Review and interview
To paraphrase Winston Churchill, this western is a mystery wrapped in an enigma. The enigma in this case is a man who rides in to a small Wyoming ranch, the Little Six, and gets a job as a cowpuncher. The puzzle for everyone, including the reader, is what he’s really up to.
Like Shane in many respects, he goes by a single name, Dunbar, and he offers no other information about himself. He pokes around a dam-building project that will bring irrigation to the rangeland. And when he doesn’t disappear for days on his own, he hangs out in a nearby town. There he might be found in the saloon or on the front porch of a woman whose husband, Tut Whipple, is in charge of the dam project.
We witness all this through the eyes and ears of a young cowhand, Grey Wharton, who narrates the story. Is Dunbar a range detective? Some kind of troublemaker? Or just a drifter? The other cowboys at the ranch get to resenting him, and Grey is unhappy to find him in the company of Ruth, Whipple’s wife. Seems the motherless Grey is more than a little sweet on her himself.
|Powder River Pass, Wyoming
Plot. The plot thickens as Dunbar becomes certain that the ranch owner’s cattle are being rustled and butchered to feed the crews working on the new dam. There’s also reason to believe he might be looking for a cave where robbers once stashed the take from a robbery.
Whipple surrounds himself with tough guys who try to intimidate Dunbar into minding his own business. But Dunbar is a powerful fighter and needs only a couple good punches to handily dismiss anyone who wants to get in his way. Matters take a nasty turn when one of the Little Six cowboys is provoked into drawing his gun and gets shot dead.
The town fathers are yet another matter. They are unconvinced by Dunbar’s claims of cattle rustling, and they close ranks when he says a town marshal would provide some much-needed law enforcement. They have much to gain by the success of the dam project and balk at interference by an outsider.
|Little Laramie River, 1905
Character. As it turns out, Dunbar is a man on a mission. Like Shane he is a frontier knight errant, come to bring justice where, by design or neglect, injustice has been permitted to prevail. He has a code of conduct that is revealed in one of the several thoughtful talks he has with the young Grey.
Unlike the black-and-white code of the West, his is what might be called situational ethics. Actively defend what is right, he advises. But don’t take on more than you can handle. One on one, a man might stop a wrongdoer and hold him to account. But it’s no good going after the Big Guys, like the railroads. They’ll just crush you.
Meanwhile, do your work, the work you believe in. Be honest, be fair, even when the world is full of dishonesty and unfairness. In dealing with others, steer a middle course between the Ten Commandments and the Golden Rule. In other words, temper law with mercy.
|Oregon Trail, Wyoming, 1870
Romance. The novel ends with a flash-forward, and we know that Grey grows up and 20 years later has followed in his dead father’s footsteps, becoming a lawyer. Happily married, he has weathered the trials and tribulations of young love and courtship.
But during the course of the novel, he is still sorting through a young adult’s hormonal urges that make sense only in retrospect. The pretty Mexican girl who serves him meals at one of the saloons in town draws him like a magnet. And then there is the married woman, Ruth, who mothers him without fully realizing the claim his heart has made on her.
Wrapping up. Nesbitt writes so familiarly about these characters on the high plains of Wyoming, you feel transported back to their time and their world. The dialogue he writes has the easy naturalness of everyday speech. And that dialogue sparks with life when people are suspicious of each other or yielding to a rising surge of anger.
He also reproduces the rhythms of talk likely to be heard among the “fraternity of men who had the common interests of cattle, horses, work, and weather.” We listen in as the Little Six men discuss the changes being wrought on the plains by speculators and reclamation projects. And we hear from them how progress means the loss of a way of life.
Dark Prairie will soon be available at amazon and Barnes&Noble. For more about John Nesbitt, visit his website.
|John D. Nesbitt
John Nesbitt has generously agreed to spend some time here at BITS to talk about writing and the writing of Dark Prairie. So I'm turning the rest of this page over to him.
John, we last talked here in July 2012. How has the last year been for you as a writer?
It has been a good year, especially after being on the street, as I have called it, as a result of the collapse of Dorchester Publishing. I had been with them for thirteen years and had achieved some good continuity with them in addition to winning some awards, and then they imploded.
My last two novels with them did not go very far, and I had the rights to two manuscripts returned to me. It took me a while to find another publisher, and I am glad to have done so with Dark Prairie. Five Star is a very good company, with good professional attention to all aspects from editing to cover design to marketing and promotion.
Also during the last year I have had a collection of poetry published with Western Trail Blazer, a publisher of e-books with corresponding print format. WTB has done several of my works ranging from short story to novella to book reprint, and this poetry collection, my first, is a very special little thing for me. For those interested, it is entitled Thorns on the Rose.
Talk about how the idea for this novel suggested itself to you.
As often happens, I had a few different ideas converge. One idea was that I wanted to have an almost-mythical main character who works for the noble purpose of justice but who is not perfect. That's where I got Dunbar. Because he would be somewhat mysterious, I needed to present him through the eyes of a narrator.
That's where I got Grey Wharton. I wanted to have Dunbar deal with a problem that, as I noted to myself, threatened the social body. Several years ago, a crime like the one that Dunbar investigates took place not far from where I live.
Like many people, I was very disturbed by what happened (it seems so flat when I write about it in this way, but I would feel like even more of a traitor if I were more specific), and it gave me the emotional base to write a story in which I wanted to see justice served. So that's where I got Annie Mora.
Is the published version of the novel closely similar to your first draft, or was the revision process extensive?
The revision process was, I would say, moderate. The version I submit to the publisher is usually the third draft, and then it goes through editing. In the editing of this novel, there were no big changes such as adding or taking out pages at a time.
Did anything about the story or the characters surprise you as you were writing?
Dunbar and Ruth came to life as fuller characters than I had sketched out, but that is pretty common.
Both Dunbar and Grey are strongly drawn characters. Talk a bit about where they came from.
I wanted a grownup version of the knight errant, and I had been thinking for a few years about a character who had been burned in the hand. With Grey, I wanted a narrator more like Hal in The Sea of Grass than like Bob in Shane.
Also (sorry to tip my hand here), his name is kind of a testimony of what I aspire to, which is a blend of the traditional western (Grey) and traditional literary fiction (Wharton). Also, things are not black and white in this novel; as often happens in my fiction, there is quite a bit of grey. (It also works in my favor to know that Grey was a common first name at the time of the story.)
What parts of the novel gave you the most pleasure to write?
I most enjoyed writing the scenes in which Grey interacts with Dunbar and Ruth, as well as the scenes in which he observes the pond and the décor in the Whitepaw Saloon.
Were you thinking of any other writers while writing this one?
As I mention above, and as anyone could guess, I was thinking Jack Schaefer and Shane, as well as of a couple of styles I hoped to bring together. I am sorry to sound immodest, but I wanted this to be better than Shane, not only in its level of maturity but in its execution of narrative point of view. To help me with that, I thought perhaps of novels like The Sea of Grass and The Great Gatsby, both of which have good observer narrators.
What went into the decision to tell this story in the first person?
In dealing with an enigmatic character like Dunbar, one sustains the illusion by staying outside of that character. Even at that, one does not have to write in first person, as I learned when I wrote my first western, One-Eyed Cowboy Wild. I wrote that one in third person, from the point of view of the enigmatic character's brother.
But in Dark Prairie, I thought I could get more urgency, or more closeness to the problem, if I had a first-person narrator. The choice seemed almost to be dictated by the situation in the novel.
What are the up- and downsides of choosing a very young character to tell a story?
Well, he's not very, very young, and he is literate, so I didn't have the limitations of a ten- or twelve-year-old. I didn't feel that I was working against very many disadvantages in my choice of narrator. The advantages are that he is sometimes outside the bubble of adult relationships and outside the understanding of deeper human motivations, which are the things he learns about in the story.
Your central character is an orphan. Why is that so often the case in western stories?
I'd like to say, well, pardner, that's the way it was in the Old West. But that's a joke. An orphan makes a good focal character because he has a direct relationship with the world at large, which is what the reader partakes in. From a practical perspective, the writer doesn't have to deal with other family members, which is perhaps a concrete way of saying the same thing.
What went into your choice of a title for the novel?
I like to have place names in titles, and I like to have concrete images. And because this story has elements of dark mystery, the first word presented itself early on. Then I came up with a word that went with it.
What were the creative factors that went into the design of the cover?
The cover was done by the publisher. As I understood it, the people doing the thinking had decided that they wanted this new Frontier series to be broader in scope than the traditional western line. And so, even though I would have liked an image of a rider and a packhorse, the people who were thinking on a higher plane went for the prairie landscape, the pond, and some beautiful colors that still have a dark tone to them. I have received some very nice compliments on the cover, and once I got over the idea of not having the horse and rider, I got to admiring it quite a bit.
I am working on another manuscript right now, and I usually read books in between writing projects. One of the next books I hope to read is Matt Mayo's Tucker's Reckoning, which won the Spur Award this year for best short novel.
What can your readers expect from you next?
I have a couple of more crossover western / mysteries scheduled for release, but I am reserved about being more specific even when, as in the case of these two, the works are already written and contracted. The manuscript I am working on right now is also a traditional western.
When I finish it, I might write another Dunbar story. After that, I hope to do more in the mystery line with something contemporary. As some readers know, I have done a little bit of work in that area in the past few years.
For readers who like your work, which other writers would you recommend to them?
If I were to cite living writers whose company I am sometimes permitted (and honored) to join, I would say, in alphabetical order, Johnny D. Boggs, Matthew P. Mayo, and Larry D. Sweazy. In a league of his own is Robert Roripaugh, to whom Dark Prairie is dedicated.
If I were to cite writers who are no longer alive and whose work I am sure will always remain many levels above mine, I would say, in alphabetical order, Raymond Chandler, A.B. Guthrie Jr., Ernest Haycox, Conrad Richter, and Owen Wister. Go back and tuck in Charles Dickens, Ernest Hemingway, Alice Munro, and Edith Wharton. I would say that these last nine have influenced my work more significantly than any other writers, but it's always terrible to start running lists. I left out Homer and Milton, Fielding and Melville, and so on.
Anything we didn’t cover you’d like to comment on?
I would like to say that Dark Prairie is a very special book for me, not only because it gets me off the street and back into mainstream publishing but also because it presents me as a writer of mysteries as well as westerns, with a young-adult crossover thrown in. The people at Five Star have been terrific, and I am very happy to be part of their new line of Frontier (not just western) fiction.
Thanks, John. Every success.
Image credits: Wikimedia Commons
Coming up: James Stewart, Richard Widmark, Two Rode Together (1961)