Friday, November 30, 2012

Samuel Merwin, The Road-Builders (1905)

Samuel Merwin
In this exciting railroad novel, Samuel Merwin tells of a crew of engineers building a railway in West Texas. It is the 1870s, and the principle obstacle to the operation is not the Apaches, as you’d expect, but a rival railroad magnate, Commodore Durfee.

Plot. The engineers in the field are led by Paul Carhart, who has been charged with throwing down a road across over 100 miles of desert. When completed it will connect eastern Texas with a frontier town called Red Hills in the west. With the help of a thousand or two laborers, Carhart and his engineers have an ambitious job, including at mile 109 the construction of a long trestle across a river.

Meanwhile, Durfee wants his own road across the same part of Texas. It’s a bare-knuckle competition, and before long Carhart and his engineers find that their efforts are being sabotaged. Materials and—more important—water are slow in arriving at the work site.

Charlie and Carhart
A labor dispute springs up when the chief cook, Jack Flagg, gets the workmen to go on strike for higher pay. When he is fired for making trouble, he and a gang of ruffians are hired by Durfee to harass the engineers, stealing mules and leaving threats on hand-written placards.

The final crisis presents itself when word arrives that Flagg and his men have stopped construction on the trestle over the river. They have set up camp where the bridge is to come ashore on the opposite bank, shooting and gravely wounding the engineer in charge.

Character. Merwin uses this story to explore the kinds of character that produce leaders. Carhart is admirable in the way he handles everyone from his engineers and the cook down to the most unskilled workman. He inspires confidence and gets men to work without complaint by never losing his patience.

He trusts that men will do what’s expected of them if they are given proper respect. He trusts that reason will prevail if given a chance. He may be troubled and apprehensive when crises loom, but he never reveals his concern. He can also think out of the box and act with audacious daring when the situation demands.

Mule train in search of water
One of his engineers, Old Vandervelt, is worked into the story as a convenient foil. Called “Old” because he is the older of two brothers who are both engineers on the project, he is impatient and quick to flare up when met with any resistance. It is said of him that he once killed a waiter in a hotel for poor service.

Romance. Merwin once said in an essay that romance does not make the best kind of novel because it puts plot before character. In The Road-Builders there’s plot aplenty, but Merwin also wants us to see these engineers as men with distinct personalities. He’s interested in how they organize themselves to get work done and how the way a man does his job depends on his values, his attitudes, and the kind of risks he’s willing to take.

Engineers Tiffany and Carhart
Unlike other early-western novels, the existence of women gets very little mention. The president of the railroad comes out to the work site for a brief visit, traveling in his private car with his wife and two daughters. The three women take little interest in the work being done.

Getting even briefer mention are the “ladies” in the upper rooms of the hotel where Carhart’s workmen celebrate the completion of the railroad. There we find Charlie the camp cook taking pleasure in feminine company after being long deprived of it. Beyond those references, the novel gives us a males-only world.

Labor. Merwin doesn’t exactly overflow with egalitarian spirit. Class-conscious Gus, the younger Vandervelt, sees the workers as “children with whiskey throats added.” He seems unconcerned that there are actual children on the work site. The mule drivers are boys, as young as twelve.

When the likeable young instrument man is shot dead by Flagg’s men and the workmen gather for the burial, Gus looks at their “lustful, weak, wicked faces.” He wonders uncertainly whether there’s anything in them of worth and meaning beyond work, eating, drinking, and dying.

Wednesday, November 28, 2012

Old West glossary, no. 51

Montana cowboys, c1910

Here’s another set of terms gleaned from early western fiction. Definitions were discovered in various online dictionaries, as well as searches in Cassell’s Dictionary of Slang, Dictionary of the American West, The New Encyclopedia of the American West, The Cowboy Dictionary, The Cowboy Encyclopedia, Vocabulario Vaquero, I Hear America Talking, Cowboy Lingo, and The Shorter Oxford English Dictionary.

These are from Ada Woodruff Anderson’s The Heart of the Red Firs, about settlers in the backwoods around Puget Sound, Gilbert Parker’s Northern Lights, a collection of stories about the Saskatchewan River valley, and Samuel Merwin's The Road-Builders, about the construction of a railway in West Texas

Once again, I struck out on a few. If anyone has a definition for “put a head on,” “dispute the palm,” “red trail,” “hash and clothes,” “rope twister,” “Puss in the Ring,” “prairie whisper,” “forty-two degrees,” “snap mule,” or “axe of sacrifice,” leave a comment below.

Policeman and traffic violator
blue = a soldier, police officer. “Mr. Carhart was very quiet and considerate and businesslike, but he had a streak of blue in him.” Samuel Merwin, The Road-Builders.

boneset = a North American plant of the daisy family that bears clusters of small flowers and is used in herbal medicine. “She handed the bowl of boneset tea. ‘Take it; it’ll do you good, Cassy,’ she added.” Gilbert Parker, Northern Lights.

by Josh and by Joan = a mild expletive. “By Josh and by Joan, but it’s a shame, a dirty shame, it is!” Gilbert Parker, Northern Lights.

cariole = a small, open, two- or four-wheeled carriage drawn by one horse. “He told him the news and saw Jacques jump into the cariole and drive away.” Gilbert Parker, Northern Lights.

chase-me-Charley = a high jump game for horses and their riders. “He’s a chase-me-Charley, come-and-kiss-me tiger from the zoo.” Gilbert Parker, Northern Lights.

combination car = a railway car containing two or more compartments used for different purposes. “They run a combination car each way every day—two cars when business is brisk.” Samuel Merwin, The Road-Builders.

Coureur de bois, 1889
coureur de bois = a woodsman or trader of French origin. “Factors of the Hudson’s Bay Company, coureurs de bois, and voyageurs, had come among them at times.” Gilbert Parker, Northern Lights. [At right, Pierre Le Royer]

cut and come again = to help oneself as often as one likes. “It was like Clint an’ me cuttin’ and comin’ again off the loaf an’ the knuckle-bone of ven’son.” Gilbert Parker, Northern Lights.

drappie = intoxicating drink. “Haven’t got a wee bit drappie, have you?” Samuel Merwin, The Road-Builders.

Dutchman’s pipe = a common name for some unrelated flowering plants, which have flowers or stems resembling pipes. “There isn’t enough sunshine out in front for anything but the honeysuckle and the Dutchman’s pipe.” Samuel Merwin, The Road-Builders.

ell = a lean-to. “This old bar, the last remaining bit of furniture in the place, guarded the sagging door of a small ell evidently once used as a tap-room.” Ada Woodruff Anderson, The Heart of the Red Firs.

flaw = a squall of wind, a short storm. “He sprang to his feet, spluttering, clutching at the helm, losing his foothold on the slanting deck, while the Phantom raced down before the sudden flaw.” Ada Woodruff Anderson, The Heart of the Red Firs.

flyaway = a flighty or frivolous person. “She was a little jealous, that explained things, and of that flyaway, there in the other room.” Ada Woodruff Anderson, The Heart of the Red Firs.

gated = to be confined to a school or college’s grounds. “He hated getting out of bed, and he was constantly gated for morning chapel.” Gilbert Parker, Northern Lights.

golden glow = a tall plant cultivated for its large, yellow double flower heads. “He’d better screen the fence with golden glow, set out pretty thick the whole way, between the nasturtiums and the fence.” Samuel Merwin, The Road-Builders.

highbinder = a corrupt politician. “On his way through Chinatown he had noticed Stratton entering the house of a certain merchant and highbinder.” Ada Woodruff Anderson, The Heart of the Red Firs.

jerickety = a mild expletive. “‘Oh, magnificent!—magnificent!—jerickety!’ he said into the sky above him.” Gilbert Parker, Northern Lights.

jugglery = artful trickery. “It’s jugglery, the whole business; there ain’t anything honest about it.” Samuel Merwin, The Road-Builders.

knocker = a stunningly attractive person. “Sergeant Foyle, oh, he’s a knocker from the West.” Gilbert Parker, Northern Lights.

knuckleduster = a metal guard worn over the knuckles in fighting to increase the effect of blows. “There’d been a strike in the mine, an’ my friend had took it in hand with knuckledusters on.” Gilbert Parker, Northern Lights.

lighter = a barge or other unpowered boat used to transfer cargo to and from ships in harbor. “A lighter grounded on Alki Point; he has been helping to float her.” Ada Woodruff Anderson, The Heart of the Red Firs. [At right, painting by George Caleb Bingham, 1847]

luff = to bring the head of a ship nearer to the wind. “Mason leaned forward with a low exclamation; then, no longer able to hold himself, he lifted his voice in a hoarse shout. ‘Luff, luff ’er.’” Ada Woodruff Anderson, The Heart of the Red Firs.

Tuesday, November 27, 2012

El Dorado (1967)

This Howard Hawks western bears a strong resemblance to his previous western, Rio Bravo (1959). The elements are much the same, as if Hawks wanted to have another go at them. John Wayne appears again, this time as a hired gun. Particular about who hires him, he turns down a dirty job in the opening scenes offered by a land-greedy rancher (Ed Asner). Wayne ends up working instead with a sheriff (Robert Mitchum) to help a family keep their ranch out of Asner’s hands.

Plot. The family in question are the Macdonalds, with several grown sons and a feisty daughter (Michelle Carey). One of the boys takes a shot at Wayne and ends up dead. When Wayne brings his body to the ranch, Carey doesn’t believe his account of the incident and ambushes him. With a bullet now lodged near his spine, he is stricken at times by paralyzing pain that affects his shooting arm.

John Wayne
Drifting among the saguaros of the Southwest, he reluctantly picks up a trail buddy (James Caan), who has just killed his fourth man. Slow with a gun but quick with a knife, it seems he’s been avenging the death of an old friend, one man at a time. He adopts Wayne as a mentor.

When Wayne meets another gunman of his own professional caliber (Christopher George), he learns that the man has been hired by Asner to do the job he turned down. Wayne learns from George that while the sheriff, Mitchum, has a reputation as good with a gun, he is no longer a threat. He has been sidelined by two months of heavy drinking.

Wayne and Caan show up to give Mitchum a hand, and they wait for George and his gang. But Mitchum is in bad shape. He has hit bottom but doesn’t yet know it. The depth of his condition finally comes home to him when he is laughed at by the men in the saloon while buying another bottle of whiskey.

Robert Mitchum
As soon as the gang arrives there is trouble, and Wayne and Caan get to work getting rid of them, knocking off several in the first round. Mitchum gradually gets sober but, in an exchange of gunfire, gets shot in the leg. When Asner is taken prisoner, Wayne and the others are holed up in the jail and under siege.

All is resolved finally with a shootout at the saloon. Asner bites the dust along with George and other members of the gang we’ve come to know. Wayne takes some buckshot in his leg, and as Caan leaves to follow up on a rough meeting with Carey in the straw of a stable, Wayne and Mitchum hobble down main street, each of them on a crutch.

Tone. This is a loosely meandering film that sets up a good guys vs. bad guys conflict in the opening scenes and saves the final confrontation until almost two hours later. During that time there are several characters to get to know and some lengthy conversations.

James Caan, John Wayne
The tone of the film fluctuates between melancholy and lightly humorous, with a stretch or two of outright farce. When Macdonald says he doesn’t blame Wayne for his son’s death, Wayne turns to go, saying sadly to himself that it is not much consolation.

Meanwhile, there are several running jokes, one of them involving the riverboat gambler’s hat that Caan wears. As Mitchum slowly sobers up, he can’t remember who Caan is and keeps asking, “Who is he?” In another comic scene, Mitchum takes a much-needed bath, while everyone who visits brings him a bar of soap.

Mitchum’s alcoholism is also played for a while for laughs. When Wayne finds him passed out in a jail cell and dumps a bucket of water on him, Mitchum comes out with fists flying. Later, almost creeping away from the saloon with another bottle, he cradles it to his belly with both arms. In only a few minutes of screen time, we’ve gone from the Three Stooges to Lost Weekend.

Saturday, November 24, 2012

Saturday music: Jimmie Rodgers

Top of the charts for four weeks in 1957. James Frederick Rodgers, born 1933, Camas, Washington.

Coming up: John Wayne, Robert Mitchum, El Dorado (1967)

Friday, November 23, 2012

Gilbert Parker, Northern Lights (1909)

Canadian-born Gilbert Parker (1862-1932) was already a well-known writer of popular historical fiction when this collection of stories was published. Two novels had made the top-ten bestseller lists during the first decade of the century, one of them The Weavers (1907) for two years running. Though Parker lived much of his life in England, his fiction was devoted mostly to his native Canada

Setting. In this collection of 17 stories Parker takes readers westward and northward to the far frontiers of the land. They take place in what he refers to as the Saskatchewan valley. The watershed of this eastward flowing river system constitutes a large swathe of the provinces of Alberta and Saskatchewan.

It is prairie land, thinly populated, with its earliest settlement embedded in the history of the Hudson Bay Company. The enforcement of law and order is in the hands of the Royal Northwest Mounted Police. The people to be found here include Indians and mixed bloods.

"The Stroke of the Hour"
Themes. Guilt and innocence are a common theme in the stories. In “The Stroke of the Hour,” a man is about to be executed for a crime he didn’t commit. A messenger with a reprieve for the man is found, afoot in the snow, by a young woman. She contrives to delay him because the condemned man had once married, then deserted and caused the death of her sister. Having purloined the reprieve while the man naps, she thinks better of what she’s done when he’s gone and takes a perilous shortcut across frozen lakes to deliver the document herself.

In “Buckmaster’s Boy,” a father is bent on revenging the death of his son, believed to have been shot over a game of cards. When another man, Sinnet, attempts to prevent him, the father is overtaken with rage and stabs him. With his dying breaths, Sinnet then confesses that he himself was the killer, having intervened in what was a drunken fight over a woman.

The wilderness is often an important part of the plot. Many stories are set in the snowbound winter months, and characters are forced by circumstances to risk their lives in the snow and cold, or in the very teeth of blizzards. But the hazards of life in the West are outweighed by its salubrious effect on health and the human spirit. People are said to thrive out here, away from the “quiet circle of civic routine and humdrum occupation” back East which produce sickness of both body and soul.

"The Error of the Day"
Character. Where we find them, men of courage and principle tend to wear the uniform of the Mounted Police, who figure in several stories. Here is his description of Sergeant Foyle in “The Error of the Day”:

He had frightened horse-thieves and bogus land-agents and speculators out of the country, had fearlessly tracked down a criminal or a band of criminals when the odds were heavy against him. He carried on his cheek the scars of two bullets, and there was one white lock in his brown hair where an arrow had torn the scalp away as, alone, he drove into the Post a score of Indians, fresh from raiding the cattle of an immigrant trailing north.

But Foyle is not without his complications. An observer notices the stirring of “pools of feeling far down in the depths of a lonely nature.” He is deeply troubled by a moral dilemma, forcing him to choose between duty and family loyalty.

"The Whisperer"
Villainy. Parker tends to be more interested in bad guys than good guys. For him, character faults make more interesting characters. The wilderness as a shaper of character can coarsen and brutalize men. Limited social resources in the West send some men’s lives off the rails, as they are ruined by drink and gambling, and some of them turn to crime and violence.

Yet it’s not exactly a black and white world for all that, as we learn when Parker explores the psychology of the morally compromised. While some of his villains are simply hard-hearted thugs and lowlifes, “The Whisperer” gives us a millionaire railroad magnate, Henderley, living high on his ill-gotten gains.

Henderley has done “cruel and vicious things” without the slightest remorse, but other men in the story experience guilt for being his henchmen. Roger Lygon, suffers plagues of conscience for setting a fire that caused the accidental deaths of three people. Crime has degraded him, the narrator says, but it has not hardened him.

His accomplice, Nic Dupont, is another matter. He’s forgotten any misgivings he might have felt. Greed now motivates him, and he embroils Lygon in a scheme to blackmail Henderley. When Lygon backs out of the deal, the craven Dupont is so enraged he tries to kill him. As the story is told, each of the three men represents a different condition of the criminal mind.

Wednesday, November 21, 2012

John Reese, Angel Range, 1973

This novel was first published in 1971 as volume one of a western trilogy called Jesus on Horseback. By then, John Reese (1910-1981) had been pouring out stories for 30 years in the magazines. At the age of sixty, he was now publishing the first of many novels.

Reese, as I’ve noted here before, brings a number of quirky gifts to western storytelling. He seems to enjoy scrambling the elements of the traditional western, mixing in a good deal of wry humor, while keeping his characters grounded in a realistically described world.

Plot. In this novel, a cowhand, Rolf Ledger, has just been released from prison and is looking for a job at a ranch in northeast Colorado. A sheriff arrests him, though it’s clear he isn’t the man his posse is looking for. Seems Ledger served as a chaplain’s assistant in prison, and the folks of Mooney County are in immediate need of a cleric to officiate at a funeral.

Never ordained and never even called, as he continues to remind the sheriff and anyone who’ll listen, he reluctantly agrees to help out. The burial candidate was not only a prominent citizen but the victim of a killing. Nearly everyone in the vicinity shows up for the funeral, including a madam and some girls from a local whorehouse.

Pleasant Park, Colorado, 1870
All but an upright Methodist, who objects to the whores, are comforted by Ledger’s sermon. Given the local shortage of men of the cloth, he is pressed to stay on. Then when some amateur doctoring saves the life of a resident, he gets an unwelcome reputation as a faith healer—maybe even an angel. Northeast Colorado ain’t no “angel range,” he insists, but you can’t stop rumor.

He moves in with an unmarried rancher outside of town who has an obsession with stringing barbwire fences. By degrees he becomes involved in the affairs of another rancher whose cattle keep disappearing thanks to persistent thieves. And he finds himself instrumental in the hurried marriage of the sheriff's deputy and the ranchers daughter, who discovers shes going to be a mother. In an amused detail, Ledger is embarrassed by use of the word “pregnant.”

Meanwhile, the rancher’s other daughter wants to know if Ledger believes in evolution. She knows her Darwin and won’t hear any creationist hogwash about the origin of species. For his part, Ledger isn’t even sure he believes in God. They are an unlikely pair, but they’re destined to be drawn together in this backwater neck of the prairie.

A train wreck and the surprising deaths of two crewmembers uncover more nasty work of the thieves. Ledger uses his own connections as a former outlaw to solve the mystery and bring them to justice. Then, in the rough ecumenical spirit that pervades the novel, Ledger gives last rights to an elderly priest who is shot as a lynch mob attempts to break into the jailhouse to carry off a prisoner.

Tuesday, November 20, 2012

The Young Land (1959)

There must have been high hopes for the young Patrick Wayne when this film was made in 1959. Son of Hollywood star John Wayne, gifted with good looks and already experienced in front of the camera in several John Ford westerns, he was ready to launch his own screen career.

From the first scenes of this film, however, you can tell that something is amiss. You feel the need for the guiding hand of a John Ford to bring life to the performances and the action. Except in rare moments, the film never really seems to be more than a walk-through of the script.

Plot. The entire story takes place in an Old California village just after the war with Mexico. The population, a mix of Anglos and Mexicans, is still getting used to being part of the U.S. Old animosities continue as before. And now, when a gringo (Dennis Hopper) kills a Mexican in a gun duel, there’s some question of whether it was self-defense or homicide.

Circuit Judge Isham (Dan O’Herlihy) arrives in town with U.S. deputy marshal Stroud (Cliff Ketchum) to hear the case. Acting sheriff in the village (Patrick Wayne) has already jailed Hopper. He is then pressed by O’Herlihy to maintain order as Hopper’s friends get drunk in the cantina and vaqueros from surrounding ranches ride in for the trial.

Patrick Wayne
To make sure we don’t miss the trial’s significance in this time and place, a local don (Roberto de la Madrid) arrives to see how “American justice” works. He and O’Herlihy, a stuffy Yankee patrician, provide a commentary on the proceedings. As a handpicked jury hears the case and then takes a long time behind closed doors to come to a verdict, the two men exchange politely thoughtful observations.

Outside the courtroom, tensions mount, and de la Madrid’s daughter (Yvonne Craig) attaches herself like glue to the otherwise preoccupied Wayne. Now that she’s an “American girl,” she’s eager to exercise her liberties. Hopper’s friend (Ken Curtis) first picks a fight with Wayne and then reluctantly agrees to be a guard in the jail as Hopper awaits the verdict of the jury.

When the verdict is delivered, Hopper and Wayne are called upon to provide an action-packed ending in the streets of the village. Justice is finally done, but it’s Old West-style, with guns and horses.

Dennis Hopper
Performances. The standout performance in the film is Dennis Hopper, who burrows into his character so deeply he never once leaves you doubting the guilt of his character. Cocky and ill mannered, he is a grinning sociopath. Ken Curtis is entertaining as a congenial outlaw. Cliff Ketchum is believable as a lean and crag-faced marshal.

Wayne is affable as the young sheriff but doesn’t have (or wasn’t given) much range to enliven the role. In some scenes, he seems to be working hard just to remember the lines. You wish, too, that he’d been given a better hat. The one he got from costuming makes him look more like a plantation owner than a western sheriff. For Yvonne Craig, this was one of her first feature roles. She would later become known as Batgirl in the final season of TV’s Batman (1967-1968).

Monday, November 19, 2012

Old West glossary, no. 50

Montana cowboys, c1910
Here’s another set of terms and forgotten people gleaned from early western fiction. Definitions were discovered in various online dictionaries, as well as searches in Cassell’s Dictionary of Slang, Dictionary of the American West, The New Encyclopedia of the American West, The Cowboy Dictionary, The Cowboy Encyclopedia, Vocabulario Vaquero, I Hear America Talking, Cowboy Lingo, and The Shorter Oxford English Dictionary.

These are from Martin Allerdale Grainger’s Woodsmen of the West, about loggers in British Columbia, Charles G. D. Roberts’ The Backwoodsmen, a collection of frontier animal stories, and Ada Woodruff Anderson’s The Heart of the Red Firs, about settlers in the backwoods around Puget Sound. Once again, I struck out on a few. If anyone has a definition for “prince-pally cake,” leave a comment below.

U.S. Navy bluejackets, 1917
bluejacket = a sailor in the navy. “Dan Macdonnell was a quiet, steady man; big-chested, active, cheerful, like the better sort of bluejacket.” Martin Allerdale Grainger, Woodsmen of the West.

catkins = a usually dense, cylindrical, often drooping cluster of flowers found in willows, birches, and oaks. “Soft, wet and tender, with a faint green filming the sodden pasture field, and a rose-pink veil covering the maples, and blue-grey catkins tinting the dark alders, spring had come.” Charles G. D. Roberts, The Backwoodsmen.

chevaux-de-frise = an obstacle composed of barbed wire or spikes attached to a wood frame, used to block enemy advancement. “Door and bridge together were encircled by a chevaux-de-frise of woodwork with sharp, radiating points of heavy telegraph wire.” Charles G. D. Roberts, The Backwoodsmen.

curate’s egg = something with good and bad qualities. “Sometimes I wish she had been less of a jest, less like the curate’s egg.” Martin Allerdale Grainger, Woodsmen of the West. Explanation of the term at Wikipedia

Chevaux de frise, 1864
dead-water = a phenomenon that can occur when a layer of fresh or brackish water rests on top of denser salt water, without the two layers mixing. “The last mile of the river’s course before joining the lake consisted of deep, smooth ‘dead-water’.” Charles G. D. Roberts, The Backwoodsmen.

draw the longbow = to exaggerate, tell tall tales. “I hate to tell you all about the Sonora, because she was so humorous, and you will think I am piling it on, drawing the long-bow.” Martin Allerdale Grainger, Woodsmen of the West.

fire rake = a long-handled combination rake and cutting tool, the blade of which is usually constructed of a single row of four sharpened teeth. “Then there would be a noise of fire-rake, and Bill could be heard hurling wood into the furnace.” Martin Allerdale Grainger, Woodsmen of the West.

garden sass = vegetables, particularly those used in making sauces. “Its only garden was a spacious patch of cabbages and ‘garden sass’ three or four hundred yards down toward the edge of the forest.” Charles G. D. Roberts, The Backwoodsmen.

horrors, the = delirium tremens. “I had to give him a dose or two of bromide, as he was getting shaky, from much whisky, and I feared the horrors might come.” Martin Allerdale Grainger, Woodsmen of the West.

in high feather = in good spirits. “The tireless little animal followed him along the fence rails for perhaps a hundred yards, seeing him off the premises and advising him not to return, then went back in high feather to his task.” Charles G. D. Roberts, The Backwoodsmen.

Saturday, November 17, 2012

Saturday music: Pee Wee King

From 1951, recorded in Nashville, with an appearance by Minnie Pearl and a plug for the U.S. Army.

Coming up: Old West glossary, no. 50

Thursday, November 15, 2012

Ada Woodruff Anderson, The Heart of the Red Firs (1908)

San Francisco born, Ada Woodruff Anderson (1860-1956) had been to China and back when, still a little girl, she arrived by ship in Washington’s Puget Sound. It was 1865. She remembers hearing cannons at Olympia being fired at the news of Grant’s taking of Richmond. Western Washington was to become her home, and her fiction recalls its early settlers, in a region of waters, valleys, and woods between the Olympic range and the Cascades.

Her first novel, The Heart of the Red Firs draws on her experiences there as a very young schoolteacher. At the center of the story are two sisters, Alice and Louise. Alice loves the wilderness and is on good terms with the mixed group of pioneering and homesteading settlers. Louise has married into an established family in the lumber business and is the mother of a small boy.

Alice and Paul
Plot. This is more a novel of situations than plot. Its center is a meeting ground between the conflicting aspirations of its several characters. In an early chapter, Alice turns down an offer of marriage from a man who wants them to be more than just good friends. She agrees instead to marry a much older man, who has been her guardian—but at some future date. She stays behind as he goes off to serve a term in Congress.

Louise spends her days in an isolated house at the sawmills owned in part by Philip Kingsley. She is often deserted by him and left alone with her son. Depressed and lonely, she eventually learns that her husband has allowed his yacht to be used for smuggling opium into the country from Victoria in Canada. 

The villain of the novel is Stratton, an importer of furs and the mastermind behind the opium smuggling. Working for him are several ruffians, who help him transport the drug once it’s been brought ashore.

This all transpires under Alice’s unsuspecting nose. She is likewise unaware that Stratton has designs on her. He tells her he’ll spirit her away to a better life, even if he must do so by force. She, of course, is shocked.

Stratton and Alice
As is Louise when she learns the full extent of her husband’s duplicity. Besides neglecting her and their young son, he has dipped deeply into company funds to finance a free-living lifestyle. When the Panic of 1907 strikes the lumber industry, he is too far in debt to avert bankruptcy.

Louise saves him from U.S. Customs when they suspect him of drug trafficking. She finds a chest full of opium in an abandoned hotel and disposes of it by putting it through a rotten floor into a high tide. But it’s not for love of him that she’s done it. She cannot bear the shame that would befall the family should he be arrested. When he confesses to her and begs forgiveness, she’s packing her bags and intends never to lay eyes on him again.

Character. It takes two years for all this to transpire. During that time, the one man of noble character is Paul Forrest, who redeems his gender with admirable behavior. Paul is the one whose offer of marriage is declined by Alice at the novel’s start. He has been prospecting in the mountains and has found what promises to be a rich seam of gold. Only trouble is, after staking his claim, he’s been unable to relocate it.
Louise and Paul

Down to his last dollar, he’s taken a job as manager at the Kingsley sawmills to replenish his savings. The job is not to his liking; he’s too much an outdoorsman to be stuck behind a desk. But as he sees Louise increasingly bereft in her isolation, he befriends her, once risking his life to cross the harbor in a storm to fetch a doctor for the boy.

Romance. It is Paul who has the tenderest romantic feelings in the novel. First spurned by Alice, he falls hard for Louise. The bond that grows between them crosses into what is for this novel dangerous moral ground. But Anderson lets her narrative only flirt with the prospect of an adulterous affair.

Paul is too decent a man for such an indecency, and Louise is too much the product of generations of New England Puritan stock. It is more in her makeup to sink into a dreamy depression, not to reach out for solace to a man who is not her husband.

Alice, meanwhile, is enchanted with her life of independence in the woods, as a schoolteacher and a homesteader. Promising marriage to a rich, fatherly man who is a continent away in the halls of Congress suits her fine. She seems intent on sidestepping the whole messy matter of romance entirely.

Wednesday, November 14, 2012

Women writers of the West

It’s great to see women writers setting their stories in the Old West, and I am pleased that so many are being recognized for their contributions to the genre. I have mentioned a few here at BITS—Carol Buchanan, Jane Candia Coleman, and Julia Robb to name three—and have many more to acknowledge.

Women writing about the West is not something new, however. One-third of early western writers (1880-1915) were women, and their novels and stories range across all manner of subjects. Here’s a list of writers with titles of their first published fiction. 

  1. Mary Hallock Foote, The Led-Horse Claim (1883)
  2. Helen Hunt Jackson, Ramona (1884)
  3. Maria Amparo Ruiz de Burton, The Squatter and the Don (1885)
  4. Emma Ghent Curtis, The Fate of a Fool (1888)
  5. Patience Stapleton, Babe Murphy (1890)
  6. Marah Ellis Ryan, Told in the Hills (1890)
  7. Emma Homan Thayer, The English American (1890)
  8. Mollie Davis, The Wire-Cutters (1899)
  9. Florence Finch Kelly, With Hoops of Steel (1900)
  10. Mary Etta Stickney, Brown of Lost River (1900)
  11. Gwendolen Overton, The Heritage of Unrest (1901)
  12. Frances McElrath, The Rustler (1902)
  13. Elizabeth Higgins, Out of the West (1902)
  14. Mary Maclane, The Story of Mary MacLane (1902)
  15. Frances Charles, In the Country God Forgot (1902)
  16. Pauline Bradford Mackie Hopkins, The Voice in the Desert (1903)
  17. Grace MacGowan Cooke and Alice MacGowan, Huldah (1904); also called Aunt Huldah in other editions
  18. Marie Manning, Judith of the Plains (1904)
  19. Mary Austin, Isidro (1905)
  20. B. M. Bower, Chip of the Flying U (1906)
  21. A. B. Ward (Alice Ward Bailey), The Sage Brush Parson (1906)
  22. Marguerite Merington, Scarlett of the Mounted (1906)
  23. Eleanor Gates, Alec Lloyd, Cowpuncher (1907)
  24. Hattie Horner Louthan, This Was a Man (1907)
  25. Kate Boyles, Langford of the Three Bars (1907); co-author, Virgil D. Boyles
  26. Nancy Mann Waddell Woodrow, The New Missioner (1907)
  27. Adeline Knapp, The Well in the Desert (1908)
  28. Ada Woodruff Anderson, The Heart of the Red Firs (1908)
  29. Pauline Wilson Worth, Death Valley Slim (stories) (1909)
  30. Elaine Goodale Eastman, Wigwam Evenings (1909); co-author, Charles A. Eastman
  31. Alice Harriman, A Man of Two Countries (1910)
  32. Agnes Laut, The Freebooters of the Wilderness (1910)
  33. Caroline Lockhart, Me—Smith (1911)
  34. Dell Munger, The Wind Before the Dawn (1912)
  35. Effie Graham, The Passin’-On Party (1912)
  36. Vingie Roe, The Heart of Night Wind (1913)
  37. Honoré Willsie Morrow, The Heart of the Desert (1913)
  38. Willa Cather, O Pioneers! (1913)
  39. Gertrude Atherton, Perch of the Devil (1914)
  40. Marion Reid-Girardot, Steve of the Bar-G (1915)
Most of these books have been reviewed here and are available free online at google books and Internet Archive or for kindle and the nook.

Image credit: Wikimedia Commons

Coming up: Ada Woodruff Anderson, The Heart of the Red Firs (1908)

Tuesday, November 13, 2012

Young Billy Young, 1969

Burt Kennedy wrote and directed this good-looking western, set among the saguaros of Arizona. And with Robert Mitchum and Angie Dickinson in the cast, it should have been a corker. But the best scenes in the film have to work hard to keep the whole film afloat.

Plot. Mitchum takes a job as sheriff in Lordsburg to introduce some law and order, where it may be needed but not wanted. Jack Kelly plays a local saloon owner (named John Behan, maybe a double of the sheriff over in Tombstone) who wants Mitchum out of town. Angie Dickinson entertains at the saloon and competes with the scenery in a black spangly one-piece and feather boa. We like her.

Talented but miscast Robert Walker, Jr., plays the title character, Billy Young, a handsome young drifter. He has just returned from Mexico where he and David Carradine were hired to kill some nasty federales. Mitchum offers Walker a job as deputy, but he declines, given the odds against a lawman’s staying alive in this lawless town.

Robert Mitchum
Carradine, it turns out, is the son of Frank Boone (John Anderson), an outlaw who once killed Mitchum’s son during a jailbreak in Dodge City. When Mitchum puts Carradine in jail, he hopes the move will flush Anderson out of the sagebrush, where he can settle an old score with the man.

Dickinson, meanwhile, is getting beaten up regularly by Behan. With the encouragement she gets from Mitchum’s tender attentions, she packs her bags. Conscience-stricken from years as a saloon dancer, she hopes to start a new life somewhere else.

There’s a shootout finally as Anderson and his gang arrive in town. Released from jail, Carradine shoots Behan, and Mitchum shoots Anderson, who gets run over by a stagecoach for good measure. In the final scene, Walker has agreed to wear a deputy’s star, Carradine is in jail again waiting the circuit judge, and Mitchum leaves town with a surprised Dickinson, who learns that she’s to become his wife.

Angie Dickinson
Pluses. There’s nothing really wrong with the plot of the film, but its story must struggle with several handicaps. Mitchum is not one of them, unless you have the temerity to fault his girth. His old cool manner is still there, rarely cracking a smile, but equally persuasive whether being stern or tenderly attentive, as he is in scenes with Dickinson.

Their scenes together, in fact, do much to buoy up the film. They show Kennedy’s particular strength as a writer, and you can point to other films written by him where the scenes between men and women come alive onscreen. The dialogue reveals their loneliness, their wish to be simply cared for, and their basic decency.

Minuses. Other scenes and sequences carry less conviction. The first fifteen minutes are given to Walker and Carradine’s boarding of a troop train in Mexico, their killing of a car full of officers, and their escape on horseback. The sequence could bristle with suspense and excitement, but it is ponderously slow and improbable. The playful, jazzy music track by Shelly Manne establishes the tone of the film as more comic than serious, which doesn’t help either. For a contemporary western that pulls this off far more successfully, turn to Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid (1969).

The focus of the film is also split between Walker and Mitchum. Walker is the title character and gets a lot of screen time, but it’s really Mitchum’s story that we care about. Casting Walker may well have been a play for a young audience (even using the word twice in the title), but the film doesn’t give his part of the story enough weight.

DVD cover
Wrapping up. The film was shot in Arizona, and the desert cinematography is handsome and definitely western worthy. The western town set looks realistic, though strangely vacant, as if there wasn’t money in the budget for extras.

Excellent character actor Paul Fix plays a crusty stagecoach driver, and Willis Bouchey is the town doctor. Other highlights include fistfights, a lengthy shootout, a stagecoach pursued by thieves being shot from their horses, and Angie Dickinson in a bubble bath. Of debatable merit is the ballad of Young Billy Young which is sung over the credits by Robert Mitchum.

The script was very loosely based on a Will Henry novel about Wyatt Earp called Who Rides With Wyatt (1955). There’s only passing interest in authenticity; Mitchum wears a thoroughly dusty black hat, but like most of the other men in the film, it has a modern-day potato-chip brim. Angie Dickinson’s stage outfit looks more Vegas showgirl than frontier saloon queen. It’s a western for fans who like their stories a little tongue in cheek.

Young Billy Young is currently available at netflix and at amazon and Barnes&Noble. For more of Tuesday’s Overlooked Movies and TV, click over to Todd Mason’s blog.

Coming up: Women writers of the West

Monday, November 12, 2012

Old West glossary, no. 49

Cowboys, Montana c1910

Here’s another set of terms and forgotten people gleaned from early western fiction. Definitions were discovered in various online dictionaries, as well as searches in Cassell’s Dictionary of Slang, Dictionary of the American West, The New Encyclopedia of the American West, The Cowboy Dictionary, The Cowboy Encyclopedia, Vocabulario Vaquero, I Hear America Talking, Cowboy Lingo, and The Shorter Oxford English Dictionary.

These are from Edgar Beecher Bronson’s The Red-Blooded, about brave men of the frontier, Pauline Wilson Worth’s mining camp stories, Death Valley Slim and Other Stories, and Martin Allerdale Grainger’s Woodsmen of the West, about loggers in British Columbia. Once again, I struck out on a few. If anyone has a definition for “bay steer,” “Fanny Brook,” or “on the bust,” leave a comment below.

Log boom, Idaho, 1973
bald-headed = acting suddenly or without careful consideration. “He went at every problem by the light of nature—‘bald-headed,’ as the saying is—in furious attack.” Martin Allerdale Grainger, Woodsmen of the West.

boom stick = one of the logs fastened together to make a boom to hold floating logs. “Oh, the back-breaking job of boring boom-sticks when your auger keeps biting into stubborn knots!” Martin Allerdale Grainger, Woodsmen of the West.

Bucker and spruce log, 1918
bucker = a logging worker who saws logs into lengths. “The ‘buckers’ had then wormed their way among that giant heap of trunks and limbs and matted boughs, and sawn the good timber into lengths.” Martin Allerdale Grainger, Woodsmen of the West.

chunk = to hit with a missile. “He got so hungry for meat he up ’n’ chunks ’n’ kills ’n’ cooks ’n’ eats a porcupine.” Edgar Beecher Bronson, The Red-Blooded.

Coal trimmers, 1908
coal trimmer = a position in the engineering department of a coal-fired ship which involves all coal handling tasks, from loading coal into the ship to delivery of coal to the stoker. “The oarsman was my old acquaintance Jim; Jim the ‘engineer’; Jim, ex-coal-trimmer from the White Star Line.” Martin Allerdale Grainger, Woodsmen of the West.

Marie Corelli, 1909
Corelli, Marie = a British novelist (1855-1924), whose melodramatic novels were widely read. “It’s kind of tiresome sometimes in winter; lying on your bunk reading magazines or them dime novels by the Duchess and Mary Corelli.” Martin Allerdale Grainger, Woodsmen of the West.

devil club = a large shrub native to the cool, moist forests of western North America, noted for its large palmate leaves and erect, woody stems covered in brittle spines. “The woods, for walking in, are ‘something fierce,’ as persons say—underbrush and fallen logs, rocks and crevices, to hinder one; and needles of the devil-clubs to fray one’s temper.” Martin Allerdale Grainger, Woodsmen of the West.

dog = a short, heavy piece of steel, bent and pointed at one end to form a hook and with an eye or ring at the other, used for many purposes in logging. “A sharp, heavy logging ‘dog,’ had lost grip of a moving log under the strain of hauling, and flicking round had ripped a great wound down Fitz’s leg.” Martin Allerdale Grainger, Woodsmen of the West.

The Duchess, 1906
Duchess, The = Margaret Wolfe Hungerford (1855-1897), an Irish novelist whose light romantic fiction was popular throughout the English-speaking world in the 19th century. “It’s kind of tiresome sometimes in winter; lying on your bunk reading magazines or them dime novels by the Duchess and Mary Corelli.” Martin Allerdale Grainger, Woodsmen of the West.

Duke’s Mixture = a brand of smoking tobacco originated by Washington Duke in the 1860s, believed to be made of tobacco odds and ends; thus “duke’s mixture” came to refer to any hodge-podge of things. “Now a few yar ago nothin’ but Duke’s Mixture would do for me, but now I won’t smoke nothin’ but Bull Durham.” Pauline Wilson Worth, Death Valley Slim and Other Stories.

faller = a logging worker who fells the trees. “The ‘fallers’ had worked along the slope, slope that was almost cliff; and all the trees of value had been felled criss-cross, upon each other and upon the mass of smaller trees their fall had shattered.” Martin Allerdale Grainger, Woodsmen of the West.

frieze = a heavy durable coarse woolen with a rough surface. “Then there are oilskins and blankets and rough suits of frieze for winter wear, and woolen mitts.” Martin Allerdale Grainger, Woodsmen of the West.

go the pace = to proceed with reckless vigor; to indulge in dissipation. “Often they are men with less power of grasping matters of simple finance and arithmetic than the reckless undergraduate, absorbed in ‘going the pace’.” Martin Allerdale Grainger, Woodsmen of the West.

habitaw = a backwoods dweller, e.g. trapper, hunter (French, habitant). “Why, she’s hotter now ’n Billy Buell got last October when that loony haibtaw cook o’ ourn made up all our marmalade and currant jelly into pies.” Edgar Beecher Bronson, The Red-Blooded.

hand logger = a logger felling and moving timber by hand. “And the idea came to me suddenly to go and visit Kendall—that solitary hand-logger who never came near Carter’s camp.” Martin Allerdale Grainger, Woodsmen of the West.

hang out a boom = extend a chain of logs across a bay to hold felled timber. “They saw a boom or two hung out in little bays that opened from the channels.” Martin Allerdale Grainger, Woodsmen of the West.

jawbone = credit. “Jawbone is the western word for credit. I lack the art of using mine persuasively.” Martin Allerdale Grainger, Woodsmen of the West.

Leckie = a work boot manufactured by the J. Leckie Company in Vancouver in the late 1800’s. “Leckie calls attention to his logging boot, whose bristling spikes are guaranteed to stay in.” Martin Allerdale Grainger, Woodsmen of the West.

lubber = a fool. “Thet little gal mustn’t marry thet lubber with the money.” Pauline Wilson Worth, Death Valley Slim and Other Stories.

San Francisco, 1851
mushroom town = a boomtown that springs up overnight. “He quit railroading, collected his savings, and started a hotel in one of the mushroom ‘towns’ with which the very rumour of a boom will spot a country.” Martin Allerdale Grainger, Woodsmen of the West.