Thursday, May 1, 2014

Richard Wheeler, Flint’s Truth (1998)


Number two in Richard Wheeler’s series of novels about frontier newspaper editor Sam Flint, this is an unusually dark tale for the author. There are moments of harsh realism in the first one, Flint’s Gift, but Wheeler creates a mining community in his second novel so merciless that readers can be tempted to lose faith in the West of honest men and deeds they turn to the western story to reaffirm.

Plot. It’s the summer of 1870, and itinerant editor Flint picks a New Mexico gold mining town, Oro Blanco, to set up shop. He quickly meets the man who will become his nemesis, the town marshal, Crawford. The marshal is not just the law. He is a brutal bully who uses his authority to physically dominate and punish anyone who crosses him.

He actually shows little respect for or understanding of law or what it has to do with law enforcement. He simply makes threats, cracks heads, and throws people in jail he doesn’t like. He is soon at loggerheads with Flint, who just wants to print the news.

Printing press, 1835
What Flint learns after arriving in town is that Mason Weed, superintendent of the Golconda Mining Company, has a lot to hide. Lawyers in the hire of the company are attempting to invalidate a land grant that would give full right of ownership of the land the town rests on to the Mexicans who have lived there for generations. It would also give them 25% interest in the output of the mines.

Weed, a polished man driven by insatiable greed, will do anything to prevent that. Flint quickly becomes a thorn in his side. But rather than condone Crawford’s high-handed use of force to put Flint out of business, Weed brings in a rival newspaper to print trash about him and his efforts to thwart Crawford and to bridge the distance between Mexican and Anglo residents of the town.

Caught in the middle is a 12-year-old girl, Libby, whose widowed mother is dying of consumption in a state of utter poverty and destitution. Libby is befriended first by Flint and then by a seven-foot Cornish miner, Mountain Jack Treat, who refuses to be intimidated by Crawford and his deputy thugs. Flint gives her a job at the newspaper, sending her to a street corner to sell copies of his weekly. Treat organizes a boycott of the mayor’s saloon and opens his own bar, patronized by loyal fellow miners.

Theme. The story grows steadily darker. Readers find themselves in a corrupt world where the innocent are at the mercy of forces of darkness bent on driving them to ruin and despair. While the powerful Treat gladly brings his muscle to their defense, even the usually quick-witted and reasonable Flint is reduced to using his fists. You watch as he and his journalistic ideals are beaten into submission, and you may well feel a rising tide of grim dismay far more chilling than Wheeler’s deliberately crafted narrative suspense.

Pinos Altos, New Mexico
Finally a tragedy produces a crisis of conscience that saves the town from its worst elements. But it’s hard to shake the vision Wheeler has created with this heart of darkness found in a sun-blasted community where the banality of evil rules unchecked.

Wrapping up. This is a complex story with additional characters deftly woven into its fabric, notably a free-spirited woman from Boston, hoping (ironically) to bring civilized culture to the frontier. Then there’s the Mexican priest, Cordoba, whose spiritual strength remains unshakable while he is powerless to prevent his parishioners from being harassed and driven off by their Anglo tormentors.

In its starkest portrayal of human misery, the novel gives us Libby’s stricken mother, whose consumption is described in unforgettable and unsparing detail. There’s no Camille-like distancing from the ugly fact of an illness that struck down so many who went west for relief from it.

Like the truth-telling Flint, Wheeler also exposes at close range the racial animosity that separated Anglo and Mexican citizens after annexation following the Treaty of Hidalgo. The novel shows in no small part how greed, corruption and brute force—papered over with notions of manifest destiny—deprived many of ancestral lands that were rightfully theirs.

Flint’s Truth is currently available in print, audio, and ebook formats at amazon, Barnes&Noble, and Abebooks.

Further reading:

Image credits: Wikimedia Commons

Coming up: Glossary of frontier fiction

7 comments:

  1. I reckon the people of the western times were about like people today. Meaning a lot of 'em were nasty, brutish and mean spirited.

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    1. True, some things never seem to change.

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  2. My favorite western writer. Might have to go back and read these again. I have never read a bad Wheeler book.

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  3. Richard S Wheeler is not always an easy writer to read, but the range of emotion and situations in his books overall is among the widest I've seen in an any writer. He can write 'em dark and then turn around and write the hopeful, tender love story titled The First Waltz.

    He deserves to be much better known and admired.

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    1. I have been often surprised by the range of his fiction as well. Scale, scope, tone, structure can vary widely with striking and commendable results.

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  4. You have introduced me to a new writer and I quite like the clash of personalities but I don't think that this is a book for me. Right now I want something much more positive.

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