Monday, April 30, 2012

Old West glossary, no. 30

Montana cowboys, c1910
Here’s another set of terms garnered from early western novels. Definitions were discovered in various online dictionaries, as well as searches in Cassell’s Dictionary of Slang, Dictionary of the American West, The New Encyclopedia of the American West, The Cowboy Dictionary, The Cowboy Encyclopedia, The Barnhart Dictionary of Etymology, The Oxford Dictionary of Idioms, and The Shorter Oxford English Dictionary.

These are from Mary MacLane’s The Story of Mary MacLane about a 19-year-old “genius” in Butte, Montana; and Grace and Alice MacGowan's Aunt Huldah, about a paragon of generosity in a West Texas town. Once again, I struck out on a few. If anyone has a definition for “bat’s wool,” “tribble,” or “mauley grubs,” leave a comment below.

Pail with bail
bail = an arched handle, such as on a bucket or a teapot. “The bread was cut and spread, the coffee put in a small bucket, and a string of tin cups was tied to its bail.” Grace and Alice MacGowan, Aunt Huldah.

box-rustler = a chorus girl who followed her performance by mixing with the patrons in their boxes, promoting the sale of drinks and, when desired, offering herself as a part-time prostitute. “‘Box-rustlers’—who are as common in Butte as bar-maids in Ireland.” Mary MacLane, The Story of Mary MacLane.

dengue = a tropical disease, with fever, headache, muscle and joint pains, and a skin rash like measles. “The young girl whom Gilbert had brought to the Wagon-Tire House was indeed suffering from dengue.” Grace and Alice MacGowan, Aunt Huldah.

diggings = lodging. “I want you to make yourself scarce around here from now on. Don’t let Frosty know you’re in the diggin’s at all.” Grace and Alice MacGowan, Aunt Huldah.

felon = a puss-filled infection at the end of a finger or toe in the area surrounding the nail. “The only mark I know of that you can tell him by is that he has had a felon on the first finger of his left hand, and it left the finger sort of marked.” Grace and Alice MacGowan, Aunt Huldah.

Gunter, Archibald C. = English-born American and prolific writer of popular plays and novels (1847-1907). “From the books of Archibald C. Gunter and Albert Ross: Kind Devil, deliver me.” Mary MacLane, The Story of Mary MacLane.

Hildegarde Grahame = a character in a series of girls’ novels (1889-1897) by Laura E. Richards (1850-1943). “I have read some girl-books, a few years ago—‘Hildegarde Grahame,’ and ‘What Katy Did,’ and all.” Mary MacLane, The Story of Mary MacLane.

Irish point, 1904
Irish point = Brussels appliqué; needlepoint lace, made in Ireland. “The aristocratic family with the Irish-point curtains in the windows—that lives on the county.” Mary MacLane, The Story of Mary MacLane.

Jack Hazard = character in a series of children’s stories by John Townsend Trowbridge (1827-1916). “I read about a boy whose name is Jack Hazard and who, J. T. Trowbridge informs the reader, is doing his best, and who seems to find it somewhat difficult.” Mary MacLane, The Story of Mary MacLane.

lawn = a fine linen or cotton fabric used for making clothes. “The stiffly-starched lawn frocks, which would have been put on the little girls, were laid by, and a couple of dark calicoes substituted.” Grace and Alice MacGowan, Aunt Huldah.

Illustration, Tennyson's "Mariana," 1901
lisle thread = a strong, tightly twisted cotton thread, named after the town in France where it was first manufactured. “From lisle-thread stockings; from round, tight garters; from brilliant brass belts; Kind Devil, deliver me.” Mary MacLane, The Story of Mary MacLane.

“Mariana” = a poem about despondent isolation by Tennyson published in 1830. “All day long this heart-sickening song of Mariana has been reeling and swimming in my brain.” Mary MacLane, The Story of Mary MacLane.

mover = a tramp, itinerant. “And you don’t know anything of the parents, except that they were movers, and that the man deserted the woman here!” Grace and Alice MacGowan, Aunt Huldah.

offscouring = refuse, rubbish. “The dregs, the élite, the humbly respectable, the off-scouring—all thrown together, and shaken up, and mixed well.” Mary MacLane, The Story of Mary MacLane.

orris root = the root of certain iris plants, once important in western herbal medicine, now chiefly used for its fragrance in perfumes and potpourri. “As if orris-root were sprinkled in the folds of my brain.” Mary MacLane, The Story of Mary MacLane.

Sunday, April 29, 2012

Connecting dots

Heading into retirement, already ten years ago, I was totally at loose ends. Those last years ahead looked like a Black Hole waiting for me, the last fading light before that final black hole waiting for all of us. Added to that, there seemed to be a truckload of unfinished business, stuff I’d just let slide over the years.

Visits with a friendly counselor at my employer persuaded me that I could benefit from some time with a—hold your breath—therapist. And so I did.

After the first weeks of being not so sure about the whole thing, I began to think of those regular Friday morning sessions as a time to “connect the dots.” I saw patterns of behavior I hadn’t noticed before.

If you’re trying to picture this, forget those scenery-chewing scenes from In Treatment. It was more like Tony Soprano with his therapist. You never saw him reach for a Kleenex. For me, the whole experience was pretty dry-eyed. And it went on that way for more than a year.

Up until six months ago, that is, when it seemed clear we had reached a point of diminishing returns. By then retirement was looking pretty good and I was content to leave some of that original business unfinished. The psyche is the iceberg you never do more than chip away at anyway. So enough was enough.

But I’m still connecting dots. And looking back, I can say the two of us had some fundamental disagreements. I was satisfied with what I’d put together for myself. The therapist did not seem to be. We had different ideas about what would make a happy ending for the story of my life.

And I think I know the reason why. At some point in the process, I began to realize that my therapist was not a reader. If I brought up something I’d read in a book, I’d get this look of impatience. And I’d quickly get nailed for “intellectualizing.” I was supposed to focus on my feelings, which I seldom seemed to have at my immediate disposal.

OK, fair enough. I’ll admit feelings are my short suit. And I should clarify—my own feelings, not someone else’s, which I’m much better at gauging. But God forbid I should introduce an idea into the discussion. It was like bringing up Darwin or the Marquis de Sade in Sunday school.

I’d argue (and a lot of good it would do me) that talking about ideas is another way of talking about feelings. They don’t just go together; they are deeply wedded. For people who just read for the plot—as if a book was an amusement ride—what I’m saying may not make much sense. They seem not to know that ideas can be as emotionally profound as a touch from a loving hand or a punch in the mouth.

So my next therapist, should there ever be one, has to be someone who reads books. Not just therapy manuals and self-help books, but real books. Books with ideas in them. He (or she) has to have some acquaintance with Dostoyevsky, Camus, and Twain. Folks like that have been family to me, and if they’re not welcome with me there on the couch, then forget it.

Photo credit:

Coming up: William Holden, Glenn Ford, Texas (1941)

Saturday, April 28, 2012

Saturday music: New West

New West is a great socal western band folks here may not have heard of. This is one of their songs with some real vaquero-style photography.

Western writer inspiration, no. 34

Here is this week's omnibus of #westernwriter inspirations posted each day at twitter, where you can follow me @rdscheer if your attention is not already overloaded. As usual, click the pic to enlarge.

Staff of the Daily Reporter. Corrine, Box Elder County, Utah, c1870s
Officers quarters at Ft. Rawlins, Wyoming, May 7, 1877
The Church of San Miguel, the oldest in Santa Fe, New Mexico, 1873
Enoch Smoky, Kiowa boy, 1870s
U.S. Geological and Geographic Survey, Cheyenne, Wyoming, 1871
Railway trestle, Echo Canyon, Summit County, Utah, 1869
Soldier’s quarters, Fort Marcy, Santa Fe, New Mexico, 1873

Photo credits: Wikimedia Commons

Coming up: William Holden, Glenn Ford, Texas (1941)

Friday, April 27, 2012

Photo-finish Friday: out and about

Snapped this mini-mural of Tony Curtis one morning recently on the freeway going to work. Where else but LA? Besides City Hall in the background (where I always imagine Jack "Just the facts ma'am" Webb and one of his partners), maybe the most noteworthy thing about the pic is that the morning traffic is not bumper-to-bumper.

Photo-finish Friday is the bright idea of Leah Utas over at The Goat's Lunch Pail.

Coming up: William Holden and Glenn Ford, Texas (1941)

Thursday, April 26, 2012

Mary MacLane, The Story of Mary MacLane (1902)

Mary MacLane (1881-1929) was a sensation in 1902 and still has a following today. Coming of age in Great Falls and Butte, Montana, she may as well have been living on the moon. She couldn’t have been farther from a place that might have felt like home.

On the other hand, where but the Wild West would someone so outspokenly individual and unconventional belong? At the tender age of nineteen, Mary poured her heart and soul into a book that would have found its peer in the excesses of half-fictional, sensational memoirs produced today.

At the time, every page of her “story” was sure to shock all but the most freethinking of readers. She proclaims herself a genius for being able to analyze herself from as early as age three. And what she’s learned would lift a good many eyebrows today. She’s in full rebellion against virtue, respectability and the social roles imposed on womenmarriage and motherhood included.

She doesn’t make her case for independence politely either, which was surely even more shocking in 1902. Happy she is not. Her life a misery, she’s the younger child of a conventional family who have never loved her, as she repeatedly laments. A high school graduate and a book reader, she can quote Byron and Tennyson. Beset with a soul-deep loneliness, she keeps to her room or wanders the countryside, thinking her thoughts.

Mary MacLane
Structure. The book takes the form of a journal, kept through three winter months. There is no plot to her “story.” She calls what she’s writing a “Portrayal,” a description of her character, with little reference to other people. 

Instead of a step-by-step unfolding of her character, as we’d expect from someone given to self-analysis, the book whirls obsessively through a cycle of its handful of themes. The Devil, for instance, is fondly mentioned early and often, each repetition like a refrain in a song that never changes.

Besides the Devil, there’s hardly another person besides Mary. Her family is depicted cunningly as five detestable toothbrushes in the bathroom. She mentions befriending an old Irish woman whose reputation is so black that no one but Mary will visit her.

And then there’s her memory of a literature teacher, a woman, who seems to have cared for her but who is now far away. Mary refers to this woman, Fannie Cobin, as “the anemone lady” for her tender mercies and sweetness. She admits to being madly in love with her and yearns for her company again.

Women. Mary MacLane has been something of a heroine for feminists from the day her book hit the stands and became a bestseller. She may have been counted among suffragists at the time, but her book is not a call for women’s rights. It has no agenda. It’s a manifesto with a litany of personal grievances. Anyone, male or female, who has lived in isolation from kindred spirits could identify, but she has no tears to shed for them. For all she knows, no one else like her exists.

Butte, Montana, c1910
The burdens of marriage and motherhood may be fine for other women, just not for her. And the portrait she paints of miners’ wives and other working class women is far from complimentary. Crowded together in their neighborhoods, they are obsessive gossipers, given to profanity, and like as not fond of the bottle.

Romance. If she must marry, she says, she’d gladly marry the Devil. He’s not only more fascinating than the standard, dull male, but she expects him to offer a passionate love that not only crushes her but consumes her brutally and cruelly. Surrendering to him, she knows she would finally be happy. (Shades of Shades of Grey.)

The Devil gets a walk-on near the end of the book as he coolly considers and then declines her offer of marriage. Maybe some other time. This development doesn’t seem to discourage her. The encounter was only an imagined one anyway.

A sensualist, she adroitly analyzes and celebrates the joy of eating an olive, following the nibbled bits of it all the way to her stomach. One suspects that there’s an unexpurgated version of the novel where she follows those bits further in their journey through her body.

St. Lawrence Mine, Butte, Montana, c1910
Wrapping up. Mary MacLane was born in Winnipeg, Manitoba. Her family moved to Minnesota and from there to Montana. Her book, published in Chicago, rocketed her to fame. Before long, she was living in Massachusetts and then Greenwich Village, where she continued to write and, one presumes, live the Bohemian life she was temperamentally suited to enjoy.

She had two more books, My Friend, Annabel Lee (1903) and I, Mary MacLane: A Diary of Human Days (1917). She was living in Chicago when she died at age 48. Memory of her has been revived in recent years, with republication of her works, critical attention, and a stage play.

The Story of Mary MacLane is currently available at google books and Internet Archive and 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: William Holden and Glenn Ford, Texas (1941)

Wednesday, April 25, 2012

Andy Adams: western writer

Looking through a 1904 volume of The Critic, I came across this pic I'd never seen before of western writer Andy Adams (1859-1935). Best known for his cattle drive novel The Log of a Cowboy (1903), a source some argue for Larry McMurtry's Lonesome Dove. 

Adams advocated historical accuracy in writing about the Old West and, eschewing romance, never got the kind of following that his contemporary Owen Wister acquired. Adams' fine novel, The Outlet (1905), was reviewed here at BITS a while ago.

Coming up: Mary MacLane, The Story of Mary MacLane (1902)

Tuesday, April 24, 2012

Rio Grande (1950)

The story goes that Herb Yates at Republic Pictures agreed to make John Ford’s The Quiet Man only if he’d make another western first. So Ford went with a script from a James Warner Bellah story to Moab, Utah, and shot this classic western with John Wayne and Maureen O’Hara. Both would go on to star in The Quiet Man (1952).

It’s not hard to see this film as a warm-up to the success of Ford’s sentimental journey to Ireland in the later film. Here Wayne is a colonel and commanding officer of a cavalry post in Apache territory. O’Hara is his stunningly beautiful wife, a Southern belle (with no Southern accent, but enough Rebel attitude).

Plot. The two of have been separated 15 years, long enough for their son (Claude Jarmin, Jr.) to grow up and enlist in the Army, after failing a course or two at West Point. As chance would have it, he shows up at Wayne’s outpost, a raw but very proud recruit. His mother (O’Hara) arrives soon after, intending to pay for the boy’s release from his enlistment.

For quite a while, it’s a standoff between three stubborn people. But Jarmin holds the deciding vote, since he has no intention to leave the Army and wants to prove himself a man. If not to his father, at least to himself. He soon makes friends with two others fresh from boot camp, Harry Carey, Jr., and Ben Johnson. Meanwhile, O’Hara stays at the post, all the time hoping that Wayne will unbend enough to admit there’s a place for her in his heart besides the cavalry. Turns out there is, and the movie becomes, in an understated way, about two estranged people falling in love again. 

Wayne, O'Hara, and Jarmin
There’s action aplenty as the Apaches go on the warpath. They are able to avoid capture by crossing the Rio Grande into Mexico. When a wagon train of officers’ wives and children are ambushed and the children stolen, Wayne and his company follow them and, in a shootout with the Apaches, retrieve the children.

Playing key roles in the action are the three young recruits, Johnson, Carey, and Jarmin. Johnson’s role is complicated by the fact that he’s avoiding arrest for manslaughter in Texas. In the end, Wayne has been sidelined by an arrow to the chest, and O’Hara has resumed her place by his side. The three young soldiers get commendations for valor, having proved not only their courage but their manhood.

A Ford classic. Compared to a similar Ford western, Fort Apache (1948), this film is more scaled down in its aspirations. The setting is grand and photographed in dramatic black and white, but the story is more focused on the family at the center of it. Besides Johnson and Carey, there are several other characters in memorable roles, Victor McLaglen as a blustering sergeant, Chill Wills as the company doctor, and J. Carrol Naish as the general.

The Ford touches are all over the place, with moments of humor balanced against hard-driving action and scenes that tug at the heart. For the latter, there are the hopeful looks on the faces of the officers’ wives lined up to watch the soldiers return from fighting. The strains of “I’ll Take You Home Again, Kathleen” underscore several scenes.

Colorado River, near Moab, Utah; the "Rio Grande" of the film
There’s a gritty edge at times, as well. Bodies of dead Indians lie in a row on the ground after a battle, as a scout identifies each by the tribe they come from. We see cavalrymen shot from their horses. In a spectacular stunt, one is shot and falls under the galloping horses pulling the wagon he is driving. Actual Native Americans were cast in the roles of the Apaches.

John Wayne. This film is interesting for showing Wayne in a way that is not his usual larger than life western hero. Here, he seems very much someone given a difficult job and struggling manfully to just get it done and honorably, despite the odds. There are times when his face seems contorted with painful emotions: worry, regret, loneliness, the need to do his duty. Having his son under his command is an added burden.

Physically, Wayne also looks worn down by his responsibilities. His face sweaty and grimy from trail dust, his performance reflects a vulnerability we’re not used to seeing. In one scene he rushes half-dressed into the night, awakened from sleep by an Indian attack. Shirtless and shouting orders, he seems a man caught off-guard in the confusion.

Colorado River, near Moab, Utah
Finally, there is the surprise of his near-fatal injury in the final rescue of the children. He asks his son to pull the arrow from his chest, bravely wincing and not groaning and fainting as you or I would. But he arrives back at the fort, pulled on a travois rather than mounted, not beaten but bloodied for sure.

Wrapping up. I put this movie with the best of John Ford’s westerns. A project he apparently would not have done without the studio’s insistence, Ford directed this film with a great deal of care for the details. The performances are enjoyable; Wayne and O’Hara have plenty of chemistry; and the cinematography is often breathtaking. It’s a film that cries out to be seen on the big screen.

Rio Grande is currently available at netflix and amazon. For more of Tuesday’s Overlooked Movies jump on over to Todd Mason’s blog, Sweet Freedom.

Photo credits: Wikimedia Commons

Coming up: Mary MacLane, The Story of Mary MacLane (1902)

Monday, April 23, 2012

Troy D. Smith, Cherokee Winter

Review and interview
Troy D. Smith puts the story in history. Figures from the history books often emerge in his western stories, but not until you’ve been totally swept up in the imaginative world Smith has invented. There’s western myth enough in them, but you realize that this writer really wants you to know the past as it was.

The West of the past begins earlier in these stories than it does in most westerns, and lasts much longer. It begins where frontiersman first crossed the mountains, to explore, to meet the natives, and to get the hell away from civilization. Where Smith’s West begins, the Civil War is still many decades in the future. And where it ends is less than half a century ago.

Who walks the pages of this book? Big Foot Spencer, Little Big Man, Crazy Horse, Jesse James, Sitting Bull. Meanwhile, Daniel Boone, Ira Hayes, Bill Cody, and the Apache chief Victorio get mentions. There’s a company of Buffalo soldiers, some Texas Rangers, a Pinkerton detective, and an eye witness of the Fedderman Massacre.

What’s deceptive is that you often don’t realize you’re in the company of men you know until well into a story. The narrator of “Being American” turns out to be Sitting Bull, reflecting as he wanders the streets of New York, while traveling with Buffalo Bill Cody’s Wild West show.

Many of the stories, in fact, are about Native Americans, and often from their own point of view. One of the most compelling of them is Little Big Man’s recollections of Crazy Horse. Recounting incidents of the great chief’s life and death, it captures well the charged emotions of pride, guilt, and defeat.

It’s been said by scholars that the American frontier is best regarded as a boundary, a place of contact between different peoples, cultures, and social systems. These may be forces that collide roughly, even perilously. But many times there’s also a blending in those borderlands, where meeting points take on a fluid identity of their own.

Troy Smith’s characters often find themselves in these borderlands. They’re caught between one thing and another. “Romulus Jones” is a Civil War story set in Tennessee, a border state torn in its divided loyalties. And it’s about a man drawn into the increasingly bloody world of marauders and raiders. A Confederate sniper in “The Hunter’s Snare” discovers that the Union officer in his sights is his brother-in-law.

In the title story, “Cherokee Winter,” a man inhabits the mountain frontier between white settlements and wilderness. “Casualties” takes place in the boundary between two kinds of law enforcement—an old-style sheriff and a Pinkerton detective. In “God Bless Our Home,” Jesse James pauses for a lingering moment between life and eternity. In “The Day They Got Frank Burns,” there’s the boundary where a man’s past life seems to catch up with the one he lives now.

Westerns often sidestep the matter of real pain and suffering. Smith’s stories do not. He often puts us in the company of the walking wounded. Shame and guilt may haunt their lives. They may carry the weight of betrayals, atrocities witnessed, and secrets untold. Only occasionally is there healing, as in “The Purification of Jim Barnes,” where a returning Vietnam veteran undergoes a tribal purification ceremony.

No surprise that Troy Smith’s stories are up for this year’s Peacemaker Awards. His work gives real stature to the western short story. Cherokee Winter is currently available at amazon for thekindle.

Troy D. Smith
Troy Smith has generously agreed to answer a few questions about writing westerns and about Cherokee Winter, and I’m turning the rest of this page over to him.

On the subject of a writer’s inspiration, William Faulkner once said, “I don’t know anything about inspiration, because I don’t know what inspiration is—I’ve heard about it, but I never saw it.” Has that been your experience?
I’m not sure how to answer that one. Sometimes I write a story purely because there is an opportunity, or need, to write a particular kind–what’s that? A Christmas anthology? Okay, I bet I could do that!

Every once in awhile, though, I write a story or a novel because I have something very specific that I want to say. I know it sounds pretentious, but I believe art should be an attempt to frame a human truth in an illustrative way, and in that sense fiction or poetry can be more “true” than nonfiction. So some of my stories are written by necessity or opportunity, and some are written purely for fun (“Hey, what if I did Julius Caesar as a western!)… but some of them are my efforts to answer—or at least ask—questions. What is duty? What is freedom? How does a human being gain redemption? How can men and women heal each other?

And other times I just think it would be cool to see vampires in the Civil War.

I’m not sure if any of that counts as inspiration or not.

The other day, in an interview with Jacquie Rogers, you said, “I don’t want to write about things that happen to people, I want to write about the people that things happen to.” Did you know this before you started writing or learn it after?
I definitely learned that along the way. I love the old quote by Elmer Kelton—“I don’t write about a good guy in a white hat versus a bad guy in a black hat; I write about two guys in gray hats, one trying to institute change and the other resisting it.” I suppose I may have been on my third novel before I realized that my real interest was examining my characters’ motivations and relationships with one another, and their relationship with their worldview, more than I was interested in a series of events.

Stan Lee
I think that two big influences on me in that regard were Larry McMurtry and—my hero since childhood—Stan Lee. His superhero characters have become ubiquitous on the big screen, and it’s easy to forget that—before him— “alter egos” existed solely as plot devices, and four-color heroes all had the exact same personality (roughly that of a banana, without a peel.)

I lived and breathed Spider-man when I was a kid—and I think I actually enjoyed Peter Parker’s mundane problems and relationships (his crappy job, passive-aggressive aunt, girl problems, school pressures, and his circle of friends) more than I did the fights. And add to that the fact that the villains were often also someone you could identify with, and sometimes feel sorry for.

So I guess I may not have realized that was my focus, but it had always been there. Like other kids in the 1970s, I was into action figures—but when my friends and I would get together with our Johnny West toys, or our Mego superheroes, I would get enormously frustrated when some kid would just grab two figures by the feet and bang them together.

“What are you doing??”

“They’re fighting.”

“They can’t just start fighting! There has to be a story! What is their motivation?”

Saturday, April 21, 2012

Saturday music: Dierks Bentley

This one's been around for a while, but it always cracks me up. Such a great story song with a clever refrain, you don't need a video to visualize it.

Western writer inspiration, no. 33

Here is this week's omnibus of #westernwriter inspirations posted each day at twitter, where you can follow me @rdscheer if your attention is not already overloaded. As usual, click the pic to enlarge.

Chinese Fishermen, Monterey, California, 1875
Dancers at Zuni Pueblo, New Mexico, photo by John K. Hillers (1843-1925)
Chief Powder Face in Native Dress, c1870
Gen. Crook's field headquarters, Dakota Territory, 1876
An afternoon of croquet, Fort Bridger, Wyoming Territory, c1873
Texas State Penitentiary, prison yard, Huntsville, 1870s
Ogden, Utah, 1874

Photo credits: Wikimedia Commons

Coming up: Troy D. Smith, Cherokee Winter

Friday, April 20, 2012

Photo-finish Friday: desert walk

Remnants of the last Pacific storm front linger on the peaks of San Jacinto across the Coachella Valley from this hiking trail in the desert. The storm brought a day of drizzle to the valley and a dusting of snow on the peaks. Summer heat is on its way.

Photo-finish Friday is the bright idea of Leah Utas over at The Goat's Lunchpail.

Coming up: Troy D. Smith, Cherokee Winter

Thursday, April 19, 2012

Elizabeth Higgins, Out of the West (1902)

Windmill, Columbus, Nebraska, c1870
Here comes another anti-railroad novel. Set in Nebraska in a fictional small town, Columbia Junction, it describes the disastrous impact of rising freight rates on early settlers. The central character, Frank Fields, lives there in exile, sent West by his wealthy father to manage a couple of grain elevators acquired in a foreclosure.

Columbia Junction is a big comedown for Frank, a young lawyer, who is accustomed to the high life in New York. He’s bored out of his mind in Columbia Junction, and author Elizabeth Higgins does little to prove him wrong about the place. The shabby town lacks a single saving grace, and the surrounding farmland is described as flat and dreary. The town’s respectable folks are mostly shallow and small-minded, while “Polack Town,” on the wrong side of the creek, is a disreputable rural slum.

Platte County, Nebraska; Columbus, county seat.
Plot. In Frank’s first year there, the farmers have bumper crops, but they go unharvested and unshipped to market because railway freight rates have been jacked up too high. The next year there is a bad drought, and the farmers have no crop at all. Two years without an income drive many of them into poverty. People go hungry, and children starve. In a gut-grabber of a scene, a man is forced to shoot a favorite horse because he can no longer afford to feed it.

The novel takes on a political tone as a populist orator emerges from the mountains of Colorado, where striking workers have been fired upon and bayoneted by soldiers. The orator is a young woman, Edith Hull, known by one and all as a Joan of Arc. Grieved by the loss of both father and brother, she has rallied opposition to the railroads and Eastern capital, and a People’s Party begins to organize among her followers.

Frank is enchanted by her and falls in love. Eventually, they marry, and she moves into a sparsely furnished house with Frank, so small that the cooking stove is in the parlor. Running for state senator as a Populist, Frank is elected with a mandate to make a law regulating freight rates.

Butchers and other men in front of meat market, c1895
But he quickly learns how hard it is to defeat the railroad interests, which are well organized and have deep pockets for corrupting legislators. The real crisis comes when Frank is elected to a seat in Congress. Edith discovers that Frank has sold out to the railroad interests in exchange for a job with a law firm in New York, where he can live and work in comfort again, with all those urban amenities he’s missed.

It takes the dismay of his wife and the death of his young son to jolt Frank back on track again. He snatches his soul from the grasp of the railroad goons who lurk in the corridors of Congress and successfully gets passage for his rates bill. Returning home, he decides that Nebraska isn’t so bad after all.

Character. Frank is a gentleman and behaves accordingly. But through most of the novel he rarely exhibits character traits that seem grounded in anything deeper than the politeness that goes with being of a higher social class. When he spends all his savings to keep on the employees his father wants him to sack, he is mostly avoiding the unpleasantness of firing them.

Finally, it is love and sympathy for Edith Hull that draw him into politics. He’s not by nature a public servant, and he resists the role for a long time as something unsuited to a man of his social position. But he has a gift for public speaking, and the acclaim of an appreciative crowd feeds his ego. He ends up doing the right thing for the wrong reasons.

Tea Party, Nebraska, 1890s
Women. It’s Edith, finally, who shows real character in the novel. Though physically fragile, she has more backbone than anybody, including Frank. She has the courage to stand up against all odds for the rights of others. Rising to the occasion, she can more than hold her own in a debate with the slickest of scoffers. She’s even more impressive for refusing to be silenced because of her gender.

There are no other women in the novel who come near her in stature. Most suffer under the laborious burdens of housekeeping and child rearing, their lives portrayed as confined and dispiriting. Meanwhile, the females we meet in Washington are crass and materialistic. Devoted to the latest fashion and the pleasures of the flesh, they are either involved in political intrigues or willfully ignorant of anything but frivolous matters.

Wagon shop, Broken Bow, Nebraska, 1889
East vs. West. Higgins’ portrayal of the West as we find it in Nebraska is pretty grim. She satirizes the social life and the people of Columbia Junction (no doubt a fictional version of her actual hometown of Columbus). Frank tolerates them because he has no choice. The surrounding countryside redeems itself briefly with the flourish of colors that break over the landscape in autumn. For the rest of the year, the extremes of winter and summer weather make what passes for life intolerable.

But if the West is not much to her liking, she has little but scorn for the East, where people are downright contemptible. Their complacent sense of superiority to westerners is galling, especially as Higgins shows that their fine opinion of themselves is clearly groundless. In a side-by-side comparison, the West comes out looking better, if only because the benighted folks who live there earn some of our sympathy.

Columbus, Nebraska, today. Archer Daniels Midland corn processing plant

Wrapping up. Elizabeth Higgins (b. 1874) was the daughter of a Judge and grew up one of six children in the town of Columbus in eastern Nebraska. Her bio describes her as a journalist in Omaha and Chicago and a novelist. A handful of short stories appeared in magazines, such as The Red Book, during the years following this novel.

Out of the West is currently available at Internet Archive and for the nook. Friday’s Forgotten Books is the bright idea of Patti Abbott over at pattinase.

Woman’s Who’s Who of America, 1914-15

Photo credits: Wikimedia Commons

Coming up: Troy D. Smith, Cherokee Winter

Wednesday, April 18, 2012

Richard Prosch, Meadows Ford Blues

Review and interview
Having grown up in Nebraska, I’m struck by two things whenever I return. It used to take years for whatever was new on either Coast to make its way there to the middle of the country. Now—whether smart phones or crystal meth—it makes the trip in a week or less. The other thing is that, despite all this constant change, the people who live there remain pretty much the same.

Richard Prosch captures this nicely in these stories set in 21st century Meadows Ford, his fictional small town on the lower Niobrara River. People gamely carry on, long used to playing catch-up with the rest of this crazy country. What they know is that out here the ripple effects from the Northeast Corridor in the East and Hollywood in the West more or less cancel each other out anyway.

My favorite stories in the collection focus on the MFPD, whose line of duty puts them where past and present have their way of colliding. A police chief’s old girlfriend shows up in town decades later driving a car he’d long thought had been junked. His memories of an accident while driving that car intermingle with the daily routine of protecting and serving. Meanwhile, a wind farm worker is found murdered and duct-taped to a tree.

Surely the strongest character in the stories is redheaded deputy Jennifer Rand, a decorated veteran from Afghanistan. Quick thinking, tough, serious, she gets the job done. More than a match for killers who get their loony ideas from bad TV, she’s not above dropping an armed assailant in a church basement.

Bridge, built 1915; county road 552, Pearce County, Nebraska
Actually, the past is often rearing its hoary head to disrupt the present. When a man finds an old high school keepsake near the scene of an unfortunate farm accident, he tries to find the owner and unravel a mystery. He learns too late that it would have been far better to forget the whole thing.

A man in a car follows a woman who once dumped him. That little display of male ego doesn’t end well either. In another story, there’s a big surprise in store when a contract killer comes back to town to do away with a man who’d once been a boyhood buddy.

A couple stories actually drift out of the distant past like ghostly memories of forgotten times. Anti-German sentiment during the Great War leads to the death of a young woman in a barn fire. The drunken owner of a threshing machine reaches the limits of his neighbors’ patience. In another favorite story, an alcoholic in a rusty pickup befriends and entertains a young girl with an oral history of violent deaths he’s witnessed.

Richard Prosch has a way of telling a story that’s all his own. Out here in his Nebraska, the snow flies and the big sky comes down like a cast-iron lid on the flat horizon. Meanwhile, his rural people live small-town lives where ironies and surprises wait sometimes decades to overtake them. Meadows Ford Blues is currently available as an ebook at amazon.

Richard Prosch
Richard has agreed to be here at BITS today to offer his thoughts on several topics, and we happily turn the rest of this page over to him.

Richard, another Midwestern writer, Nelson Algren, said that ruthlessness and a sense of alienation from society are as essential to creative thinking as they are to armed robbery. Has that been your experience?
Oh, yeah, absolutely. Growing up on the prairie, a thousand miles from all the places we heard about or read about in the media certainly alienated us from the larger culture. 

But the paradox is that my personal response to that alienation, my attempts to reach farther, seek harder, find better answers, also then alienated me from the already alienated locals. Tom Brokaw, who grew up in South Dakota said of the Midwest,  “there is so little around you intellectually that you reach out for broader source material.”  That’s definitely my experience.

As for being ruthless, well, you can’t get too comfortable in your social circle, can you? I think Algren also said something about being a good bell-hop: that’s not the writer who will be remembered. I’m skeptical of writers who too much love the crowd.

What would be lost in these stories if they were set in some other place?
A few of them could be set in any small town in rural America. I’ve lived in the South Carolina sticks and “Just Pretending” or “Fool Me Twice” could work there just as well as Nebraska. 

When I was a kid, and certainly when my parents were kids, each of the small towns I knew had its own identity. They were hubs of commerce, sometimes with a railroad station or the perfect stop over on the Meridian and Lincoln highways. And each possessed an ethnicity that revealed its origins. 

Once the routes changed and the farms consolidated, those towns had no real reason to exist.  What purpose do they serve now beyond housing the old folks that once worked there?  So I think there’s a sense of loss (of history, of relevance, of the next generation) and in equal parts, an urgency for the future to define itself one way or other.  The stories that couldn’t work anywhere else are involved with that dilemma, and here I’d include the MFPD stories, dealing with past and future, facing change at a mind boggling rate.

How did you settle on the title for the book?
When I lived in South Carolina, I listened to a lot of blues. That sense of loss, of irrelevance, of losing the next generation seemed really strong in the culture around me, in both the white and African-American communities.  The New South happened, for better or worse, and the blues lived on. Contrast that with growing up in Nebraska, where nobody I knew (with one or two exceptions) listened to black music. But the music they did listen to, the old country and gospel tunes, were and are well-informed by the same human emotions. So blues just seemed to fit.

Talk about the creative decisions that went into choosing the cover.
Two words. Label tape. One day it just showed up everywhere on farm machinery and pickup dashboards. It went away just as fast, but not before becoming an icon for me, the definition of DIY rural America.

Which of these stories would you consider expanding into a novel?
Novel-wise there’s no competition for the title story, “Meadows Ford Blues.” This was called “Rock and Roll Woman” right up until the final epub files, but took the title spot because it evokes everything I was trying to say with the other stories: the small town sense of family-community, the change and loss, hedonistic nostalgia. 

I think MFPD Chief Lyle is a guy who’s ended up cutting off parts of himself in order to stay at home and carry on some kind of imagined tradition. There’s still a lot to explore there with him and his friends. Why do they stay? Why is Jennifer there? How do they confront the ever-encroaching outside world?

Which of them would you like to see made into a movie or TV series?
The MFPD stories. Small town Nebraska has a never-ending pool of interesting characters and situations.

Many of these stories take place in cold weather or snow. Any reason for that?
In my memories it’s always winter in Nebraska. When I grew up on the farm, winter complicated everyday life in unbelievable ways. Blizzards would come and go, knocking out the phone or lights literally for days. Digging through drifts to get to the road, thawing out stock tanks and drinkers, pushing on with chores into the early night time darkness: these things I remember vividly. 

But there are some good memories too, like the wintertime Saturday showings at the little Star movie theater, or shopping for comics and paperbacks late at night because all the stores stayed open.  Those times were magic.

You use dialogue and body language vividly to realize many of your characters. Chester Dokes, the title character of the last story, is an example. Talk about how a character like that comes to be for you.
I try to listen a lot to the way people actually talk, to watch the way they really move around –as opposed to the way they appear in TV and movies.  As an only child I spent countless hours sitting around waiting for the grown-ups to stop talking. I’d lose track of what they were saying, but not how.  Characters like Chester or the men in “Jolly’s Boy” are amalgamations of voices from that past.

You also write western stories set in this same part of Nebraska. Is the creative experience the same for both kinds of story or very different for you?
I told Matt Pizzolato that westerns, for me, are often about the dictates of geography. That’s still the case when I write about contemporary small town Nebraska. It’s hard to believe people still live in a place where, if you crave a Big Mac, you have to drive an hour to get one.  But yes, the creative process is the same.

What do you learn from your readers?
I’ve learned to focus.  During the past twenty years, I’ve written everything from corporate style guides to romance confessionals to cheesy biographies for kids. Turning to adult fiction, I’ve struggled to stay on topic, maybe on-brand is a better way to put it. But the readers help you do that. Without you guys, I might be writing music reviews.

What can readers look for from you next?
I’ve got a standalone western novella set again in Nebraska to epublish early this summer. And there’s another dozen or so short stories here. Some will see the light of day one way or another before Christmas.

Anything you would like to add that we didn’t cover?
I’m grateful you didn’t venture into digital versus traditional publishing.  I’m touching on it here only to say that I think too many good writers are burning daylight over the topic.  It is what it is.  At the end of the day, how it gets out isn’t as important as what you have to say.

Thanks, Richard, for being here today. Every success.

Photo credit: Wikimedia Commons

Coming up: Elisabeth Higgins, Out of the West (1902)