Tuesday, April 30, 2013

The Great Sioux Uprising (1953)

There was a weeklong “Great Sioux Uprising” in Minnesota in 1862 that took the lives of 100s, and 38 
Santee Sioux were later hanged. This is not that story. There was a Cherokee chief, Stand Watie (1806-1871), who served as brigadier general of the Confederate Army during the Civil War. This is not his story either. But both appear in this mash-up of western history and Hollywood imagination, as horse thieves make trouble between the cavalry and Sioux chief Red Cloud.

Plot. The cavalry in some unnamed frontier territory is eagerly buying up horses from off the range to deliver to the Union Army for its war effort against the South. Lady rancher and livery owner Joan Britton (Faith Domergue) and horse trader Steven Cook (Lyle Bettger) are friendly competitors in this enterprise. Each has their eye on the horse herds of the nearby Sioux.

It is rumored that Cherokee general Stand Watie (Glen Strange) is also in the market for horses. Given the Sioux’s growing distrust of the whites, he is believed to have an advantage in dealing with Red Cloud (John War Eagle).

Faith Domergue and the 1950s bra
Domergue approaches Red Cloud, but he sends her away empty-handed. Bettger and an eye patch-wearing partner Uriah (Stacy Harris) don’t bother with formalities. They run off a large herd of the horses, shooting any of the Indians who give chase. Enter Jeff Chandler as a disillusioned Army surgeon who treats both an injured brave and an injured horse, a favorite of the chief’s. Chandler promises to find the thieves and see that they’re punished. The chief scoffs.

In town, Chandler is persuaded by Domergue to set up shop as a veterinarian. Meanwhile, local ranchers are learning that as they contract their horses to Bettger for sale to the Army, he is cheating them. Chandler tells them to organize and sell directly to the Army. But only one has the courage to try it, and Harris kills him, stabbing him with a scalpel he has stolen from Chandler’s kit of surgical instruments.

Chandler is taken prisoner by Bettger, but when Chandler gets the best of him in a fistfight, Bettger collapses with an attack of appendicitis. So the good doctor performs an appendectomy with a sheath knife. Returning to town, Chandler finds the locals ready to string him up, his scalpel having been found by the body of the dead rancher. There follows an escape and a barn burning.

The big kiss - Domergue and Chandler
Back at the Indian camp, chiefs of all the Plains tribes gather to consider General Stand Watie’s offer to buy their horses, with several other Confederate officers standing by. Red Cloud is shocked when he sees the general smack down a black servant who has stood too close to him. While Chandler has to run a gauntlet between Indians with clubs to prove that he has an Indian heart, Bettger sends word to the fort to come stop an “uprising.”

Chandler makes his appeal to the chiefs.  The bluecoats, he says, have a belief that no man should be enslaved for the color of his skin. It’s the tipping point that turns the chiefs against Stand Watie.

After much gunfire, a horse stampede, another escape, another struggle between Chandler and Bettger, and the deaths of the villains, the cavalry is diverted before descending on Red Cloud’s camp. In the final scene, Chandler’s confidence has been restored, and he is heading back to the front to resume his duties as a field surgeon. There’s talk of marriage to Domergue when he returns, and they give each other a big kiss.

Stand Watie
History vs. Hollywood. The movie is standard brand western history mixed with bait-and-switch advertising. There is, in fact, no Sioux uprising in the film. And for his part, Stand Watie seems unlikely to have ventured onto the northern plains to buy Sioux horses. Though to give the screenwriters some credit for homework, it had to be news to audiences in 1953 (or today for that matter) that an Indian served as commanding officer on either side of the Civil War.

For a change in this western, Jeff Chandler is playing a white man, and Chief Red Cloud is actually played by an actor with an Indian name—but Indian in name only. John War Eagle, who played Indian roles in many movies, was born John Edwin Worley Eagle (1901-1991) in Leicestershire, England.

Monday, April 29, 2013

Old West glossary, no. 62

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, The Cowboy Dictionary, The Cowboy Encyclopedia, The Dictionary of Victorian Slang, and The Shorter Oxford English Dictionary.

These are from Robert Dunn’s The Youngest World, about a young man’s adventures in gold-rush era Alaska. Some I could not track down are at the bottom of the page.

Alnaschar = a character in an Arabian fable who dreams of becoming rich from the sale of his glassware and then accidentally breaks all of it; cf. counting chickens before they are hatched. “It was there that he had beheld the star-like glitter, faint in the afternoon light, yet so necromantically conjured, of gold ‘in place,’ the free-milling lode which is the North’s dream of Alnaschar.” Robert Dunn, The Youngest World.

Aneroid barometer
aneroid = a barometer regulated by air pressure. “Gail swallowed tea and gnawed pemmican; drew the aneroid from Bob’s pocket; saw with a sinking, desolate heart that it registered but 13,000 feet.” Robert Dunn, The Youngest World.

astrakhan = the dark curly fleece of young karakul lambs from central Asia. “The stout and pock-marked Joe Overheiser stood in a knot of men elaborately dressed for the trail in flat astrakan caps and embroidered moccasins.” Robert Dunn, The Youngest World.

Astrakhan jackets
barrabara = an Eskimo home. “Half sunk underground, the native barrabaras, with their rotted logs patched or gaping, and on each mud roof a brown wrack of tall weeks, now seemed floating away on its glazy surface.” Robert Dunn, The Youngest World.

bean hole = a hole in the ground lined with stones or bricks that is heated to serve as a slow-baking oven, especially for beans. “‘Gar-rub!’ called Mac from the bean-hole, as he lifted the cover from the dutch-oven in a cloud of steam.” Robert Dunn, The Youngest World.

bidarki = a skin covered boat. “The bearded priest, Mike Azoff, on his year’s round of the bleak coast in his bidarki—marrying, baptizing, burying—having shed his odorous kamaleika for the lavish robes kept in the tiny vestry, had smilingly repeated the rigmarole of his Greek faith.” Robert Dunn, The Youngest World.

Aleut barrabara, 1914
bitch = to spoil, ruin. “With an hysterical half-laugh, half-shout, ‘I—I’ll bitch him, bitch him!’—he threw himself into the river after the raft.” Robert Dunn, The Youngest World.

breeching / britching = a strong leather strap passing around the hindquarters of a horse harnessed to a vehicle. “Lena and Bleven, crouching under the horse, were tightening its britching.” Robert Dunn, The Youngest World.

cap of liberty = a close-fitting conical cap used as a symbol of liberty by the French revolutionists and in the U.S. before 1800; a name given to similar mountain formations. “‘Don’t forget the look,’ breathed Bob into Gail’s ear, each crouching on their hands and knees. ‘Shaped like a pointed cap o’ liberty, tilted to the west.’” Robert Dunn, The Youngest World.

chechawko = Chinook word for newcomer or tenderfoot. “Len took this as the text of a bantering comparison between dogs and men, at the expense of chechawko mining experts.” Robert Dunn, The Youngest World.

dudeen = a short clay tobacco pipe. “‘Straight and dry, like a Geological Survey report, ain’t it?’ said Jon at last, into the bowl of his dudeen.” Robert Dunn, The Youngest World.

duff = a flour pudding boiled or steamed in a cloth bag. “She was lifting the big kettle, steaming with the last duff of rice, bacon rind, and the raw-hide of moccasins.” Robert Dunn, The Youngest World.

Liberty Cap, Yosemite
esker = a long ridge of gravel and other sediment, typically winding, deposited by meltwater from a retreating glacier or ice sheet. “The distance down the slope, across the esker and up among the silt mounds of the gridded ice, appeared to shrink.” Robert Dunn, The Youngest World.

fireweed = an herb found in open fields, pastures, and particularly burned-over land. “Across moist flats in the jaundicing shade of big cottonwoods, over windy passes where the air was white with the filmy spore of fireweed.” Robert Dunn, The Youngest World.

fusel oil = alcohol formed by fermentation and present to varying degrees in cider, beer, wine, and spirits. “Gumboot Sal, who peddled fusel oil from the rear of her travoy loaded with a piano swathed in red blankets.” Robert Dunn, The Youngest World.

hipped = enthusiastic. “The way you’ve brought Jonesy back to life, made him a dog at your heels and a fire-brand against Lamar, has got John hipped.” Robert Dunn, The Youngest World.

hiyu = Chinook word for a party, gathering. “Hartline thinks you’re the hiyu rustler of this outfit.” Robert Dunn, The Youngest World.

jimber jaw = a projecting lower jaw. “Soon the buck came in with his gun, a tall young Siwash in a worn fur cap, with thin, handsome upper features, but a brutal jimber-jaw.” Robert Dunn, The Youngest World.

jointweed = a slender, nearly leafless, American herb, with joined spikes of small flowers. “A few gaunt rosebushes with shriveled hips sprang from a velvety carpet of green and clammy joint-weed.” Robert Dunn, The Youngest World.

jumper = sweater. “Sodden grey shirts and decaying jumpers lay all about in the smell of rotting canvas, simulating corpses.” Robert Dunn, The Youngest World.

kamleika / kamaleika = an Aleut robe (parka) made from sea mammal skin, which was light and waterproof, or similar clothing. “The bearded priest, Mike Azoff, on his year’s round of the bleak coast in his bidarki—marrying, baptizing, burying—having shed his odorous kamaleika for the lavish robes kept in the tiny vestry, had smilingly repeated the rigmarole of his Greek faith.” Robert Dunn, The Youngest World.

klootchman = from Chinook jargon, an Indian woman. “Invisible within, the bucks lolled and smoked, the klootchmen forever mended moccasins.” Robert Dunn, The Youngest World.

lay down = to give up, quit. “The prime thought shook Gail that, since he was certain that Bleven would be the first to ‘lay down’ and steal at a crisis, the man was deceivingly preparing his rĂ´le for that, bluffing to cover his tracks to the food.” Robert Dunn, The Youngest World.

Sled dogs
malemute = a breed of sled dog developed in Alaska. “A scrubby little habitant with a black moustache, addressed as Sinjon, whose lithe and show-white malemute got a favourite’s encouragement.” Robert Dunn, The Youngest World.

musher = a person who drives a sled dog team. “As a swarm of ‘mushers,’ they found life to be that sardonic changeling of reality that corrupts the clean struggle for all great visions.” Robert Dunn, The Youngest World.

Saturday, April 27, 2013

Saturday music, Sanford Clark

Sanford Clark, born 1935 in Tulsa, Oklahoma. His biggest hit, "The Fool," recorded 1956. Reached no. 14 on Billboard's Top 100 and no. 7 on the Country Singles chart.

The video is from the 1993 BBC mini-series, "Lipstick On Your Collar," with Ewan McGregor as the somber face in the crowd.

Coming up: Old West glossary, no. 62

Friday, April 26, 2013

James B. Hendryx, The Promise: A Tale of the Great Northwest (1915)

7th edition cover
This is yet another logging camp novel, set in the Canadian woods somewhere north of Winnipeg. The story is a familiar one of a young man who is toughened by the strenuous life and grows into his manhood, thereby winning the respect of others and the love of a sweetheart.

Plot. Bill Carmody is the son of a wealthy Wall Street financier who expects the young man to learn the banking business. But Bill has no enthusiasm for it. Disowned by his father, he heads west, where his plans are literally derailed in a train accident. In the wreckage, he comes to the aid of a passenger who turns out to be a lumberman, H. D. Appleton, who senses greatness in the young man and gives him a job as a logger.

Before even reaching the logging camp, he kills a savage she-wolf that has stalked him. Assigned to a crew bossed by a brutal thug, Buck Moncrossen, he miraculously survives Moncrossen’s plots by to do away with him and develops a reputation as The Man Who Would Not Die.

Hudson's Bay post, Lake Winnipeg, 1884
Injured in one of these “accidents,” he is given shelter and medical attention by an Indian woman with a “half-breed” son and daughter, Jacques and Jeanne. To the Indian woman Bill is the only good white man she has known since her husband’s death. Confirming their mutual trust, she breaks a sheath knife in two, each keeping half and promising to come to the other’s aid should the other’s half be sent to them.

In a second winter season in the woods, Bill is made foreman of his own logging crew. Appleton brings a hunting party to the camp, and the women in attendance are marooned there after an early snowfall. Among them is a sweetheart, Ethel, whom Bill left behind in New York. Believing that she is now engaged to be married to another man, he maintains a respectful distance.

When her little brother, Charlie, is lost in a blizzard, Bill goes out into the storm to retrieve him. After days pass, the two are found near the camp, fallen in the snow and freezing to death. Ethel keeps a bedside vigil until he recovers.

Illustration, Hendryx' Connie Morgan in Alaska
In time Bill and Ethel confess their love for each other and are married at the logging camp. But in the moment their vows are exchanged, Jeanne arrives with her mother’s half of the sheath knife. Bill races off with her, fulfilling his promise, and the shocked Ethel is left at the altar before the assembled guests.

Bill and Jeanne eventually reach Moncrossen’s camp, where the villain is keeping the old woman a prisoner and without food, after she prevented his attempt to take Jeanne by force. Bill beats the man into a bloody pulp and then supervises the break-up of a logjam on the river. Afterward, Bill and Ethel stand together under a starlit sky, ending the novel with an embrace and a kiss.

Character. For Ethel’s little brother, Charlie, Bill has always been an idol and sums him up in a word, “square.” Recovering from minor injuries sustained during the train wreck, Bill won’t take a loan offered to him by Appleton, and he refuses to sue the railroad for damages.  He’s sustained no damages, he says. “Getting something for nothing is not playing the game” and no different from being a pickpocket. That’s pretty square.

In the woods, he learns to overcome his sense of superiority to mere ordinary men. After condescending to those he first meets there, he quickly sheds any claim to entitlement. As he addresses them as equals, in the vernacular of the woods, he is warmly accepted as one of their own. In Appleton’s words, he is a “gentleman” who “is not afraid to get out and work with his two hands—and work hard—and who has never learned the meaning of fear.”

Wednesday, April 24, 2013

Hugh Pendexter, The Mantle of Red Evans (1914)

Mystery solved, thanks to Carol Sandler at The Strong in Rochester, New York, who kindly pdfed me
a copy of a Hugh Pendexter book I’ve been looking for. The Strong, by the way, is self-described as “a highly interactive, collections-based educational institution devoted to the study and exploration of play.” Sounds like a great place to visit.

Followers of BITS may remember that I’ve complained about not being able to find this book, only the short story by the same name published in Munsey’s Magazine in October 1911. I knew it had been published as a book, because it was listed as such in Geoffrey Smith’s bibliography, American Fiction, 1901-1925 and Geoff Sadler’s Twentieth Century Western Writers. But unlike every other public domain novel I’ve searched for, this one was impossible to find, except printed copies at far distant university libraries and not available for circulation.

Turns out The Mantle of Red Evans was published as a short novella by Munsey’s and not expanded into a full-length novel as I’d assumed. In fact, if I’d read the entire entry in Smith, I’d have noticed that the book was only 32 pages. I’m assuming the edition was a hardback, but I don’t know. It had a cover design and one illustration by an unnamed and apparently new illustrator. Illustrations for the original magazine version were by W. Herbert Dunton. Either Pendexter or a Munsey's editor, dignifies the storys publication as a book by prefacing it with Edgar Allan Poes dictum:

Were I called upon to designate that class of composition which should best fulfil the demands of high geniusshould offer it the most advantageous field of exertionI should unhesitatingly speak of the short prose tale. The novel is objectionable from its length. As it cannot be read at one sitting, it deprives itself of the immense force derivable from totality.

In other words, "be prepared for a work of high genius."

Illustration from the 1914 edition
Plot. The story is simple and has a humorous tone. It’s very possibly influenced by O. Henry, as it has his kind of ironic spoofing of western conventions and a surprise ending. There’s also a big helping of romance to round out the story’s conclusion.

By 1911, when the story was first published, the gunman was already a stock character in western fiction. He was a man whose reputation preceded him, and people quietly melted into the woodwork on his arrival at a saloon. Should he choose not to pay, drinks were on the house.

Such is the opening of the story as a young man walks into a saloon in a dusty western town and lets it be known that he is Red Evans, the most feared gunman in the territory. He’s known to have “potted the Dutch Twins,” and there are mixed reports of other killings. Curiously, he drinks his whiskey with a glass of milk, reportedly to steady his nerves.  

Gunslingers and troublemakers from nearby towns, Big Rennon and One-Eyed Brown, want nothing to do with him. Folks there in Sandville feel some relief that his presence will keep away the ruffians and contribute to a long elusive peace. He’s cause for some civic pride, too, having chosen their town to take up residence.

Illustration from Munsey's, 1911
The man himself has his own reasons for alighting in Sandville. He’s on the trail of a pretty young woman he’s seen get off the stage. She’s the new hotel manager, and when he wants to rent a room, she turns him away in no uncertain terms, drawing the line at gunslingers and liars. When he declares his love for her, she is unmoved.

Tables turn when another man arrives, calling himself Red Evans. The girl gives him the same treatment. Not only does she demand that he remove his firearms, she says she knows he’s really someone else and that he is a “sluice-thief, horse-thief, cattle thief, and several other kinds of a thief!”

Finally, the lovesick young man admits he’s an imposter as well, and she reveals that she’s known it all along, for the real Red Evans was her father. And she confesses that she has loved the young man from the moment she first saw him. Declaring their mutual affection, they intend to waste no time getting married.

Tuesday, April 23, 2013

The Battle at Apache Pass (1952)

It’s often a surprise to discover that a western has been based on actual historical events. Such is the
case with this one, set in the 1860s. It’s an account of how an uneasy peace with the Apaches fell apart thanks to government attempts to relocate them from their traditional homelands. It tells of a time when the names of Cochise and Geronimo became synonymous with the Indian Wars of the Southwest.

The film is a prequel to an earlier James Stewart western, Broken Arrow (1950), about the efforts of Tom Jeffords to arrange a truce with Cochise after a decade of bloodshed. In both films, the roles of Cochise (Jess Chandler) and Geronimo (Jay Silverheels) are performed by the same actors.

Plot. The story at its outset emphasizes the trusting relationship that exists between Cochise and the commanding officer, Major Colton (John Lund), at Fort Buchanan. On both sides, however, there is trouble brewing. Geronimo is gathering a band of warriors to drive out the whites.

Jeff Chandler as Cochise
Trouble comes for Major Colton in the form of an agent from Indian Affairs, Neil Baylor (Bruce Cowling), who arrives with a contingent of replacements under Lt. George Bascom (John Hudson). In their company is a trader, Mescal Jack (Jack Elam), known for selling liquor and arms to Indians. With the impressionable Bascom under his influence, Baylor intends to clear the region of Indians to make way for economic development. He has brought along heavy artillery to enforce his plans if the Indians prove recalcitrant.

Geronimo’s attacks are enough to spark a campaign by Bascom’s troops against Cochise, who is blamed for killings, mutilations, and kidnapping of children. At a meeting with Bascom, Cochise escapes a craven attempt to capture him. Hostages are taken on both sides, and all of them are killed. Cochise and Geronimo now join forces against the whites.

Meanwhile, troops are needed back East to do battle against the South in the Civil War, and Fort Buchanan is abandoned. As the troops pass through Apache Pass, they are ambushed by the Indians. The Indian agent Baylor is one of the first to die. In what becomes a fierce engagement, the howitzers are put to use, and the heavy artillery eventually forces Cochise to call a ceasefire.

Raising a white flag, he approaches the cavalry with his wife Nono (Susan Cabot), wanting the white medicine of the Army physician (Regis Toomey), as she is in some physical distress. Though the Production Code has permitted scant evidence of it, we have known from early in the film that she is pregnant. She receives the attention of the doctor, as well as the solicitous concern of a white schoolteacher (Beverly Tyler), who happens to be traveling with the company of soldiers.

Meanwhile, Geronimo, outraged by Cochise’s willingness to deal with the whites, declares himself leader of the Apaches. The two men fight it out with knives, until Cochise subdues Geronimo. Then, he learns that his wife has given birth. Mother and son doing well, they ride off again, though Cochise clarifies that he has not been reconciled to the whites. There will be time in the future to talk again of peace.

Susan Cabot, Jeff Chandler, at the wickiup
Romance. The usual romantic subplot gets lost in the shuffle of all the action in this western. Cochise advises the lonesome major that the schoolteacher would make a good wife for him. The two get a brief scene, in which each tests the water with the other, but that is the extent of any intimacy between them. No big hug and kiss before the credits roll.

For intimacy, the film gives us several scenes between Cochise and his wife, Nono. They are a loving couple, and he is tender to her. She is building a wickiup for the two of them as they wait for their firstborn. The only trouble comes when he has rescued the schoolteacher from Geronimo, and Nono worries that his affections are being drawn away by this “copper-haired” white woman.

Saturday, April 20, 2013

Saturday music: Billy Grammer

Billy Wayne Grammer, born 1925 in Benton, Illinois. Singer, songwriter, and guitarist, best known for "Gotta Travel On" (1959).

Coming up: The Battle of Apache Pass (1952)

Friday, April 19, 2013

Marion Reid-Girardot, Steve of the Bar-G Ranch (1915)

Never mind the subtitle of this novel, which promises “A Thrilling Story of Life on the Plains of Colorado.” Steve of the Bar-G Ranch is for the most part a ranch romance. Steve is a handsome young cowboy who falls in love with a pretty young thing from back East and wins her heart and hand despite the obstacles that divide them.

Plot. Steve Gardeau is top cowboy on the family ranch 25 miles east of Denver. His foster brother, Blackie, has competed with him since boyhood for every honor a young man might desire, including the interest of any pretty girl. As congenial and even-tempered as Steve is, Blackie is resentful and vindictive. When Steve catches the eye of the schoolteacher, Miss Little, Blackie is furious.

For Miss Little, Steve is the pick of the lot, and she makes every effort to wring a marriage proposal out of him. But he’s not so easy to catch, especially as a summer visitor from New York, Eloise Parker, shows up. Miss Parker has welcomed the opportunity to get away from a pesky suitor, the millionaire, Reggie Van Rennssler, but he insists on accompanying her on her western adventure.

Steve is undaunted by the presence of this other man. Meeting Miss Parker at a Fourth of July picnic, he quickly gives her all his attention. She is flattered and allows him to befriend her. Snobby Reggie gives up and goes back to New York, trusting that she will eventually come around and marry him for his money.

Romantic feelings grow between Steve and Miss Parker, and emotions reach a peak during a camping trip with friends in the Rocky Mountains. Caught in a snow squall at a high elevation overlooking a scenic view, they confess their mutual love and agree to marry.

After that, all goes downhill for a while as Miss Parker is called back to New York by her ailing mother, who refuses to approve of the marriage when she learns of it. Steve takes the news hard, and Miss Little goes to work on him again, hoping to get him on the rebound.

Business takes Steve to Boston, where he happens to meet Miss Parker and falls madly in love all over again. Back in Colorado, he joins a hunt for horse thieves, and when they are found, Blackie is discovered among them. In an exchange of gunfire, both Steve and Blackie are seriously wounded and taken to a hospital in Colorado Springs, where each clings to life.

Camp wagon
Learning of the incident, Miss Parker is overcome and falls into a faint. Startled, her wheelchair-bound mother leaps to her feet and experiences complete recovery from 15 years of paralysis. Eager to see the West, she accompanies her daughter to Colorado, and finding her bed-ridden lover, Miss Parker attends his return to health.

Falling in love with the West, her mother gives her blessing to her daughter’s marriage to a cowboy. Meanwhile, Miss Little settles for second best with Blackie. Though under guard for his part in the ring of horse thieves, he escapes with the help of Steve, who puts him and Miss Little, dressed as sisters of mercy, on a train to Mexico.

Romance. Maintaining appearances is more often than not the order of the day in matters of romance.  Miss Parker observes that it is better to keep a man guessing about a woman’s true feelings. Once a man thinks he’s won her, he takes her for granted and “considers the matter settled for life.” By comparison, were he to win a fortune, he would never let it out of his thoughts.

To hold a man’s interest, you can’t let him suspect you like him or, worse yet, that you are out to snare him. He will quickly get cold feet, lose interest, or get resentful that he is not doing all the pursuing. Thus, as Steve becomes increasingly flirtatious, with “half-serious, half-jesting declarations of love,” Miss Parker falls into a state of confusion, not wanting to appear to encourage him. 

Thursday, April 18, 2013

John Reese, The Land Baron (1974)

This is the third book in the trilogy, Jesus on Horseback, John Reese’s tribute to his fictional frontier community, Mooney, Colorado. Reese was a reporter and labor editor for William Randolph Hearst’s Los Angeles Examiner, and he is like other western writers who worked in the news business. He has that particular understanding of community that crosses social boundaries and divisions. He knows that despite upstanding facades, crooks and phonies abound. And his opinion of the human condition ranges from salty skepticism to heartfelt sentiment.

Plot. Like other writers, Reese has insisted that plot springs from the characters that populate a story. The Land Baron is chock-full of them, each sharply and often humorously drawn. The man at the center of it all is Sheriff Abe Whipple, and in his role as an officer of the law, his duties make him an attentive observer of the lives of everyone else in Mooney.

The central storyline concerns the arrival in Mooney of a land speculator, Asa R. St. Sure, known to one and all as “Tapeworm.” Full of birdshot from an unknown assailant when we first meet him, he is the sad case of a man who’s come west hoping for a change in a string of bad luck—only to find more of it. Who-shot-Tapeworm becomes the thread on which depends the many people and incidents that make up the novel.

Prairie, northeast Colorado, 1917
The wheel of fortune turns for Tapeworm when he comes upon inside information that the railroad is building a spur into town. With his oldest daughter’s inheritance from his first wife, he snaps up whatever real estate he can get his hands on. He’s also developing commercial properties in anticipation of the boom he expects the railroad to bring.

Among the cast of characters is his daughter, Virginia, whose fish-out-of-water husband runs off with a carnival performer. When one-armed Elmo Huger, an outspoken Baptist, takes on work as her ranch foreman, he’s humiliated when she freely admits that he’s assumed the place of her former husband in her bed.

There’s a 71-year-old Englishman, Dickerson Royce, who does nothing but drink up a quarterly remittance. A villain, Mike Timpke, who lurks mysteriously on the sidelines, manages to live as an outlaw though he is terrified of guns. There’s Alec McMurdoch, banker and former cowboy, whose horse loses a high-stakes race while he’s trying to take a piss in the weeds with an enlarged prostate. And so on.

Sod house, 1901
Narration. The novel has a narrator, Pete Heath, who has a little ranch outside of town where anyone from immigrants to fugitives can take shelter for a few days, maybe trading horses, no questions asked. You catch his voice now and then in his slightly ungrammatical use of English, with words like “retch” (reached), “catched,” and “overhalls,” and expressions like “He done it.”

Pete is a repository of rumor and local scuttlebutt. Sheriff Whipple may drop by for his opinion on a matter, given whatever news might have reached Pete’s ears. In the few scenes like these, the narration slips into fist person, and it’s a little surprise to be reminded that we are being told a story by someone in the story itself.

Reese achieves a clever sleight-of-hand, by having a marginal character who is also an omniscient narrator. The segues between third- and first-person narration neatly place the novel in an older, oral tradition. Like stories told around the campfire, liberties are taken by the storyteller who pretends to know what someone was thinking, saying, and doing, though they were not present as a witness. And we happily suspend disbelief.

Wednesday, April 17, 2013

Patti Abbott, Home Invasion

Review and interview

I have been waiting for Patti Abbott to write a western to review here at BITS, and her new novel, Home Invasion, gives me something to talk about until she does. I have marveled often at Abbott’s way of telling a story, and Home Invasion is blissfully both a novel and a short story collection.

There are continuing characters that connect these stories, which extend over a period of time from 1961 to 2005. They are mostly about members of the same family and the people whose lives happen to intersect with them. The way characters find and connect with each other gives the stories their particular twist. They are drawn together by a kind of magnetic pull that matches up their weaknesses rather than strengths.

A woman with a domineering mother locates a hopelessly damaged father, who leaves her in the company of a sleazy storefront preacher. She runs off with a grifter and drifts into alcoholism. Her son teams up with a dubious friend who breaks into houses. One of his girlfriends is cravenly wanton and unfaithful. Another kidnaps a baby to justify the child support he’s been paying while he’s doing time. And so on.

There’s a bit of Raymond Carver in these stories, though I did not think of him while reading them. Abbott brings her own wry perspective that examines the lives of marginal people but sidesteps Carver’s pathos. You are more likely to groan than sigh at the ends of chapters as characters extricate themselves from one awkward situation only to create another. Carver’s people make mistakes and don’t get what they deserve. Abbott’s do.

At the shore
The situations they get themselves into typically involve the telling of lies or half-truths or keeping the truth from someone else. The “home invasion” of the title is a good metaphor for all this. Given the chance, they will transgress boundaries, steal, blame others, and take advantage of other people’s trust.

So when a kidnapped baby does not fool the man who’s been told by his girlfriend he’s the father, she simply skips out on both of them. In another episode, his partner in crime sets up a practical joke that has him believing an elderly woman has been killed.

The dysfunction in Abbott’s families would be painful if it wasn’t also grimly humorous. Probably my favorite sequence in the book (originally a stand-alone story) describes a family’s day at the shore. Two small brothers are left to fend for themselves as their mother finds a bar to get drunk and their father is up to no good, while continually complaining about how much the day is costing him. The final words of that story elicit one of the well-deserved groans I mentioned earlier.

What I enjoy about a Patti Abbott story is the economy of the storytelling and the finely polished prose. Her dialogue is sharp and darkly funny. Nearly everything that happens is unexpected, and while endings are often surprises, they are also inevitable. Her characters are so nicely complex that you want to hear more about them, and this novel does just that.

Home Invasion is currently available for kindle.

Patti Abbott

Patti Abbott has generously agreed to spend some time here today talking about writing and her novel. I happily turn the rest of this page over to her.

How did the idea for Home Invasion suggest itself to you?
I have been writing about this family, the Slack, Wist, Batch family, for as long as I’ve been writing. The first story I wrote—and it was before 2000—was the one about the burglary. I was still in a writing class then and my teacher, Chris Leland, suggested I submit it the annual short story contest that the International Auto show ran. It got awarded runner-up prize (a free pass to the show!!), which was surprising since it featured no cars.

After that I moved backward rather than forward with this family. It was easier for me to write short stories when I knew the characters. Or at least knew where they came from. The characters themselves mostly popped up although Billie is largely based on a friend, who spent her childhood trying to locate her father. Her mother was essentially Kay, and her grandmother, Adele.

But after the first story, nothing else was based on her actual life. She never found her father despite all those hours looking for him in telephone directories, but had a pretty flamboyant life herself. She did fashion wigs, and in her booth in Gimbels two men nearly had a shoot-out over her. Don’t know why I didn’t put that part in.

Is the published version similar to how you first conceived it or somewhat different?
This novel in stories almost had an agent a few years back. But he decided an unknown writer could not sell a book laid out like this. When he looked at it, it had two additional stories. One took place before any of the ones in this collection and concerned Kay, Adele and Billie and a possible pedophile. I thought there was enough dark stuff in this book without beginning there.

The other story was about Charlie’s attempt to have a relationship with a mobster’s daughter and Ron’s interference. I think I allude to this woman slightly in here. It felt too long, and those were the stories most easily excised. Although Adele got to really show her stripes in that first one, and I may find a place to publish it yet.

Talk a bit about editing and revising. After completing a first draft, did it go through any key changes?
I had pretty much edited this collection to death before Snubnose got it because of the near miss with the agent, so SP had only one major suggestion, and it was a terrific one. It’s in the final chapter and concerns the fate of Melissa. I had intended for her to take the deal and disappear but Brian suggested something else. He wanted the novel to end bigger and he was right.

A day at the shore
I remember once reading the story of the day at the shore, and I recall it differently. Is it my faulty memory or is the novel’s version actually different? 
It was very similar. I think this one was a bit quicker. If left to me, I will pare every story down to 2400 words. At one point, I had a much longer argument about the best way to get to AC from Philly, but who cares other than people from Philly. These characters have been with me so long that I can hear the entire conversation they would have in my head, and it’s hard to know what you can leave behind and what furthers the plot and the characters. 

Was there anything about the novel that surprised you in the writing of it?
I have actually written two more traditional novels. In Home Invasion, the crutch of having written so many short stories helped. When you write a traditional novel, you have to move the story along without big moments at least some of the time. In this book, every story has a distinct and slightly different setting and features some sort of crime. I was able to center each story around that change of place and crime.

Tuesday, April 16, 2013

The Texas Rangers (1951)

There are a couple of facts in this fact-based western about outlaw Sam Bass. Otherwise, you can throw away your history books. The film starts with the organization of the Texas Rangers after the Civil War under Major John Jones. It ends with the death of Sam Bass in Round Rock, Texas. Everything in between is a fabrication.

Plot. It’s 1874, and Sam Bass (William Bishop) is terrorizing Texas with a gang of the worst outlaws the West has ever known, including Dave Rudabaugh (Douglas Kennedy), John Wesley Hardin (John Dehner), The Sundance Kid (Ian MacDonald), and Butch Cassidy (John Doucette).

Two of them (George Montgomery, Noah Beery, Jr.) are double-crossed by Sundance in an early scene, and the two men are captured and put in prison. There they are subjected to water torture until Jones (John Litel) offers a pardon if they come to work for him. Montgomery has inside information on the gang as well as a reputation as a gunman.

Litel (left) gets an earful from Storm
A crusading newspaper publisher (Gale Storm) pitches in at this point to object to giving law enforcement jobs to two “rotten apples.” Her father had been killed at the scene of the robbery where the two were arrested. The headlines in her paper alert Bass that Montgomery and Beery have been freed to go after him.

The rest of the movie becomes a cat and mouse game between the two Rangers and the gang, as each tries to outsmart and outshoot the other. An ambush fails as The Sundance Kid tries to dispatch them along with Montgomery’s tag-along younger brother (Jerome Courtland). Montgomery sneaks up on the Kid and kills him (which may come as a surprise to those who know their history).

Having settled an old score with Sundance, Montgomery intends to quit the Rangers, but Beery and Courtland remind him of the oath he took when he was sworn in. Ambushed again, the three put up a good fight, eliminating all but one of the bushwhackers. But Courtland takes a round and dies in Montgomery’s arms.

Sam Bass
The Bass gang attempts a Wells Fargo robbery that is interrupted by Montgomery, who makes off with the loot. Believed to have returned to outlawing, he's now wanted, dead or alive, while he explains to Beery that he's actually trying to capture Bass single-handed.

Joining up with the gang over a chicken dinner, Montgomery sets up a trap by involving them in a plan to rob a train with a gold shipment. Meanwhile, Beery is supposed to get word to Jones and the Rangers to be waiting for them in Round Rock, the scene of the robbery.

Alas, Beery is captured by the gang and shot dead as Montgomery stands by unable to prevent his pal’s demise. He tries again to get word to the Rangers by stopping at the newspaper office on the gang’s way out of town, giving Storm instructions for Jones while smashing up the office and pretending to push her around.

But in a change of plans, Bass has some of the gang, including Montgomery, jump the train before it reaches Round Rock. The action escalates into high gear as the hijacking evolves into the usual chills, spills, and thrills. As the train races on, Rudabaugh attempts to kill Montgomery but gets shot instead. Bass is similarly dispatched, and the train finally comes to a stop at Round Rock where Jones and the Rangers are waiting.

Montgomery’s heroism exonerates him. Jones shakes his hand, townsfolk wave and cheer, and Storm gets a big kiss.

Montgomery roughs up two outlaws; Beery looks on
Extras. The story is fast paced. All of this happens in little over an hour. Despite the routine western elements, the film has its moments. The gang’s gathering over a KFC-style chicken dinner adds a comic touch to a tense scene, as Montgomery persuades Bass that he’s as crooked as he claims to be.

The rough-love scenes between Storm and Montgomery give a visceral turn to the usual romantic sub-plot. The two get off on the wrong foot with her display of sarcasm as she fiercely objects to his release from prison. In a later scene, the dispute heightens until she slaps him hard across the face. Then in their last confrontation, he throws her around, pushing her back into a swivel chair every time she stands up, then surprising her with what is meant to look like an unwanted kiss.

The train robbery is worth waiting for. It unfolds with nail-biting excitement, the thunderous roar of the wheels the only sound on the soundtrack. The film is jam-packed with characters and action, played out against handsome scenery. Not a lot of fancy stuff, but competent, economical, and precise storytelling. Definitely a B+.