it. It’s just one wealthy, powerful bad guy with a town in his pocket and wanting to keep it that way. He owns the sheriff, and anybody he doesn’t own he intimidates.

The Triumph of Women's Rights, Currier & Ives, 1869
As the novel’s chief villain, he has to share honors with his wife, a real nasty piece of work. She cheats on her husband, berates him to his face, and amuses herself with kidnapping and molesting minors. We gather that it’s her décolletage being featured on the book’s steamy cover.

As the violence escalates and the body count quickly goes into double digits, Gideon Miles joins Cash to help restore order. Not to be trifled with by two U.S. Marshals, she even lures them into an ambush. The woman is a walking argument for not only rescinding women’s suffrage but putting all of her gender under lock and key.

Nik Morton does a heck of a job weaving a high-stakes story around our favorite federal frontier law enforcers, Cash and Miles. While plenty of lead flies, both bad guys and good guys meet untimely ends. An invalid woman perishes when arsons put the torch to her house. A man suffocates in fresh cement while resisting arrest. I’ll leave it to thick-skinned readers to learn about the torture and unfortunate demise of another character, held captive in a root cellar.

Two bits for Wyoming
One unlucky survivor is tied down with a fire lighted between his legs to encourage a confession. He cooperates but doesn’t last long either, unceremoniously shot from his horse while riding off without benefit of trousers.

Which leaves only the topic of sex undiscussed in this review. On the frontier, we learn, there was time enough between deaths for sexual congress—some consensual, some not. A woman had best be armed in the event of liquored-up and otherwise unwelcome male visitors. If it’s a Cash Laramie novel, she might also find herself in the company of a male who’s downright irresistible. All of which transpires in the book’s opening pages.

Enough said about that. I’ll just add that for readers who like nonstop action of all kinds, Bullets for a Ballot does not disappoint. Nik Morton is a literary pit bull. He knows how to take a reader by the nape of the neck on page one and simply not let go.

Bullets for a Ballot is currently available at amazon for the kindle.

Nik Morton
Nik Morton has generously consented to an interview for BITS about the book and himself as a writer of westerns. So I’m turning the rest of this page over to him.

How was writing Bullets for a Ballot different from other westerns you’ve written?

It was deliberately darker. My last book Blind Justice at Wedlock has dark undertones as the plot is revealed, but Bullets went that extra distance in several respects.

What makes this novel “western” for you besides the fact that it is set in the West?

The characters of Cash and Miles David created are very much from the western myth, even if revisionist. I just had to step into Cash’s boots. The freedom to fight for a decent township against insuperable odds – that’s a classic western theme, I think. 

Would the story be much the same or very different if set in the modern-day West?

People and emotions are the same throughout history. The situations and interactions are often similar, too. Naturally, the environment they find themselves in, the opportunities or lack of same, affect their emotional responses.

I feel that a western gives me the opportunity to write a moral tale – more acceptable to readers of that genre. Modern times tend to be more amoral, as do the fictional characters. Cash wouldn’t have such freedom to mete out rough justice in the modern-day West; that’s some of the character’s appeal.

What was it like working with David Cranmer, the originator and editor of the Cash Laramie series?

I first encountered David’s Cash character when he sent me “Cash Laramie and the Masked Devil” for the anthology A Fistful of Legends. He’d also accepted a couple of my stories for his BTAP webzine. So I was familiar with his style. David’s a generous man, allowing other scribes to write about his own characters. When he asked me to write a Cash novel, I was both pleased and honoured.

He provided a Bible for Cash and Miles – which incidentally must be growing considerably. I did a quick study of Wyoming, Cash’s home ground and once I checked on the dates in the Bible, and assured myself they’d (just) fit to include the women’s vote, I had my theme. Then I wrote a rough story outline, which he okayed. David’s main emphasis was on making the story dark.

How did you settle on the title of the novel?

The subconscious kicked in, I guess. I like playing with words – many of my books’ chapter headings will attest to that, as will several short story titles. Maybe we take for granted the freedom to vote – when in the past it had to be fought for, against prejudice and vested interests. And of course there are plenty of countries even today where a free and relatively fair vote is non-existent.

How has your writing about the American West evolved over the years?

I’ve only been writing westerns for 5 years. From the outset, I relied on research, and that hasn’t changed, though perhaps I now tend to bring in historical events, where before I didn’t.

How much is the actual history of the American West part of your interest in the genre?

Reading non-fiction for research and just for interest inspires any number of stories. My research library will provide me with plenty of material for years to come. I certainly admire the remarkable characters who lived through that period.

Is your writing inspired at all by western movies?

I grew up on a diet of TV western series – favourites being Cheyenne, Have Gun Will Travel, Range Rider, Maverick and Wagon Train. I’m sure they influence my subconscious.

If Bullets for a Ballot were made into a movie, whom would you like to see in the lead roles?

Difficult. Maybe Will Smith as Miles. Cash - maybe Russell Crowe, as he did well in the 3:10 to Yuma remake, as did Christian Bale.

What do you learn from your readers?

Quite a few of my readers have previously never read a western before and I hope that, since they’ve enjoyed my books, I may have converted them to the genre. All feedback is welcome. It’s gratifying when several readers want to be reacquainted with some of my main characters; all those people, still in my head, in stasis, so to speak; maybe a sequel or two will get written one day.

How would you hope to be an influence for other western writers?

By constantly challenging myself and always improving. For example, in Blind Justice at Wedlock, I decided on the hero being blinded at the outset, so he has to experience his world through other senses. I’m also in the throes of writing a book entitled Write a western novel in 30 Days. The subtitle – with plenty of bullet points!

What can readers look for from you next?

Hale publishes Old Guns on 30 April. The tentative title for my next possible Black Horse Western is The Magnificent Mendozas. It’s about a Mexican circus visiting southern Colorado. I have two other westerns in the hazy planning stages. I’ve also started a Private Eye novel, a Victorian detective novel, a pirate novel and the third Tana Standish psychic thriller, though I haven’t decided which one to concentrate on yet.

Anything you would like to add that we didn't cover?

No matter how dramatic the storyline, I try to leave room for some humour. Life’s like that – even if noir, there’s humour in there. Like many an author, I’m drawn to writing about the Old West because it’s a place and time where a man or woman can make a difference. Where justice might not be right, where right might only come from making a moral stand.

Thank you for inviting me, Ron.

Thanks to you, Nik, and every success.

Image credits: Wikimedia Commons

Coming up: Paul Leicester Ford, The Great K&A Train Robbery (1897)

Tuesday, March 27, 2012

Tracker (2010)

I’m calling this a western even though it was shot and takes place in New Zealand. It has most of the elements of a good western—sweeping unpopulated landscapes, guns, horses, immigrants, soldiers, and natives. It’s 1903; the story is of searchers on the trail of a man wanted for murder; there’s plenty of action, and most of it happens outdoors.

Plot. British actor Ray Winstone plays a South African veteran of the Boer War, fetching up in New Zealand and looking to start a new life. An Afrikaner fighting the Brits, he’s lost everything, including wife and daughters.

After an incident involving the accidental death of a British soldier, he volunteers to track down a Maori (Temuera Morrison) believed to have done the killing. He accompanies a small contingent of mounted soldiers until parting company with them and striking off on his own into the heavily forested, rugged terrain.

Eventually, he catches up with the man, only to lose control of him, regain the upper hand, and lose him again. Captured once more, the Maori tells of witnessing the humiliating death by hanging of both his father and grandfather. He is intent on escaping that final indignity for himself.

Glenorchy, New Zealand (CC) Joe Taylor
The search party, with another tracker, catches up with them, and Winstone has begun to feel a bond with this man whose people have also been subdued by the British. In the final scenes he makes a desperate attempt to save him from the gallows.

The film joins a long series of movies about fugitives and pursuers. The Searchers is another that comes to mind, and director Ian Sharp comments in an interview that he had John Ford in mind as he shot this one. 

Wrapping up. Ray Winstone and Temuera Morrison are an excellent pairing. Known in this country for his roles in Once Were Warriors (1994) and Broken English (1996), Morrison is a strong, animated presence on the screen. Which is saying something given Ray Winstone’s thuggish bulk and dark silences.

Viewers craving constant action may find this film a little slow-going, but there is excitement to be had in both the concentrated matching of wits and the sudden surprises. A stunt involving an unexpected plunge from a cliff edge into a swollen river is heart-stopping.

Tracker is currently available at netflix and amazon. Tuesday’s Overlooked Movies is the ongoing and much-appreciated enterprise of Todd Mason over at Sweet Freedom.

Photo credit: Wikimedia Commons

Coming up: Nik Morton, Bullets for a Ballot

Monday, March 26, 2012

Jory Sherman, Shadows of Yesteryear

Review and interview

It was Troy Smith, I think, who recommended this recent collection of short stories by western writer Jory Sherman. Getting my hands on a copy, I found that its enthusiastic introduction was written by another favorite writer, Loren D. Estleman. I did not require a third opinion.

Jory Sherman has his own special touch with short fiction, as is evident in these eleven stories. The first thing you notice is the intensity of the storytelling voice. The situation in each of them is strongly felt, and it comes through in the language.

It was no surprise to learn on his website that he has also published poetry, for he typically uses poetic language to set a scene. By that I don’t just mean that the description is vividly detailed. The flow of his words captures and heightens the drama. You both see and feel.

Here’s a sentence from the first story, with line breaks as if it were a poem:

The stately stalks of yucca,
their blooms arranged
like yellow concho belts
hanging on store pegs,
stood like sentinels
and all about him,
off the road,
the cholla bristled
like exploded muffs of delicate lace,
so beautiful,
yet as lethal to the touch
as surgeons’ scalpels,
so sharp they’d slice through a child’s hand
if any dared to touch.

I could be wrong, but I don’t think you’ll find a sentence quite like that in Louis L’Amour. This one invites the reader to indulge the senses and then to feel a little chill as the “beautiful” and the “lethal” meet side by side.

Jory Sherman
That meeting between the beautiful and the deadly is a theme that runs through all of the stories in the book. Death haunts each of them. Somebody or something dies. And the action in all of them involves the gun as an instrument of death.

Another theme has to do with ideas about fate and destiny. A desperate man is saved from drowning in “Destiny’s Gun” but proves to be such a wife-beating scoundrel that he ends up being shot by the man who saved him. Did saving his life merely postpone an inevitable death?

Finally, another thread that runs through the book is the special regard in which its women characters are held. The men in the stories who have women to love really love them. The women are both strong and vulnerable, and their presence in a man’s life evokes powerful feelings.

A good example is Sherman’s “The Return of Talking Boy,” where Tom Horn tells of his growing affection for Hollie MacGuire. This is how he remembers her:

She smelled of the fragrance of earth and growing things. There were scratches on her arms from the brambles, white streaks on the suntanned skin. Her hair was tied back with a faded ribbon, but the loose strands kept moving over her face, as if caressing her.

When she smiles at him, something inside him melts. But Hollie is married to another man, and Tom’s days are numbered, so what might have been would never be. The emotions in the story ring bittersweet and true, and Sherman allows us to see that his male characters are both strong and vulnerable, too.


Jory Sherman has generously agreed to a short interview to accompany this review, and so I’m turning the rest of this blog page over to him.

The full title of your book is Shadows of Yesteryear: Western Short Stories. What makes these stories “western” for you besides the fact that they are set in the West?
They are set in times and places when the West was sparsely populated and there was all that grandness of mountains and prairie along with towns and settlements which were still struggling to become “civilized.”

The Alamo, Gleason's Pictorial Drawing Room Companion, 1854
Which, if any, of your stories in this collection could have been set in the modern-day West?
Most of them I suppose. The stories are about people and people adapt to their environment. There are still places in the West where life has not changed much despite the encroachment of civilization. And, in many cities today, there are still bank robbers and criminals of every sort, and there are places where men and women must stand their ground against government or corporate tyranny.

How did you settle on the title for the book?
I thought about the long shadows of afternoon and the evening of the West after its shining day was fading in memory.

Looks like your name at the bottom of the cover art. What were some of the choices that went into the cover design for the book?
I did paint the cover of Shadows of Yesteryear with the title of the book in mind. I chose the Alamo as a symbol of death and heroism and painted it with shadows to reflect both the title, and the story that is in the book. So, the cover and the title held a lot of meaning for me.

Using your own well-designed author’s website as an example, what advice do you have for writers wanting to make the most of their own site?
I have had a lot of problems with web designers and webmasters and my website is slowly undergoing changes under an experienced hand who is in the publishing business.

The Alamo, 1860s
I think there is a lot of trust involved in choosing both a web designer and a webmaster, so the beginning writer should either learn to design a website or hire someone who knows books and how to promote them online. I don’t have time to do any of these things, so must rely on others to set up and maintain my website. 

Can you say how this book came to be published by AWOC?
I met Dan Case, the publisher of AWOC at a writer’s conference and liked him. I was just venturing into the ebook market and thought he would be a fine publisher. He’s honest and marketing savvy and so far he has outstripped all my ebook publishers in sales and promotions.

What do you learn from your readers?
Not much. Some readers do not like my style of writing. Others do, but they do not know much about writing. Some readers write letters that praise a book, but just skate over the deeper meanings. Most readers comment on my imagery and tell me they feel as if they are in the scenes. They say they can smell the coffee and taste the blowing dust of the trail.

The Alamo, 1886
How would you hope to be an influence for other western writers?
I do not hope or wish to influence other western writers. Each is an individual with his or her own voice. I do hope to influence beginning writers, though, who are just dipping a tentative toe into the murky waters of writing and publishing.

Let me add that I am influenced by other writers, living and dead, which include A.B. Guthrie, Jr., Jack Schaefer, my great aunt, B.M. Bower, James Joyce, Vladimir Nabokov, Loren D. Estelman, Richard S. Wheeler, James Lee Burke, and many others. I could go on...

What can readers look for from you next?
I think my time as a western writer has passed. I have one more Sidewinder book coming out from Berkley, but the series is not being renewed because of poor sales. That book is Nest of Vipers. And, I have another Ralph Compton book in production at Signet, The Omaha Trail

Next month, The Baron Decision will be published by High Hill Press as both an ebook, a trade paperback and in hardcover. Some of my backlist books will be reborn as ebooks, including those titles I wrote for my Rivers West series at Bantam. I created the series and obtained the rights. I reverted those rights to those writers I hired for the series at Bantam. 

Anything you would like to add that we didn't cover?
No, I think you covered quite a bit of ground and asked good questions. I thank you for your fine and complimentary review of Shadows. I love the short story and am still learning how to write a good one.

Thanks, Jory. It’s been a privilege having you as a guest today at Buddies in the Saddle. Shadows of Yesteryear is currently available in paperback at amazon and Barnes&Noble, and for the kindle.

Image credits: Wikimedia Commons

Coming up: Paul Leicester Ford, The Great K & A Train Robbery (1897)

Saturday, March 24, 2012

Saturday music: Collin Raye

This country song has been around for a dozen years and I never tire of it.

Western writer inspiration, no. 29

Time for another omnibus of the week's #westernwriter inspirations posted each day at twitter, where you can follow me if your attention isn't already overloaded @rdscheer. As usual, click a pic to enlarge it.

Office and sutler store, Round Valley Agency, California, 1876
Morrison, Colorado / Denver, South Park, and Pacific RR, c1878
Rath & Wright's buffalo hide yard, with 40,000 buffalo hides, Dodge City, 1878
Lt. Col. Eugene M. Baker and army officers, Fort Ellis, Montana Territory 1871
Zuni Pueblo, New Mexico, 1879
Arapaho camp, Indian Territory, 1870s; photographer, William S. Soule
Freight Team entering Custer, South Dakota, 1876

Photo credits: Wikimedia Commons

Coming up: Ray Winstone, Tracker (2010)

Friday, March 23, 2012

Photo-finish Friday: men at work

It's 10:00 a.m. on a Wednesday morning, and the waiters at Café Pinot are spreading tablecloths for the al fresco diners who'll be crowding in here for lunch. One is joking to the other that he's learning how to make a bed. This downtown restaurant draws a well-heeled crowd and is next door to the LA Public Library on Fifth Street. For folks unfamiliar with the contraption in the foreground, it's an outdoor space heater.

Coming up: Paul Leicester Ford, The Great K & A Train Robbery (1897)

Thursday, March 22, 2012

Pauline Bradford Mackie, The Voice in the Desert (1903)

The desert Southwest had a strong appeal for early western writers at the turn of the last century, and it seems to have been women writers who discovered it first. Before this one, there was Florence Finch Kelly's With Hoops of Steel (1900) and Gwendolen Overton's The Heritage of Unrest (1901), both reviewed here recently.

The story of the novel could have taken place just about anywhere, except that the desert is so much at the center of everything. It permeates characters almost to the core of their being—theirs souls you could say. It’s there as a physical presence, beautiful and treacherous. In its unblemished purity, it seems also meant as a symbol of womanhood—more specifically the essence of womanhood, untouched by the social conventions of life in the city.

Plot. A young clergyman, Lispenard, and his wife Adele have been living for most of 15 years in the Arizona desert settlement of Sahuaro. They have two boys. While Lispenard is a “missionary” and has a small congregation, he gives much of his time to writing what are apparently books of moral philosophy.

Desert flora, Arizona, 1900
An intellectual and in pursuit of a kind of ethereal spirituality, he is thoroughly happy living a spartan life in the desert. His wife Adele makes do with little and devotes herself to the raising of her two boys. While she continues to love and respect her husband, the magic of young romance has waned, and her practiced selflessness is wearing thin. She wants to be wanted.

The careful balance of their lives, financial and emotional, is upended when an old friend, Jarvis Trent, arrives in town. Trent and Lispenard were once chums, and both were rivals for the hand of Adele. After 15 years, Trent remains unmarried and still carries a torch for her. He’s also become a successful lawyer and has made a pile of money. She wonders whether she made the wrong choice.

So we have a love triangle that quickly turns into a quadrangle with another resident of the town. This one is the daughter of a local high-ranking military officer, now deceased. Also unmarried, she is a friend of the Lispenards and lives nearby in her father’s well-furnished Spanish-colonial house. She has been oddly named after a flowering desert succulent, Yucca.

Spanish-colonial courtyard, 1903
In fact, it’s Trent who makes the quadrangle, as Yucca has long been in love with the clergyman. His caring and tender friendship has transformed her from a simple small-town girl to a woman of some intellectual development. In a word, she worships him. Meanwhile, she remains close friends with Adele, whose feelings toward her are understandably mixed.

Without telling her husband, Adele asks for $500 from Trent and jumps on the next train back East with the two boys. She has family there, and her boys can go to proper schools. Trent returns to his lawyering and doesn't come back until two years later, when he makes an unsuccessful play for Yucca.

Home for the summer holidays, the two boys are caught in a sandstorm while on a walkabout in the desert, and they are lost for two days before they are found. His health apparently compromised by all the stress, Lispenard suffers heart failure on the last pages of the novel and expires.

Diners, 1900
Themes. Never once ignoring the presence of the desert around them, the novel is committed like high-class soap opera to charting the course of her characters' shifting emotions. Mackie is fascinated by all the possible complications in their relationships. You keep thinking of D. H. Lawrence, who wrote of women in love and eventually found the desert Southwest himself. But in 1903, he was years away from writing his first novel.

Realizing the story is about a clergyman and his wife, you expect a certain amount of evangelizing. And if not that, at least a sanctimonious tone. Such is not the case. Hardly an advocate of conventional morality, Lispenard is a real outlier. Religious rituals, he believes, have no meaning in themselves. They point instead to greater spiritual truths, which can best be experienced through the beauty and austerity of the desert.

Rider and horse at well, Arizona, 1907
Romance. While you wait for the fires of romance to take over the reins of the plot, the women in the novel keep doing the sensible thing. An objective reader might well conclude that there’s not a man in the book that’s a match for either of them. While Mackie clearly likes men, she reveals an understanding of them that leaves her male characters looking a little shallow.

As one example, there’s the habit both Lispenard and Trent have of regarding Yucca as some kind of spirit or embodiment of the desert. Instead of seeing her as a person with her own individuality, they project onto her a bunch of notions that spring from somewhere in their deep, dark psyches. Jung would probably call it their Anima.

Street in Tucson, 1900
What the two men seem to see in her is a kind of beauty that is, like the desert, potentially treacherous. Not simply a beautiful woman, she is also a sorceress, a siren. Attracted by her beauty, a man can be lured to his ruin. There may be women in the world like this, but Yucca is not one of them. If anything, you can say her heart belongs to daddy, whose portrait in uniform dominates one room of her house.

So what we end up with is a kind of anti-romance. Folks bump up against the realities of each other’s unpredictable feelings and don’t live happily ever after. The romance of the desert, however, continues as strong at the end as it has been all along.

Pauline Bradford Mackie
Wrapping up. Pauline Bradford Mackie (b. 1873), the daughter of a clergyman, was born in Connecticut and went to public schools in Ohio. When she wrote this novel, she was also married to a clergyman, Herbert Müller Hopkins (1870-1910), who died in early middle age after a few years of marriage. Hopkins was a published poet and novelist himself. One suspects that he may walk the pages of this novel as the book-writing minister, Lispenard.

The Voice in the Desert is currently available for the nook and at Internet Archive. Friday’s Forgotten Books is the bright idea of Patti Abbott over at pattinase.


Image credits: Wikimedia Commons
Photo of Mackie, Literary News, 1903

Coming up: Ray Winstone, Tracker (2010)

Tuesday, March 20, 2012

In Old Arizona (1928)

The Cisco Kid had killed six men in more or less fair scrimmages, had murdered twice as many (mostly Mexicans), and had winged a larger number whom he modestly forbore to count. Therefore a woman loved him.

The Kid was twenty-five, looked twenty; and a careful insurance company would have estimated the probable time of his demise at, say, twenty-six. His habitat was anywhere between the Frio and the Rio Grande. He killed for the love of it — because he was quick-tempered — to avoid arrest — for his own amusement — any reason that came to his mind would suffice.

So begins the O. Henry story “The Caballero’s Way,” first published in 1907. It was the introduction of a character, the Cisco Kid, who would have a long life in the movies, and on radio and TV. The Kid first hit the screen in 1914, with a silent version of O. Henry’s story, but his career didn’t take off until this film, In Old Arizona, an early talkie in 1928.

Warner Baxter won an Academy Award for his performance as the Kid and soon reprised it in sequels: The Cisco Kid (1931) and The Return of the Cisco Kid (1939). He was followed in the role by Cesar Romero, Duncan Renaldo, and Gilbert Roland. At almost 40, Warner was a bit long in the tooth to portray the author’s 25-year-old bandit. But he compensates for that by making the Kid something of an arrested adolescent.

The plot in a nutshell is that the Kid's firecracker of a girlfriend (Dorothy Burgess) takes an interest in a U.S. soldier (Edmund Lowe) and allows him to seduce her with a promise of taking her to New York. The Kid spends a lot of money to buy her a mantilla, and when he discovers she is two-timing him, he plots a deadly revenge. 

MGM Studios, Culver City, 1922
All-talk. It’s easy to fault the film for its clumsiness, as some modern reviewers do who forget that Hollywood was just learning how to make talking movies. Considering its incorporation of sound effects, singing, and synchronous sound captured with primitive microphones, it’s pretty remarkable.

What surely struck its first audiences was the strong New Yorkese of Edmund Lowe’s army sergeant, Mickey Dunne. He could be straight out of Damon Runyon. Warner and Burgess have exaggerated Mexican accents, and some characters speak mostly Spanish.

Burgess seems to have had no film experience at all, and her line delivery comes close often to braying. But in the long scenes between Lowe and Burgess, you can hear every word, and that must have been cause for celebration for the new man on the set, the sound technician.

When the movie poster says “100% all-talking,” by the way, there’s no arguing that point. Some scenes are almost nothing but talk-talk-talk, more like a filmed stage play. Lowe and Burgess have a long scene sitting at a table together that would seem endless if it weren’t a saucy seduction full of pre-Production Code innuendo.

The whole movie, for that matter, has risqué subtext. The two men tend to wear their gun belts with holsters placed in front rather than to the side. When they meet in a barbershop, there’s a silly moment where they offer a little more than polite admiration for the size of each other’s weapons.

Outdoor scenes. Watching an early sound film with scenes shot outdoors, you need to give credit to the filmmakers for pushing the limits of the new technology. Capturing synchronous sound was vastly difficult in the early days, and it drove movies mostly indoors onto sound stages for many years.

This was a problem for westerns, which had got much of their excitement from action filmed in the great outdoors. This film manages to incorporate some scenes that hark back to those good old days, as the Cisco Kid delivers a herd of cows to a buyer and then three men attempt to ambush and rob him later. Another outdoor scene starts with a quartet of soldiers singing in close harmony, and the camera pans around to other soldiers who greet the arrival of another man.

The opening scenes, set in a dusty Southwest town, were shot on what was probably the back lot, and the frame is filled with activity and extras as passengers noisily board a stagecoach. Later, in the desert, they are held up by the Kid, who takes the strongbox and gallantly leaves the passengers unmolested. I’m guessing that the film’s nomination for an Oscar was partly due to the relative sophistication of all this.

Wrapping up. For western fans, the film is worth seeing as a novelty. While elaborating considerably on the basic story as told by O. Henry, it preserves the comic irony of the original. The main change is the transforming of the upright Lt. Sandridge to the streets-of-New-York Sgt. Dunne.

One of its two directors, Raoul Walsh had a long, illustrious career, including westerns, but is probably best known for classics like The Roaring Twenties (1939), White Heat (1949), and High Sierra (1941).

In Old Arizona is currently available at netflix and amazon. Tuesday’s Overlooked Movies is the much-appreciated enterprise of Todd Mason over at Sweet Freedom.

Photo credit: Wikimedia Commons

Coming up: Pauline Bradford Mackie Hopkins, The Voice in the Desert (1903)

Monday, March 19, 2012

John Sayles, A Moment in the Sun

This will be the briefest review of one of the longest books I’ve ever read. At 955 pages, Sayles’ novel set at the turn of the last century comes in just short of Larry McMurtry’s Lonesome Dove. The difference between the two is that there’s not a single long-winded passage in Sayles. And there’s more packed into it per square inch even than McMurtry’s multi-character, multi-plotted cattle drive novel.

Like Lonesome Dove, I read this one because it comes square in the middle of a historical period I’ve been interested in. Taking place between the years 1897 and 1902, it portrays a moment in American history when the frontier had closed and the country took its first steps toward empire with the Spanish-American War.

The novel is largely about that war, a small part devoted to the adventure in Cuba and a much greater part to the war in the Philippines. There we are treated to points of view from three sides, white troops of volunteers, black U.S. Army troops, and the “insurgents” fighting them. And all of it is set in the larger context of life back in the States.

I can tell you the names of the handful of soldiers whose lives we follow with considerable intimacy from start to finish. But I can’t keep a mental list long enough to recall the host of other characters whose lives weave in and out of the rest of the narrative. Still, they are drawn with such clarity, I came to feel utterly familiar with every one of them.

Boy working at spinning mill, Newton, North Carolina, 1908
To a great extent, the novel is about race relations. While two young black men take up arms to fight in the War, their families back home experience the convulsive upheavals that followed so-called Reconstruction in the South. We get the story of the “recapture” of Wilmington, North Carolina, as whites forcibly take an election away from the blacks and cause their flight to the North.

There’s much also about working people and the poor. We are witness to grinding, low-paid physical labor. One example being the work involved in the removal and disposing of dead horses from city streets. There’s work in the mines of Colorado and women working in sweat shops and scrubbing floors in mansions. And there’s child labor, as homeless boys hawk newspapers on curbs and street corners in Manhattan.

There’s also a glancing focus at the media itself as editors, correspondents, and cartoonists shape and sensationalize the news for public consumption. And one character is entranced by the possibilities of a new invention that takes moving pictures. One of its first uses is to film reenactments of battle scenes showing U.S. troops abroad.

Assassination of President McKinley, September 6, 1901
Historical figures walk the pages of the novel, among them the boomtown entrepreneur, Soapy Smith. We visit cigar factories in Tampa Bay, a military fort in Missoula, and the gold rush town of Skaguay, Alaska. One of the most absorbing chapters takes place entirely within a prison in upstate New York on the day President McKinley is shot at the Pan-American Exposition in Buffalo.

It’s the kind of book you can go on and on about, particularly when you know that you’ll probably never persuade another person to read it because of its length. And what’s ironic is that it’s so well suited to readers with short attention spans. Its 100-plus chapters are each like a tightly written short story. You can pick it up anywhere and read one without needing to know what came before it.

Set in another context, this novel covers the years leading up to the publication of Owen Wister’s The Virginian (1902). It’s curious and maybe telling that at a time of war abroad and political assassination at home, this romance of the Old West became a best seller.

A Moment in the Sun is currently available at amazon, AbeBooks, and for kindle and the nook. John Sayles also has a recent movie, Amigo (2010), about Americans troops in the Philippines, which is available at netflix.

Image credits: Wikimedia Commons

Coming up: Warner Baxter, In Old Arizona (1928)

Saturday, March 17, 2012

Saturday music: Dixie Chicks

In my perfect world, the Dixie Chicks would still be at the top of the charts.

Coming up: Warner Baxter, In Old Arizona (1928)

Western writer inspiration, no. 28

Here is this week's omnibus of #westernwriter inspirations posted each day at twitter [click to enlarge]. If you are on twitter, you can follow me @rdscheer.

Kikapoo wickiup, Indian Territory (Oklahoma), 1880
Furnace Creek, Death Valley, California, 1871
Harry Yount at Berthoud Pass, Colorado, 1874
Arapaho camp with buffalo meat drying near Fort Dodge, Kansas, 1870
Lynching of two vigilantes, Helena, MT, 1870
Land sale poster, Burlington & Missouri River RR, 1872
Navajo family, near old Fort Defiance, New Mexico, 1873
Picture credits: Wikimedia Commons

Coming up: Warner Baxter, In Old Arizona (1928