Thursday, March 15, 2012

Frances McElrath, The Rustler (1902)

2002 edition
This strange novel was rescued from oblivion by scholars of western literature and republished in 2002 by the University of Nebraska Press. Except for her name and little else, its author is unknown. She seems never to have published another book. Literary history lacks even her dates of birth and death.

Though a curiosity, The Rustler: A Tale of Love and War in Wyoming is somewhat more than a curiosity for its resemblance to Owen Wister’s The Virginian, which was published in the same year. Both are set in Wyoming at the time of the so-called Johnson County “war” by cattlemen against rustlers. Both have a ranch foreman as a central character, and both have a similar theme running through them that has to do with how a man becomes an outlaw.

Both also involve a cowboy’s romantic attraction to a schoolmarm from the East. The course of that mismatched romance plays out differently in this one, however. Wister’s ends in matrimony, while McElrath’s cowboy turns to a life of crime that results in his violent death.

Hazel sings to Jim
Plot. Summering on the Montana ranch of her wealthy cousins, Hazel Clifford amuses herself by trifling with the attentions of the local residents. Her first effort is to persuade her hosts to invite the ranch’s foreman, Jim, to have dinner with them. This idle attempt at fraternization comes to nothing.

When a neighbor is looking for a governess for his two children, she volunteers. When Jim shows up, on ranch business, she overcomes his defenses by playing some sentimental tunes on the piano. Believing that she cares for him, he emerges from his shell and falls head over heels in love.

Soon bored by life with ordinary folks and taken aback by Jim’s growing affection, she welcomes a visit by a longtime suitor, Horace Carew. He’s taken a management job with some Eastern capitalists who are buying up ranches in Wyoming. Jim, at the point of proposing marriage, discovers Hazel with Carew and realizes that her interest in him has been a ruse.

Reminded of his social position, his lack of good breeding, education, and money, Jim is furious with injured pride and a sense of injustice. He determines to acquire wealth and influence by any means possible, to prove his worth to her—not to win her, but to “show her.” And he goes into business as a cattle rustler.

Jim starts as a rustler
Events bring Jim and Hazel together again. This time she is his hostage at the rustlers’ hideout in a natural fortress known to history as the Hole in the Wall. Each of them eventually sees the error of their ways, and Jim dies of a gunshot wound as a host of rustler-hunting lawmen descends on the range.

Jim is buried, and Hazel gives her life to the welfare of the rustlers’ children she has taken under her wing at Hole in the Wall. Financially secure, now that her dead father’s estate has been settled, she gives herself to a life of service. And so we see how a careless girl has grown to embrace the true calling of womanhood.

Character. While another writer might have found the character of Jim impervious to the temptations of ill-gotten gains, McElrath finds a dark side to the man. She casts him first as a man of principle, dedicated to hard work and sober living. Raised by an alcoholic father and an abusive stepfather, he left home at an early age, determined to be a better man.

At the age of 35, he has risen to a position of importance and respect as a ranch foreman. He is gifted with the kind of intelligence that sees ranching as a business and thus keeps him abreast of new ideas. He is a good manager of resources and approaches his employer with suggestions for ways to improve productivity and reduce costs.

Burial at Hole in the Wall
Temperamentally, he is a type that McElrath must have been familiar with. Her portrayal of his attitudes and mannerisms is precise and well observed. He exists on a plane above and apart from his men, so that he has little to share with them that is personal. The one exception is the 12-year-old boy, Tips, whom he found once as a babe, the only survivor of an Indian raid.

McElrath understands that Jim is a proud man, proud of his work ethic and of the respect he has earned. Proud also of his self-denial and refusal to yield to any feelings that might reveal a weakness. She also understands that he is a lonely man, a realization that does not come to him until he’s on his deathbed, where he cries like the forlorn and abused boy he once was.

Jim’s pride, according to McElrath, is his weakness. Wounded when his love for Hazel is rejected, he turns all his industry and strength to breaking the law. A formerly modest man, he makes a show of his new wealth, outfitting himself and his horse in expensive gear. Once content with the respect that other men gave him for his qualities of character, he now commands them by striking fear in their hearts.

McElrath’s portrayal of a good man gone bad is very different from Wister, for whom weakness of character is evident in other ways. The Virginian’s friend, Steve, falls in with rustlers for lack of will and love of ease; he is soft at the core. McElrath’s Jim has all the strength of character and intelligence to be found in the Virginian, and it is these very qualities that contribute to his undoing.

Frances McElrath, 1902
Wrapping up. A bio in the June 1902 issue of Book News mentions that McElrath was already familiar to juvenile readers of her magazine articles on army and ranch life. It goes on to note that her grandfather, along with Horace Greeley, founded the New York Tribune. Her father, a retired army man and journalist, moved the family to Montana for his health. There McElrath seems to have acquired her knowledge of ranching.

Of her novel, the Book News reviewer observes, “The plot is decidedly new and well handled, the tone strenuous and the interest unresisting.” Reviewers at The Critic (July 1902) were not so generous. One complained that it had been completed in a hurry and showed it. Another found the details of ranch life of interest but objected to the “very bad illustrations” and found the story melodramatic, as well as “badly put together and artificial.” 

The Rustler is currently available only in print at amazon and AbeBooks. Friday’s Forgotten Books is the bright idea of Patti Abbott over at pattinase.

Image credits:
Book cover, detail from Desert Journey, Maynard Dixon, 1935
Illustrations from the first edition, Edward Willard Deming

Coming up: Warner Baxter, In Old Arizona (1928)



  1. You have probably introduced me to more early 20th century writers than anybody else, Ron. Thanks.

    1. Believe it or not, David, there are more. . .