Thursday, May 10, 2012

Frances Charles, In the Country God Forgot (1902)

Desert water well, near Palomas, Arizona, 1907
The forgotten country of this novel’s title is the desert of southern Arizona. A cattle baron, Weffold, has laid claim to a fertile valley fifty miles out of Tombstone, and a severe drought has descended. A mean SOB, he’s made himself unpopular by fencing off his springs and tanks so only his own cattle can get to them.

He’s also the source of ill will and misery in his own family. A widower, Weffold is estranged from his son, Bax, who is now married with a little son of his own. Bax has returned to the ranch after a long absence, in poor health. His wife, Laurel, the daughter of a well-to-do Chicago family, is grieving the loss of a second child.

Some years before, a prospector has found gold on the Weffold land, making his own family back in New York fabulously wealthy. Two of four brothers have pissed away their share of the wealth, and a third has made some shady investments. The youngest of the four brothers, Claude, bails them out and comes West to run the mining operation.

Fairbank, Arizona, c1890
Plot. Claude arrives the same day as Laurel’s sister, Robbie. They step off the same train and travel by stage together to the mining settlement. Used to the amenities of city life in the East, they are ill prepared for the austere desert environment. Eventually they come to regard each other as its chief saving grace.

Action in the novel proceeds at a snail’s pace. Charles seems fascinated by the behavior of people whose lives are at a standstill. Weffold is a glowering, ominous presence. Bax labors on, working to salvage the drought-stricken ranch, despite his father’s open contempt for him. Laurel is often lost in her grief. The young lovers, Claude and Robbie, are little more than children, untested by the world and inexperienced in romance. She flirts and teases; he is earnest and confused.

Matters lurch forward when Weffold determines to shut off the water supply to the mining camp. Claude tries to dig a well, without success, and is forced to shut down operations. Angry mine workers descend on the Weffold ranch, and Bax steps forward to confront them.

As he does so, he learns the long-secret truth about his mother that set his father against him. Bax also learns how truly contemptible the old man is. The revelations kill him, and a crisis involving the disappearance of his little son and the near death of Weffold himself finally produces a change of heart in the old bastard.

Winslow, Arizona, c1890
Character. There’s an old-fashioned sentiment at the heart of this novel. It holds that qualities of character in men are nurtured most importantly by their mothers. If a man is honorable and decent, he learned it at his mother’s knee.

We see the end result in Bax and Claude. There’s a patient generosity in both of them. Bax is an indulgent father and loving husband. Claude makes a big personal sacrifice to save his three half-brothers. He also gives up his big house as superintendent of the mines so that his bookkeeper’s family isn’t crowded into a much smaller one.

Women. The gender divide runs fairly deep in this novel. Women believe themselves to be the true civilizing influence in their husbands’ lives. Despite his upbringing, Laurel says, Bax has had to learn how to see the world the way she does. Her sister finds Claude similarly handicapped. Though eager to please her, he’s all thumbs at reading her shifting moods.

Whether Charles shares this opinion is hard to say. Robbie may be clever enough, but there’s little depth to her. She’s all urbane superficiality. Returning from a community dance, she gives a mocking report of the women who lacked stylish dresses and brought their children in baby buggies. Her sense of superiority comes across as class bigotry.

Laying railway tracks, Arizona, 1890
Wrapping up. Is it a western? The answer to that is a qualified yes. Like a number of novels from the period, the focus is on Easterners plunked down like aliens in the West. In some, they are fish out of water. In others, like this one, the West is another planet, and they work hard not to lose their identities.

They don’t so much accommodate themselves to the West as submit to it. The harsh, dry land takes its prisoners. It makes widows and widowers. The only reason for being there is the wealth that can be wrung from it. For those who withstand its brutal disdain for them, there’s also wealth in the strength they discover in themselves.

We are left in the final chapter with a description of the investors who come West to visit their gold mine and are so terrified by the distance from the city they are ready to turn back before they even reach Texas. By comparison, the survivors in this novel have proved their mettle and then some.

In the Country God Forgot is currently available online at google books and Internet Archive, and for the nook. For more of Friday’s Forgotten Books, click on over to Todd Mason’s blog, Sweet Freedom.

Image credits: Wikimedia Commons

Coming up: James Reasoner, Texas Rangers


  1. Replies
    1. Thanks for dropping by, Mo. I find nearly all these old western novels fascinating in one way or another.

  2. Sounds like a good name for a movie (or for a book by Comac McCathy).

    1. And No Country for Old Men would have suited this novel well, too.

  3. Ron, I have read very few western short stories and novels of the late 19th and early 20th century (all online) and though nearly all the tales moved at a slow pace, they amply reflected the period they were written in. This book has all the ingredients of a classic western story. I like your idea of using early black-and-white pictures with your reviews. They tell their own story too.

    1. Thanks, Prashant. I've found that reading enough of these old novels, the past becomes an alternative reality.

  4. Just sent a long comment and couldn't send it. This is a test. Frances Charles is my grandmother and I wondered whatcelse you knew about her? She lived wit her sister ,Lanie Charles Gray in Arizona for a while, but I don't know where. Maurine Frances Audel.

  5. I don't do this replying stuff very well and have no idea where Goggle came up with my maiden name and old nickname. I never knew my grandmother, but I have her books and have never managed to wade through any of them. As I now live in Tucson, I would love to know where she lived when she was here (likely around the turn of the last century)), or anything else anyone knows about her (she died in 1922 when my dad was 14).