Fans of historical western romance should find enough to like in this novel set in an Arizona mining camp. The central character, Esther Corbin, has been abandoned by her unreliable and, we learn, faithless husband, leaving her with four children on a hardscrabble farm.
Plot. We quickly learn that this story is a romance because we are soon introduced to a man much kinder and gentler than the run-of-the-mill males who populate the immediate vicinity, the Chasm Creek of the book’s title. Morgan Braddock has been deeply wounded by life on the frontier, and when we meet him, he is a wanted man—wanted for the bloody killing of another man in a fit of rage.
Cox does not reveal the circumstances of that rage until much later in the novel. By then he has won the heart of the heroine, Essie, who would give both heart and soul to him if she were not already married.
Character. Cox takes an unusual step in her characterization of Braddock by giving him a close friend, a Navajo kidnapped in boyhood and raised in Mexico, where he has grown up with a Spanish name, Rubén, and adopted the Roman Catholic faith. He is now an old man and Braddock’s mentor and traveling companion. They are deeply bonded in their loyalty to each other.
Both men are fugitives, Braddock for killing another man, and Rubén, who is mistakenly arrested by soldiers from a nearby fort when Apaches are roughly rounded up for horse stealing. The perilous fates of the two men bring them more strongly together, especially as the son of the man killed by Braddock attempts to revenge his father’s death, and Rubén is thrust into the role of saving his friend’s life.
|Cienega Creek, Arizona, 1880|
Story structure. The story arc that runs from beginning to end of this lengthy novel is the growing attraction between Braddock and Essie, and the obstacles that prevent more than a brief consummation of that attraction.
Among those obstacles are Essie’s four children, who require almost constant supervision and are continually testing their relationship to their mother, questioning her authority, wanting their independence, all the time needing to be fed, clothed, and disciplined. And there is a fifth child, dying in infancy, whose grave Essie often visits. In this realistically observed theme of single motherhood, I was reminded of Alathea Williams’ current orphan train novel, Walls for the Wind (recently reviewed here).
Women. As a woman in a male-dominated community, Essie is also the target of abuse and disrespect. Her younger brother, Jacob, is her one family connection in Chasm Creek, and while he holds public office as the town marshal, he has more than a bit of a drinking problem. He resents the responsibility he must take for her welfare and what he perceives as her interference in his affairs. More ominously, a miner with a particular hatred for her, curses and physically threatens her and pitches rocks through her window at night.
|Contention Hotel, Arizona, 1880|
Curiously, Cox provides her heroine with no female friends or associates. Well-stocked with male characters of all types, the novel goes to great lengths to isolate Essie from the kind of support and friendship it grants to Braddock and Rubén, requiring her to forge a lonely independence of her own. Eventually, she must kill a man herself.
Wrapping up. Cox packs a great deal into her novel. Besides the portrayal of everyday life on the frontier, a reader finds universal human themes of independence, redemption, identity, loss, romantic longing, loyalty, and commitment. Chasm Creek is being published soon by High Hill Press.
Image credits: Wikimedia Commons
Coming up: The western writings of Stephen Crane