A young man given to adventuring and little thought of risk, Mac gets himself involved with horse thieves, Indians, homesteaders, and even John Brown and the Underground Railway. He works for a time as a freighter between Omaha and San Francisco. During the war between the states, he spends some time in the U.S. Cavalry, escorting prairie travelers and providing protection from the Sioux.
The book is a character sketch of a man remembering the good old days. Each chapter is a different episode or collection of them. What they add up to is his main argument, that the pioneers in the territory did just fine without “civilization.” They were basically trustworthy, self-sufficient folk who didn’t need rules and laws to run their lives.
|Book illustration by W. H. Dunton|
Like Will Rogers, he seems never to have met a man he didn’t like. People are mixtures of good and bad, he says, which seems to be what the good Lord intended. Even a horse thief has a “native sense of integrity.” His first story is about being deputized to bring in a half-deadbeat by the name of Turk Wesley, who’s been running off horses from the local Pawnee.
Mac gets his man but is unlucky enough to get shot in an exchange of gunfire with the Indians. Honoring the code of the West without a second thought, Turk takes the wounded Mac to a settlement where there’s a doctor. Problem is, Turk has been thieving from the folks there, too, so he knows he’s taking a big risk. When Mac recovers weeks later, he learns that the residents have caught Turk and he’s met his end. A “born fool,” Mac says, but not without integrity.
|Pawnee chiefs, 1850s|
Treated like royalty, he is taken into the tribe with a feast and gifts. Then he finds himself being gifted with a pretty Sioux maiden as a wife. Big Eye, he calls her, after the two of them have indulged in a little idle flirtation. She’s French-Indian he concludes, since she seems to be a half-breed, and he’s more than a little taken with her.
Mac can’t tell if the Indians are serious or having a joke at his expense. So, he doesn’t know how to extract himself from the situation without seeming unprincipled as a “billy goat.” Finally, when the whole affair has gone on long enough, he leaves the camp with a promise to return. Years later, long married to another woman, he regrets not sticking around for what might have been.
|Nebraska homesteaders, 1866|
When Mac finds her again, she is digging a grave for her dead baby. The settler has left her without food or firewood. She and her young daughter are cold and hungry. Rescuing the two of them, Mac encounters the settler who is returning home. Holding the man at gunpoint, he coaxes Sally to slap him hard and box his ears, which requires little encouragement for her.
Later, he finds her in town wearing widow’s black as she goes about her new life. Is the settler dead, Mac wants to know. No, she says, it just feels good dressing like he is.
|Daniel Freeman, Nebraska settler, 1863|
Uncle Mac’s Nebrasky stands as an early sample of its author’s writing career. In this novel we see a gift for storytelling, with a mix of humor and grit that is grounded in experience of the frontier. It is currently available free online at google books. It’s also at amazon, AbeBooks, alibris and for the Nook.
University of Arkansas library
Internet Movie Database
Image credits: Wikimedia Commons
Coming up: Peter Brown, western photographer
Did you ever read Lonesome Dove. I just started it. I've waited because it's so long, but it's been teasing me for years. From what I understand the details are pretty accurate. Already some of the historical stuff you've talked of here has shown up.ReplyDelete
I'm intrigued by this, Ron. My grandmother was from Nebraska.ReplyDelete
Sounds like an unusually creative and entertaining writer. Thanks for the lively review!ReplyDelete
Charles, I've read LD a couple times, taught it, and enjoyed the film with students. They liked it, though not as much as SHANE. The first 100 pages of LD are slow going; then it takes off. The story parallels Andy Adams' LOG OF A COWBOY (1903), which is maybe a shade or two more authentic, but McMurtry is close.ReplyDelete
Leah, Nebraska is a good state to be from.
Veronica, you are welcome!
This ol' Nebraskyean enjoyed this post. ThanksReplyDelete
First time I have ever used the word Nebraskyean, kind of like it!
Another fine review. I just don't know about any code of the West; it seems an invention. I can't find it in historical sources. And it seems to vary from author to author.ReplyDelete
LD is a splendid novel and worthy of its Pulitzer. It seemed too leisurely to me, and I ascribed that to a want of sharp editing. Later I learned that Larry McMurtry was depressed when he wrote it, and the initial hesitancy of the characters may be a result of that. I've found that in my melancholic periods, my characters seem reluctant to act or forge a life.