Thursday, February 16, 2012

Gwendolen Overton, The Heritage of Unrest (1901)

This darkly brooding novel is a plague-on-all-your-houses account of the Indian Wars in Arizona, 1878-1885. There are three characters at the center of a complex plot: Felipa, a young, mixed-race woman with a Mescalero mother and cavalryman father; Landor, an officer in the U.S. Army; and Cairness, an Army scout, born of English convicts in Australia. Around them swirl a bloody swath of frontier history as Geronimo and his Apache followers go on the warpath.

Plot. While the novel is packed with incidents and situations that involve the Army’s attempts to subdue the Apaches, it is mainly interested in the characters themselves. Conflict serves to continually put them to the test and thus reveal their strengths and weaknesses. We follow them, watching time and circumstance take their toll.

In a nutshell, Captain Landor agrees to take as his ward the girl Felipa, as a favor to a fellow soldier who’s been a friend since boyhood. Years later, she joins him at the post where he currently serves in the Gila River basin of Arizona. Pretty and intelligent, she wins the admiration of the bachelor soldiers, who do not know that she is half Indian.

Apache woman, Edward S. Curtis, c1905
Landor eventually marries her, out of a sense of duty, though neither is in love with the other. The scout Cairness falls hard for her, however, and she discovers that she has similar feelings for him. But out of loyalty to Landor, she chooses not to leave her husband. Aware of his wife’s attachment to Cairness, Landor offers to release her from her vows and grows steadily resentful when she refuses to leave him.

Cairness grows desolate and lonely, far from kin and homeland. In a nasty subplot, he attempts to learn why a family of English settlers was abandoned by their Irish and Texan employees when a band of Apaches laid siege to their ranch and caused the family’s violent deaths. He eventually uncovers the details of treachery, learning that a villainous Tucson newspaperman has seized ownership of the ranch.

In an incident you’d expect in a novel less committed to gritty realism, Landor is killed while trying to protect the life of Cairness in an Indian attack. Felipa and Cairness are at last married and have a couple years of bliss before the novel comes to its bitter end.

Anti-romance. Although love and adventure do figure into the story, this is no romance. It is a book full of ideas about race, wickedness, and savagery. The word “noir” comes to mind, though this is more than simply a bleak and sordid view of human affairs. Overton is also determined to do some myth bashing.

The novel is full of villains. Among the whites in Arizona are unscrupulous men and women, whose greed knows no bounds. In league with Indian agents, they steal government supplies, make trouble, and frustrate efforts of the military, whom they fault for being overpaid and under-worked. Meanwhile, the government in Washington makes ill-advised and self-serving policy decisions that make matters even worse.

Geronimo, 1887
The Indians, starved, stolen from, and lied to, eventually run out of patience and inflict some misery of their own. Innocent settlers are killed, after scenes of stomach-churning torture, when the victims don’t take their own lives first.

The military itself is not above reproach. A junior officer may bring up phony charges against a superior in order to harass and embarrass him with a fruitless court-martial. Or he may be on the take, fixing bids to award a beef contract to a local rancher.

Character. The early western in the hands of most writers often concerns the qualities of character that go into the making of an admirable man or woman. Overton seems to see little to admire in anyone.

Landor is a career Army man who can find a way to do anything, no matter how distasteful, as long as it’s his duty to do so. Thus he finds in himself the ability to marry and remain a dutiful husband to a woman he does not love and eventually comes to loathe.

His wife’s view of him in the end is close to the mark. Duty is well and good, she observes, but it’s not enough. Without enthusiasm or love for his work, what a man does with his life has no lasting worth.

General Crook, Century Magazine, 1891
General Crook is portrayed as an honorable man, making every effort to undo the damage done by federal officials and interfering civilians. He is a down-to-earth leader of men, typically out of uniform when ceremony does not call for it, treating men of all ranks as equals. He wins the respect of the Apaches because he is the one white man they know who keeps his word to them. Still he disappoints the reader at the end by an act of undeserved racial intolerance.

Cairness sees himself as an outcast. Never mind his dubious parentage—as an Englishman, he is regarded on the frontier with contempt. Marrying Felipa, he is further shunned by other whites as a squaw man. He is brave and dependable in carrying out his duties and respects Felipa’s wishes to remain faithful to her husband. Yet Overton lets it be known that his honorable behavior is only a veneer easily stripped away. Beneath it is the savage Briton, no different from the Apache at his worst.

That leaves Felipa as somehow worthy of our admiration, but Overton seems fixated on her unfortunate genetic background. Half Indian, she is even closer to savage than Cairness. There is a cold-hearted indifference to suffering that emerges at points as she is witness to acts of animal cruelty.

Officers, guests, Ft. Thomas, Arizona, 1886
Though she has lived with whites from the age of four, she seems to have inherited squaw-like traits: her dead honesty, her dog-like loyalty to her husband, her affection for other people’s children. Landor cringes when she takes an interest in archery. And there is the expectation that the bloom of her youth will soon pass, and as her Indian features take prominence, her beauty quickly fade.

Wrapping up. According to a short bio in the novella The Golden Chain (1903), Overton (1874-1958) grew up on Army posts in Arizona and New Mexico. After an education in Switzerland and France, she settled with her family in Los Angeles, where she married and had a career as a writer.

The Heritage of Unrest is currently available at Internet Archive, as well as for kindle and the nook. Friday’s Forgotten Books is the bright idea of Patti Abbott over at pattinase.

Image credits: Wikimedia Commons

Coming up: Chuck Tyrell, Big Enough

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