Saturday, August 31, 2013

Glossary of frontier fiction: B
(B&S - beard)

Below is a list of mostly forgotten terms, people, and the occasional song, drawn from a reading of frontier fiction, 1880-1915. Each week a new list, progressing through the alphabet, “from A to Izzard.”

B&S = brandy and soda. “Let's go somewhere for a B & S, and find out about each other.” Stewart Edward White, Arizona Nights.

back channel = the smaller of two channels in a river that diverge to form an island. “The next island below Split-up was known as Roubeau’s Island, and was separated from the former by a narrow back channel.” Jack London, A Daughter of the Snows.

back-firing = running someone out of the country. “‘They ain’t only one thing’ll stop him.’ Tough Nut looked cunningly suggestive…‘Say, back-firin’. Savey?’” Frank Lewis Nason, To the End of the Trail.

back log = a large log at the back of a fire in a fireplace. “Now, you see this back log in the center of my blankets is the dead line between us.” John C. Bell, The Pilgrim and the Pioneer.

Back of Beyond = any real or imagined remote region; first put into print by Sir Walter Scott in his novel The Antiquary (1816). “How absurd you are! Who ever dreamed of such a thing? This isn’t the Back of Beyond.” John H. Whitson, Justin Wingate, Ranchman.

back-setting = turning broken sod back to its original place with additional fresh soil to cover it. “I was back-setting the thirty acres down by the lake when I heard a shot an’ a yell.” Herman Whitaker, The Settler.

backcapper = someone who openly or quietly maligns others, and is therefore despicable. “Some of the backcappers will be telling you presently that I was a train despatcher over in God’s country, and that I put two trains together.” Francis Lynde, The Taming of Red Butte Western.

backing it = to be laid up, ill. “The cook was mighty good to me while I was backin’ it; he used to deal out fussy little fixin’s ’at kept the appetite and the fever both down.” Robert Alexander Wason, Happy Hawkins.

bad cess to = may evil befall. “‘Red Slavin, bad cess to him!’ and her eyes regarded her questioner with renewed anxiety.” Randall Parrish, Bob Hampton of Placer.

Bad man from Bodie = a mythical hell raiser from Bodie, California, a gold mining boomtown, 1878-1880. “Like ‘the bad man from Bodie,’ fear to him is an unknown quantity, and the greater the danger the more desperate he seems to become.” Chicago Daily Tribune, 30 July 1881.

bail = an arched handle, such as on a bucket or a teapot. “The bread was cut and spread, the coffee put in a small bucket, and a string of tin cups was tied to its bail.” Grace and Alice MacGowan, Aunt Huldah.

Bain wagon = a high-wheeled utility wagon produced from 1840 in Kenosha, Wisconsin. “A number of saddle-horses and Bain wagons and lighter vehicles were hitched to the rail fence in front of the house.” Frances McElrath, The Rustler.

Friday, August 30, 2013

Rex Beach, Pardners (1906)

I reviewed this book three years ago while looking for cowboy stories and neglected its several stories set in gold rush Alaska. As I put together a chapter on Rex Beach for a book on frontier fiction, I’m correcting that oversight. Here is some of what I have added.

The subject of two prospectors working together as partners is at the heart of Rex Beach’s Alaska stories in this collection. One pair, Big George Brace and Charlie Captain are featured in three of them. Involved in daring adventures, usually saving the lives of others, they eventually must confront a life-threatening risk that may permanently separate them.

“Where Northern Lights Come Down o’ Nights.” In this story, Big George and Captain are up against a rogue priest, Father Orloff, a Russian who has a wide influence among the indigenous Eskimo tribes. Receiving a cold and threatening reception as the two partners arrive in one of their settlements, they claim sanctuary in the church. There they wait through a storm and make plans to escape before Father Orloff shows up with the certain intention of killing one or both of them.

“The Scourge.” This, the most disturbing of the Alaska stories, has death by scurvy as its subject. George and Captain come upon an encampment of 125 newly arrived prospectors who have dug in for the winter. Instead of putting up log cabins for shelter, they are living in dugouts, where Captain tells them that without air, light, exercise, and the right diet, they are certain to fall ill.

"The Scourge"
Unwilling to take anyone’s advice, they stay put, coming to dislike the industrious duo, who venture out daily to work in the snow and cold. Without preventatives like potatoes, limejuice, and citric acid, they begin to develop scurvy and start dying in numbers.

Short on rations themselves, George and Captain are also at risk and nervously watch for symptoms of the disease. When George falls ill, Captain and another man, Klusky, start off on a days-long journey for fresh grub.

“Pardners.” The title story, however, concerns a big, rough bruiser, Bill Joyce, who tells of taking a young tenderfoot under his wing. They have mixed fortunes as prospectors, but the real drama involves the young man’s wife back home.

When she doesn’t answer his letters, he gets so heartsick the two men return to the States. In Seattle, they find her singing in a variety show. She considers the marriage over because of some unflattering photos she has seen of her husband in the newspaper. In doing a photo feature on life up north, a sensation-seeking journalist has made him out to be a carouser and womanizer.

"The Thaw at Slisco's"
“The Thaw at Slisco’s.” Billy Joyce narrates this story as well. Several prospectors gather during a fierce winter storm in Slisco’s roadhouse, where they are joined by Annie Black, a hard and bitter woman considered with some contempt as a claim jumper.

When a nearly frozen Eskimo stumbles in out of the storm, they learn that two Swedes are still out in the snow about to perish. Annie marshals a rescue, shaming the reluctant men into leaving the comfort and safety of the roadhouse. The two Swedes are brought back alive. When a pretty young woman arrives in search of her mother, the mother turns out to be Annie.

Character. There’s a recurring theme in many of the stories that defines character as the willingness to make sacrifices for the sake of others in distress. That sacrifice usually involves a risk to one’s own life. It matters not whether a person in need is an adversary. You put past differences behind you and go to his aid.

Thursday, August 29, 2013

Richard S. Wheeler, Badlands (1992)

The western lends itself well to a particular kind of story—the small group of travelers crossing a forbidding terrain. Far from civilization, they are at the mercy of hostile elements, human and nonhuman. Richard Wheeler’s novel offers an interesting twist on that formula as he sends an expedition of scientists into the badlands of Nebraska Territory in the summer of 1859.

Among the small troop are men and women of honorable or questionable character, and circumstances bring out the best and worst in them. One or more of them rise to a kind of heroism in the face of adversity, others sink into depravity, and two will fall in love. It’s the world in microcosm.

Plot. Wheeler’s scientists include three paleontologists in search of fossils. A fourth is an ethnologist studying the native populations of the plains. Briefly outlined, the novel tells of how their fieldwork arouses the distrust of nearby Sioux, while the greed and disrespect of one of the party put all their lives in jeopardy.

The danger in which they find themselves grows only gradually. The reaction of the Indians, though unpredictable and potentially menacing, remains for a long time reserved and patient. Though intruders, the whites are granted the courtesy afforded to guests, and they are also subjects of immense curiosity.

Badlands National Park, South Dakota
When the ethnologist desecrates a burial site, the Indians give them all a polite warning and are pacified after negotiating a measure of restitution. Refusing to be warned, however, the ethnologist continues in his pillage of sacred Sioux artifacts and when discovered raises doubt that any of them will return to civilization alive.

Characters.  The story is chiefly in the characters themselves. Heading up the expedition is Cyrus Wood, an aging Harvard professor of paleontology. His grant from the Smithsonian has given him a last chance to win the fame that has long eluded him. Another paleontologist is a physician from North Carolina, an irritating man aptly named Roderick Crabtree. Tending to his daily needs is his black slave, Gracie.

The ethnologist, Archimedes Van Vliet, is greedy for fame, the selfless pursuit of pure science be hanged. He is also overly dependent on alcohol, which abets his reckless disregard for consequences.

All three men are nettled by the presence among them of an English woman, Candace Huxtable. An amateur fossil hunter, she has made of herself an unwelcome tag-along, coming all the way from Cambridge at her own expense to carry on the work of her departed father. With her, to ensure propriety for a woman traveling alone, is her hired chaperone, Mrs. Rumley.

Wednesday, August 28, 2013

Revise, revise, revise: cutting

Early installments of the book I’ve been writing date from three years ago, when frankly I didn’t know what I was doing. Revising that early material now, I find a lot that has to go because it doesn’t work or doesn’t fit anymore. So today’s post is about cutting.

False starts. I’m often unsure where to begin with a new subject, and a first draft may show more than one start. A chapter about the novel The Wire-Cutters by Mollie E. Davis originally began with this paragraph.

This novel ends with a young woman dropping an engagement ring over the side of a transatlantic liner. The ring was given to her by the brother of her new husband. The two men, without knowing they are brothers, have been arch enemies through most of the novel. Thus the story ends as it began, a young bride coming to believe that she has married the wrong man.

But this apparently didn’t go anywhere. The next paragraph took another tack. The first one, however, must have seemed too good to let go. It was still there. I wince now and cut it.

Tone.  My early work was heavily influenced by the tone I was taking in blog posts. Doing a bad imitation of other bloggers, my writing was full of mock conversations with the reader, self-important references to myself, forced analogies, and over-cleverness. The following manages to exhibit all four:

Confused yet? I’d call this a western novel duking it out with a very sentimental Southern melodrama. The result is a TKO. Giving the last scene to that unhappy bride finally tips the balance toward melodrama.

Dreadful. Notice the desperate attempt to link back to the bride in that “false start.” So this kind of stuff goes, too.

Condensing. I think it was Mark Twain who said it’s a terrible death to be talked to death. My writing tends to over-explain. If one example will do, I’m ready with several. If there’s some nuance that takes a paragraph to put into words, you’ll find me expecting a reader to wade through all that, too. Say something once and then say it again a couple of more times. Like I’ve just done in this paragraph.

Revising, I have to sort need-to-know information from what is just nice-to-knowThen start cutting back the nice-to-know. The result, with luck, is clear and succinct. Like this paragraph.

Summarizing a novel’s plot, for instance, means stripping it down to the basics and ignoring the wrinkles. What’s left is no more than what a reader needs in order to easily follow the rest of a discussion of the novel.

Digressions. I can digress like crazy. It comes with a habit of free-associating. There’s always some point of connection between the mainstream of a discussion and some side topic, but that side topic muscles in like it belongs there. In a looser format, you’d put that stuff in a sidebar, treating it as optional reading. More nice-to-know information.

In my case, digressions are a sign of poor organizing. As the first draft developed, I gradually settled on a series of topics I wanted to cover for each book I was discussing: plot, character, women, romance, villainy, race and ethnicity, East vs. West, storytelling style, and the writer's career. I can now compare the earliest first-draft chapters to that basic outline. What doesn’t fit into it is usually the digressions, and out they go.

Point first. I often need to write for a while before knowing what my point is. Finally it will show up at the end of a paragraph. Or I expect the reader to infer it without my having to put it into words.

To make it into draft #2, these paragraphs need an overhaul, with a clear statement of the point at the beginning. The rest of the paragraph, usually with some rewriting, then falls into place right after it.

Unsupported claims. Another first-draft habit is to state a point and then follow it with no clarification, no examples, no support, nothing. The rest of the paragraph is typically nice-to-know information about something else. Or a digression.

Writing of any kind is rhetoric, meaning you are making an argument. As a writer, you’re stating claims and making them persuasive by supporting them with evidence. Think of a lawyer summing up a case for the jury. The defendant is innocent because (a) she had no motive to kill her husband, (b) her fingerprints were not found the murder weapon, and (c) witnesses saw her somewhere else at the time of the crime.

So those unsupported claims I like to make have to be either developed orbetter yetcut.

To be continued.

Further reading:
Revise, revise, revise: audience

Photo credit: Wikimedia Commons

Coming up: Richard S. Wheeler, Badlands

Tuesday, August 27, 2013

Robert J. Conley, Zeke Proctor: Cherokee Outlaw (1994)

Robert J. Conley brings to life a gripping chapter of Cherokee history in this novel set in 1870s Indian Territory. Based on historical records, the story begins with the marriage of a ne’er-do-well white man into a Cherokee family that sets in motion a string of bloody incidents worthy of a Greek tragedy.

At the center is Zeke Proctor, the man’s brother-in-law, an industrious Cherokee farmer with a reputation as a gunman following the violent years of the Civil War. That war had set Cherokee against Cherokee, as the tribe split along lines dating back to the Trail of Tears removal from their North Carolina homeland in 1838. During the War, mostly mixed-blood, slave-owning Confederate sympathizers took up arms against the mostly full-bloods who remained loyal to the Union.

Plot. Though of mixed-blood parentage himself, Proctor was a loyalist, and old hostilities become reignited when he accidentally kills a woman whose family fought for the South. The pursuit of justice in the matter being strictly a tribal affair, there is trouble from the start as the two factions cannot agree on the selection of a judge trusted to be impartial.

Indian Territory, 1881
Matters are further complicated as the dead woman’s family involves federal authorities from nearby Arkansas. Proctor had been trying to kill his brother-in-law at the time of the shooting, which made the man an alleged victim of attempted murder. Though technically a member of the tribe and subject only to tribal law, he is also a white man, and that draws the attention of federal law enforcement.

Acting as observers of the trial, but holding a warrant for Proctor’s arrest should he be acquitted, two U.S. marshals find themselves in the middle of the dispute. A shooting breaks out at the trial, leaving many dead, including one of the marshals. That puts Proctor in far deeper trouble, and he goes into hiding, with a small volunteer army of Indians for protection.

Ulysses S. Grant
Cooler heads eventually prevail, including the one belonging to President Ulysses S. Grant, whose orders prevent a firefight between Cherokees and the U.S. Army. In time, the feud between the two tribal families resolves into a grudging truce. And Zeke Proctor, Cherokee outlaw, lives out the rest of his years unmolested.

Character. A proud but honorable man, Proctor might have stepped across the state line into Arkansas to escape prosecution for the killing. Instead, he makes himself accountable to tribal law, immediately turning himself in to the sheriff. Thoroughly trusted, he is sent home in the company of two deputies to await trial.

For all that, Conley doesn’t give us a one-dimensional portrayal of a single-minded man. On the one hand, Proctor subscribes to the native belief that actions and failures to act have a ripple effect through a person’s life. When his wife dies of a sudden illness, he assumes there is a “life for a life” connection between her death and that of the woman he has accidentally killed. Thus he is responsible for both. When his brother is killed in the shootout at the trial, he believes himself responsible for that death as well.

Monday, August 26, 2013

Traditional western vs. Frontier Fiction

Putting together a survey of the first writers of novels set in the West, I have been puzzled by what to call what they wrote. The term “western” doesn’t quite do the job. In the mind of readers, that word has come to mean a story specifically about cowboys and/or lawmen and outlaws. But the early years of the genre (1880-1915) saw novels on many other subjects.

There were novels about prospecting and mining, the military, the logging industry, railroads, reclamation projects, homesteaders, politics, parsons, Indians and mixed bloods, Mormons, animals, the settlement of Old California, marriage and domestic relationships, and so on. To give them their own name, I’ve been calling them “early westerns.”

By doing that, I was hoping to help rehabilitate the term “western” itself, which bears the stigma for many readers of a worn-out and outdated genre of storytelling. I felt that by demonstrating the breadth of its origins, I might encourage both western readers and writers, some of whom who are already rediscovering its roots.

Traditional western. So I have quietly balked at the term “traditional western” because its usual focus on good men gunning for bad men is too narrow for what I was finding as I read. True, you can argue that a tradition got started with novels by Wister, Mulford, Seltzer, Raines, Coolidge, Grey, and a few others.

But those writers actually made up only a small percentage of turn-of-the-century western fiction. Seen in context, what people call the “traditional western” begins to look more like an off-shoot of a much broader variety of storytelling set in the West.

The male-dominated world of the “traditional western” also assumes that males have dominated the writing of western fiction from the beginning. That’s not in fact the case either. When Owen Wister began publishing his stories, the majority of western novelists had been women.

Their number included Mary Hallock Foote, Helen Hunt Jackson, Maria Amparo Ruiz de Burton, Emma Ghent Curtis, Patience Stapleton, Marah Ellis Ryan, and Gertrude Atherton. They had been writing western stories for almost 20 years before Wister published his cowboy western, Lin McLean, in 1897. It wasn’t until that novel that males of any number began writing in the genre.

Frontier fiction. A while ago, the term “frontier fiction” emerged as an apparent attempt by publishers to shake the western stigma for new fiction set in the West. John Nesbitt’s recent novel, Dark Prairie, is an example of the new breed, signaled in part by a shift away from the usual western cover art. The cover of Dark Prairie evokes a mood meant to draw in adult readers not looking for gunplay and lone horsemen in cowboy hats.

With this development, it has belatedly occurred to me as I write a book of my own on the subject that “early western” is not the right term for the novels I’m writing about. They are, and always were, “frontier fiction.” As stories about men and women in various walks of life, they have a particular character for being set on the barely civilized frontier. And, for a general rule, that’s about as specific as you can be about them.

So with something like relief, I’ve come to accept “frontier fiction” as a term that comes closer than “early western” to describe what I’m writing about. I figure it would also look good in a book title.

Photo credit: Wikimedia Commons

Coming up: Robert J. Conley, Zeke Proctor: Cherokee Outlaw

Saturday, August 24, 2013

Glossary of frontier fiction: A

Below is a list of mostly forgotten terms, people, and the occasional song, drawn from a reading of frontier fiction, 1880-1915. Each week a new list, progressing through the alphabet, “from A to Izzard.”

A to Izzard = A to Z. “One man who don’t know nothin’ about prospectin’ goes an’ stumbles over a fortune an’ those who know it from A to Izzard goes ’round pullin’ in their belts.” Clarence E. Mulford, Bar-20.

ace high = a poker hand consisting of an ace without a pair or better; excellent, superior. “I've mined for twenty year, and from Old Mexico to Alaska, but I never saw anything that was ace-high to that before.” Henry Wallace Phillips, Red Saunders.

ace in the door = in poker, the ace appearing as the first card turned face up. “It was called by Higgins, who dealt once more, / When the Cherokee got ‘an ace in the door.’” William De Vere, Jim Marshall’s New Pianner.

acequia = irrigation canal. “Clear running water sparkled through the acequias that bordered the parade.” Charles King, Two Soldiers.

across the divide = long gone; gotten rid of. “Hadn’t been for her these boys would have been across the divide hours ago.” William MacLeod Raine, Wyoming.

admire = to delight in, be glad/happy to. “‘I’ll go over,’ he says, ‘and just natu’lly settle that dude’s hash. I’d admire t’ do it.’” Eleanor Gates, Alec Lloyd, Cowpuncher.

adobe dollar = an object of little value; the Mexican peso. “Hits ’dobe dollars t’ tlacos we’ll either stampoodle that bunch ’thout throwin’ lead or else get t’ dance on their graves.” Edgar Beecher Bronson, Reminiscences of a Ranchman.

Friday, August 23, 2013

Mollie E. Davis, The Wire-Cutters (1899)

Revising my review of this novel for my book about early frontier fiction, I realized that the first draft, posted here almost three years ago, was embarrassingly awful. Here is the new improved blog version.

It has been argued that The Wire-Cutters by Mollie Evelyn Moore Davis (1844-1909) was the first western novel. It predates Owen Wister’s The Virginian by three years. Much of it is set during a range war that erupted in West Texas in the 1880s with the introduction of barbed wire fences across open range. It was written by a writer who knew West Texas from having lived there.

But it’s a western without cowboys. The hero rides a horse and is a frontier settler with some cattle, but his main cash crops are cotton and pecans. Also, a third of the novel takes place in the Deep South, beginning and ending with a heavy serving of melodrama. Looking for an authentic cowboy novel that predates The Virginian, a reader would do well to consider Wister’s own Lin McLean (1897).  

Plot. The central character, Leroy Hilliard, does not know that he was born to a wealthy Louisiana plantation owner and his wife. Because he bears a mysterious resemblance to his mother’s divorced first husband, she has her second husband get rid of the boy. Without her knowledge, he is adopted by a high-ranking Confederate officer, whom he comes to believe is his actual father. In fact, the man is her much loathed first husband.

Years pass and the now grown-up Hilliard goes to West Texas, where he has bought a farm. When barbwire fences begin cropping up across the countryside and preventing open range cattle from getting to water, he’s among the first to oppose them. But the arrival of a rich, idle, unscrupulous young man, Alan Deerford, stirs up trouble for him. When Hilliard declines to disturb fences that have been erected legally, Deerford leads the local young men on nighttime raids of more wire cutting.

Cultivating cotton, Texas
Deerford has a bad influence on an impressionable younger man, Jack, who was once Hilliard’s best friend. Jack goes missing and foul play is feared. In time, his body is found with Deerford’s knife through his heart, and Deerford has disappeared. Meanwhile, the gang of young wire-cutters is jailed for their mischief.

Hilliard magnanimously comes to their defense, acting as their attorney at the trial. After an impassioned plea, he gets a not guilty decision from the jury. He then pursues Deerford to bring him to justice and finds him at the Louisiana plantation where the story started and a cascade of revelations awaits both men.

Romance. Intertwined with the tangled plot of the two men is a romance in which they are rivals for the hand of the same woman, the pretty Helen Wingate. She has come west from Kentucky as a guest of a schoolmate, Margaret Ransome, who is Hilliard’s close friend.

He is instantly taken with Helen. But he soon realizes that Deerford intends her to be his wife as well. We don’t know until well into the novel that Helen does not love Deerford and accepts his attentions only out of a mixture of fear and politeness. As she abruptly leaves to return home, Hilliard is pleased to learn that she is quite fond of him and will happily entertain a proposal of marriage. But in an impulsive moment, she marries Deerford, who is one step ahead of the law, and sails off with him to Europe.

Hilliard’s friend Margaret has much more to commend her as a wife and soul mate. She is brave, thoughtful, attentive to the needs of others. You don’t have to read deeply between the lines to see that she loves Hilliard. We keep expecting him to realize this, but there is little to indicate at novel’s end that he and Margaret are destined to be together.

Thursday, August 22, 2013

Loren D. Estleman, Gun Man (1985)

Stories of gun men and guns are normally taken dead seriously in the traditional western. Humor and irony may be found in their gallows varieties, and then only in the voices of one or more characters. But Estleman infuses this entire novel with a wry, amusing tone.

It takes the elements of the standard story of the frontier gunslinger and imagines how they might have been in the case of a single young man. The humor deromanticizes gunslingers and diminishes the stature that legend gives them. But it’s of a piece with the droll self-deprecating wit found among westerners, which gives a subject weight by not being serious about it.

Plot. The novel tells the life story of an Iowa boy who leaves the farm at the age of twelve and, by chance, shoots a man down before he turns thirteen. The place being Missouri and the years being the bloody decade before the Civil War, he is soon running with an anti-abolitionist militia, and in time we find him in the Old West, with a reputation as Killer Miller.

We know Miller for what he is, no smarter than he needs to be and not all that menacing. He’s not the fastest gun by far but the veteran of numerous gunfights simply by taking better aim. More or less indifferent to the welfare of others, he’s neither cold-hearted nor warm-hearted. He’s also no sociopath. Not a bad man, he lacks redeeming qualities that would make him a “good” bad man.

He is motivated to kill by little more than everyday self-preservation. Lacking schooling and the skills needed for most other kinds of employment, his options for making a living are otherwise limited. In time, he gets work as a regulator for a stockmen’s association, and like Tom Horn finds himself behind bars.

Emporia, Kansas
Style and structure. The narrative jumps ahead in leaps and bounds. We find Miller at different points in his life as militia rider, Union captive, bounty hunter, town marshal, line rider, and range detective. A suspenseful shootout in the streets of Emporia, Kansas, harks in its way to the well-known one between the Earps and the Clantons.

The account of this gun man’s life is narrated as biography, with dates and places and reference to historical documents. We are told for example, “The first recorded confrontation between the whiskey runner and the marshal took place in June 1866.” The entire text of personal letters is also included at key points.

As biographies do, it weighs the credibility of evidence and speculates on interpretations of incomplete facts. It slips in and out of chronological sequence, alluding to events that occur much later. At one point it cites the recollection of the last surviving witness of a gun battle, a child at the time, who lived until 1936.

Wednesday, August 21, 2013

Guy Vanderhaeghe, The Last Crossing

This is a western for people who don’t like westerns. It takes a reader onto the raw frontier of 1871 and, like Lonesome Dove, follows a small band of characters as they make a long overland journey. In this case, the novel opens in Fort Benton on the upper reaches of the Missouri River in Montana Territory, and its characters travel to Edmonton, Alberta, and back.

Like McMurtry’s novel, its story is different from the traditional western’s more usual quest of an individual hero to bring outlaws to justice against all odds. McMurtry and Vanderhaeghe take the usual topics of frontier fiction—loyalty, friendship, love, courage, family, integrity, and so on. But enliven them in a way meant to appeal to a broad audience.

Plot.  The back cover will tell you that the story is about two English brothers in search of a third one who has disappeared in the American wilderness. That’s only one thread of a tangled plot line that involves a battle-scarred Civil War veteran, an Irish saloon keeper, a mixed-blood Blackfeet-Scots scout, a writer of adventure books, a woman abandoned by her husband, and yet another pair of brothers believed to have murdered the woman’s sister.

The characters press northward from Fort Benton into Canada, following scant evidence that the missing brother is still alive. He seems likely to have died from misadventure or to have been killed by Indians. Members of the search party itself are hardly sanguine in each other’s company. Addington and Charles, the missing man’s brothers, have a long history of mutual distrust. Meanwhile, two of the men are enamored of the woman traveling with them.

Red River carts, near Edmonton, Alberta, c1870
Near the end of almost 400 pages, there are revelations that clear up some mysteries while producing others. Before the story is done, we have lost a character or two along the way, and in the final chapters, one of the brothers returns to England.

Character. Charles is a modestly talented portraitist, who has disappointed both Addington and their wealthy father by having no talent for brutal domination of others. Addington, who represents the high tide of British imperialism, is a proud, angry man, determined to leave his mark by killing a grizzly with a longbow. Given to pontificating, he says that what defines a man is his relentless effort to overcome any obstacle. To that end, he has engaged a writer to enshrine his achievements in a book about himself.

We get to know the third brother, Simon, in the memories that Charles has of him. Simon has been swept up by the Victorian interest in spiritualism. A student at Oxford and dressed like Matthew Arnold’s “scholar gypsy,” he abandons his books to learn directly from nature. Before leaving for America, he becomes involved in a dubious religious sect that believes Indians are the Lost Tribes of Israel.

Tuesday, August 20, 2013

Revise, revise, revise: audience

Three years in the making, as they used to say in movie advertising—and still counting. At one point this summer, I passed unofficially from the first draft to the second draft stage of the book I’ve been working on. In fact, the first draft is not 100% done, call it 98%. There’s at least one more chapter to write and an introduction.

Now I’m dealing with several issues. One of them is no doubt similar to that of a novel writer, whose project has evolved since the initial conception. A few parts were written simply as blog posts, before there was even the idea of a book. Quite a few more date from when that idea was only coming into focus.

So revision has been producing its surprises. For one thing, I now see how I kept raising my own standards as I took what I was doing more seriously. Write-ups of research I did at the start are sometimes awkwardly organized, with off-topic digressions. Sometimes there’s a breeziness that is OK for blog writing but sounds amateurish now. For at least one chapter I’ve had to go back and redo all the research from scratch. There will no doubt be more.

Audience. I remember taking a while to figure out the readers I’m writing for. Early on, I knew that I wasn’t writing for academics or scholars. They’re welcome to read the book and may get something from it. But academic writing means that you are taking part in a discourse among experts in a particular field of research.

The discourse on my book’s subject—early frontier fiction—has been going on for a while, and to join that conversation, I’d have to find and read what scholars have already said about it. Fine for a graduate student working on a master’s thesis and with easy access to a university research library. But that made the project too much like work, and a whole lot less fun.

Since I’m an old-school literary historian by training, the current practice of theory-driven cultural studies isn’t so interesting to me either. I’ve heard papers read at conferences so dryly analytical and full of jargon an ordinary person walking in off the street would think they were hearing a foreign language. I’d be obliged to learn that language if I were to write to that audience. 

So I decided instead to write for what I think are readers of this blog. That is, book readers and writers who enjoy westerns and frontier fiction and who share my curiosity about the origins of the genre. That audience may include academic folks, but I wanted what I wrote to be clear and interesting for the person who was simply a fan of the genre.

That meant writing plain English, informally, with some humor if I could manage it. The idea was to both illuminate and entertain—not an easy task, and one that I’ve only been able to approximate at times. But clarifying that target audience was an essential part of the book’s evolution—and now the revision process.

Whether that audience is actually out there is a question that enters my mind as I do this. But as long as I’m clear that I’m not doing it for fame or fortune, the number of readers the book finds isn't my main concern right now.

To be continued. . .

Image credits: Wikimedia Commons

Coming up: Guy Vanderhaeghe, The Last Crossing

Monday, August 19, 2013

Richard S. Wheeler, Eclipse: A Novel of Lewis and Clark

Review and interview

Fallibility. After reading from Richard Wheeler’s lengthy list of historical western novels, I’m thinking fallibility is a special interest of this award-winning author. And it’s a difficult subject in a field of fiction that traditionally wants to pay tribute to the men who opened the West. In this story of Lewis and Clark, however, we are given a portrayal of exceptional men, who are also only human.

Eclipse, published in 2002, tackles the story of the suicide of Meriwether Lewis, only a few short years after the triumphant return of his expedition to the Pacific with Will Clark. As Wheeler notes in a Postscript, his death had long been a mystery, some historians advancing evidence of foul play. As a close associate of Jefferson and the political camp opposed to Aaron Burr, he would have had his enemies.

But opinion has shifted to a belief that at the time of his death, Lewis was in fact dying of syphilis, contracted while consorting with an Indian woman. Wheeler’s novel begins with the return of the Corps of Discovery and follows Lewis as the disease eventually ravages his body and mind. The novel’s considerable achievement is that it makes of this unlikely material a wholehearted and compelling tragedy.

Meriwether Lewis, c1807
I know, that’s an odd use of the word “wholehearted.” But while one learns the doleful details of what was an essentially untreatable disease, we are witness to the destruction of a spirited and gifted man. A widely admired public figure, he was a born leader full of promise as a worthy public servant. His death marked a great loss to the republic.

In Wheeler’s hands, it is also a personal tragedy. What destroys him as much as the disease is the abject shame of being the host of a venereal infection. Lewis sees his hopes and dreams torn from him, leaving him unfit for marriage and unable even to confide in his closest friends. He is an exile, a prisoner suffering solitary confinement. One is reminded of the stigma and the moral panic unleashed with the first victims of the AIDS virus.

Plot. After their return to the States, Lewis and Clark are given administrative duties over upper Louisiana. Both are based in the former French colonial city of St. Louis. Lewis is appointed governor, and Clark is superintendent of Indian Affairs. Both have immediate and pressing responsibilities. Chief among them is the winning of allegiance from the many Indian tribes even as the British, Spaniards, and others contend for control of the vast tract of land.

William Clark, 1810
Clark arrives first, newly married to the 15-year-old daughter of a prominent Virginia family. Before taking up his post, Lewis is lionized by the great and powerful, from politicians to scientists. He is received by Jefferson, who warms his heart and soul with fatherly praise.

Meanwhile, he sets himself unsuccessfully to winning a wife, someone not only arrestingly lovely, but serious as he. But the few who qualify find him strangely off putting. He exhibits a social awkwardness that may be related to his anxieties over his unsettled health. He attributes his symptoms to “ague,” while believing himself cured of “the pox.”

Arriving in St. Louis, he is greeted by his second in command, a secretary named Bates, who wants Lewis to be no more than a figurehead. A man with aspirations of his own, Bates has intentions for the government of the territory that are in direct opposition to Lewis’s. In time, his open hostility to Lewis produces a state of siege between the two men. It’s a situation that mystifies Clark, who remembers how Lewis was unreservedly loved by the men of the Corps.

Then there is the matter of the expedition’s journals, which Lewis has promised Jefferson and the scientific community to rush into print. His job is to edit the daily notes taken by Clark and himself, a formidable task given the three years of the journey. But despite Jefferson’s continued urging, he finds himself strangely unable to even start the task.

The levee, St. Louis, 1857
Character. And with this detail we begin to sense some of the weaker links in his character. Wheeler portrays Lewis as a perfectionist. While he’s able to turn over the work of preparing drawings and maps to experts, he wants the text of the journals to reflect his own expertise. And in so doing he seems to create the conditions for a first-class case of writer’s block.

As a man of achievement, he is also not without ego. He has been encouraged by others to regard himself as having potential for high office, even one day being asked to run for president.  At one point, he considers a potential wife as being worthy of joining him some day in the White House. And he dresses for success, spending his scant earnings as a government employee on fancy duds.

More devastating for him financially are his impulsive investments in real estate and other ventures.  When the fur trade suddenly goes into recession and a stingy War Department stops paying for expenses he has incurred as an agent of the government, he acquires a mountain of debts. To his credit, he determines to honor them to the last dollar, but financial ruin becomes the mirror reflection of the ruin of his mind and body.

Clark comes across as more sensible and even-tempered, his judgment more measured. He is lucky in marriage and more grounded professionally. His respect for Lewis as colleague and friend never falters. When he slowly learns the truth of the man’s condition, including his dependence on alcohol and opiates, he remains loyal and supportive.

Lewis and Clark on the Lower Columbia, 1905
Yet there is a side to Clark’s character that will put a chill through modern readers. He is a slave owner, and his coldly resolute relationship with his man York is clearly from another era.  Though York traveled with the Corps to the West, performing tasks equal to the others, Clark treats him as property. We even learn his market value on the auction block in New Orleans, $1,500.

While York believes he has proved himself a man, worthy of his freedom, Clark regards him as no more than a child. Now that he’s married and has increasing responsibilities, Clark needs him more than ever, and he refuses him conjugal visits with his wife on the home plantation. It becomes a battle of wills that parallels the plotline between Lewis and Bates.

Structure and style. Wheeler’s special narrative gift is the ability to immerse us in a story about fallible men and to make it hard to put down. One of his choices is to tell the story in the first person, alternating between the points of view of both men. Thus, for Lewis, we swing between his emotional highs and lows as he struggles between fear and denial.

Also effective is how the men narrate the story, as if reporting what has just happened, so that events unfold for us only a beat or two after their occurrence. That has a subtle effect, producing an uncommon sense of immediacy.

Missouri River near Omaha Indian Agency, 1869
We also get plunged into an 18th century mindset as when Clark expresses his frustrations with his wife’s and York’s requests of him. “A man has to resist women and slaves and come to his own judgments,” he says, “or he’s not a man.” While his wife reluctantly yields to his wishes without objection, he threatens to give York “a taste of the whip” to make him more obedient.

Wrapping up. There is so much more packed into this novel, it’s hard to stop writing about it. Let it be said that it’s an absorbing account of a troubled chapter in the lives of two men who are remembered as national heroes. It’s a reminder of how historical fact defies myth, while demonstrating that behind the myth are living, breathing human beings with much to praise in them despite their faults.

Eclipse is currently available at amazon and Barnes&Noble and for kindle and the nook.

Richard S. Wheeler
Richard Wheeler has generously agreed to spend some time here at BITS to talk about writing and the writing of his novel Eclipse. Here are his comments on the imaginative task of telling the story of Lewis and Clark and bringing the two men to life on the page.

Richard, talk about how the idea for Eclipse suggested itself to you.
In the 90s, a doctor who lectured on the medicine of the Lewis and Clark expedition told me he had read that Lewis had contracted syphilis, and it affected Lewis the rest of his brief life. The doctor couldn’t remember where he had seen it. I sensed a novel, and began a feverish hunt for the source, and after some serious looking over several months, I found it.

An epidemiologist named Reimert T. Ravenholt had examined the journals and concluded that Lewis had contracted syphilis when the corps was staying with the Shoshones. Syphilis is a New World disease, and Europeans were more vulnerable to it than native people. (Columbus took it back to Europe, where it eventually killed a third of the people. It was called the pox.)

Did the story come to you all at once or was that a more complex part of the process?
I was fascinated by the swift decline of Lewis, and the steady ascent of Clark after they got back. I envisioned a novel that would be nothing more than the dramatizing of all that. The expedition itself had been covered exhaustively in fiction and nonfiction, and more was being prepared for the bicentennial by gifted historians, but it seemed likely that a novel about the aftermath would have legs, and it did. I was helped by the enormous literature. There was so much I finally tapered off the research; I was writing a novel, not a new history.

Did anything about the story or characters surprise you as you were writing?
When an historical novelist is very lucky, he is overwhelmed with a sense of getting it right. That’s how this evolved. As I wrote, I was occasionally filled with that euphoric sense of capturing the period. Getting it down more or less as it happened. This was especially true when I thought I had caught an attitude or prejudice that lay deep within the character.

What parts of the novel gave you the most pleasure to write?
Medicine of the period became a fascinating subtext, crucial to the telling of the story. I immersed myself in it, got help from doctors, learned as much as I could about diagnosis, remedies, and also attitudes and nonscientific beliefs. (Such as the idea that malaria rose from the “miasma” found in swamps.) Medicine governed my novel. I learned what remedies got the expedition through three years of wilderness travel. Native American medicine played a crucial role, too.