Thursday, February 27, 2014

Dane Coolidge, The Texican (1911)

This early cowboy western is a rollicking political satire, the likes of which a reader would find difficult to duplicate in a western novel today. The Texican of the title is a freelance cattle rustler, Pecos Dalhart, who fetches up in Arizona, where he gets involved in a feud between two rival cattlemen, Ike Crittendon and John Upton.

Plot and character. Crittendon hires Pecos to alter the brands on any of Upton’s cattle he finds on the range. Meanwhile, the local sheriff, Boone Morgan, is alert to any signs of cattle theft, and when Crittendon falsely accuses Pecos of stealing a cow, he gets hauled in to the county jail, to await trial.

Pecos draws his pistol
Pecos, as Dane Coolidge describes him, was “born a Democrat and taught to love whiskey and hate Mexicans.” However, he has begun reading an anti-capitalist newspaper, The Voice of Reason, which has opened his eyes to the corrupt law enforcement system used by the rich to oppress the poor. Sheriff Morgan soon learns he has incarcerated an outspoken advocate of revolution.

Cracking heads, Pecos immediately overturns Morgan’s use of a prisoner-run kangaroo court for maintaining order in the jail. Joined by a friend and fellow revolutionary, Angevine “Babe” Thorne (jailed for drunk and disorderly), and winning the respect and protection of the Mexican prisoners, Pecos takes charge behind bars. He is soon getting preferred treatment from Hung Wo, provider of the jail’s meal service. 

Tuesday, February 25, 2014

The Hanging Tree (1959)

Based on a novel by Montana writer Dorothy M. Johnson, this western film is a dark study of mob violence. By unfolding the backstory preceding the attempt to lynch a man (Gary Cooper) in a Montana mining camp, it traces a tangled web of deceit, lust, self-righteousness, and avarice.

Plot and characters. At the center of it is Cooper, whose character is a mix of good will and a shadowy past. Though physically strong and a skilled doctor, he lives under an assumed name, Frail, as a reminder to himself that he is weak and vulnerable in ways that are otherwise hidden.

A loner, arriving with a packhorse in the Montana gold fields in 1873, he allows two people into his life, while keeping each of them at a safe emotional distance. One is a young thief (Ben Piazza), shot by pursuers and rescued by Cooper, who removes a bullet from his chest, then retains him as an unpaid bond servant.

Maria Schell, Gary Cooper
The other is the lovely Maria Schell, a Swiss emigrant to the West, whose father is killed in a stage holdup. She nearly dies of exposure in the mountain wilderness before being found, blinded and burned by the sun. Nursed back to health by Cooper and recovering her vision, she falls in love with him. He eventually sets Piazza free, and unknown to Schell, he grubstakes a mine she and Piazza invest in.

Sunday, February 23, 2014

My left hand

My new wheels

I have been keeping a journal since coming home from the hospital after brain surgery. I’m posting some of it today for any BITS readers curious about how I’m getting along.

Monday, 2/17/14. I’ve been wanting to write about my left hand and arm, which have been affected by this tumor. The numbness in them was the sign to me that I was developing some kind of neuro-problem. The neurosurgeons seemed disappointed when I told them afterward that I had not regained full use of them. Apparently, that had been on their wish list. Maybe mine, too, but I have been careful not to seem ungrateful that my left side has not deserted me completely. I still have use of my left leg and the ability to walk short distances without a roller-walker.

Bedside basics
But the numbness of my arm and hand are a mostly constant reminder that for a time, that part of my physical being is experiencing a kind of “brown out.” I wake in the morning with a heaviness that extends from my shoulder to my fingertips, and only thumb and index finger seem functional, though not with great reliability. I massage my left hand and wrist with my right, and something like feeling returns for a while.

Throughout the day, however, simple movements produce a frustrating comedy of unrealized expectations. Pulling on a tee shirt or sweatshirt is usually a challenge, the memory of how to do it colliding with the impediments. What was once an automatic function now requires my full attention, as I relearn the process, breaking it down into steps.

Saturday, February 22, 2014

Glossary of frontier fiction: K
(Kafir corn – kumtuks)

Below is a list of mostly forgotten terms, people, and the occasional song, drawn from a reading of frontier fiction, 1880–1915. Each week a new list, progressing through the alphabet, “from A to Izzard.”

Kafir corn = a Southern African variety of sorghum, cultivated in dry regions for its grain and as fodder, “Was it you, Doc, you benighted stray from the short-grass Kansas plains, where they can't raise Kafir corn?” Emerson Hough, Heart’s Desire.

kale = money. “Pass over the kale. Just slip out a five for your trouble.” James Hendryx, The Promise.

kalsomine = whitewash, applied to ceiling or walls. “It had five rooms, and all they needed was a coat of paint and kalsomine.” Emma Ghent Curtis, The Fate of a Fool.

katy = hat (also “kady,” “kadi”). “I take off my katy, and I apologise to you.” George W. Ogden, The Long Fight.

Katy bar the door = a warning to take precautions. “Ef yu crowds her too hard ’n’ gits her on th’ fight, it’s ‘Katy bar th’ door’ wi’ yu, ’n’ adios t’ her ’n’ her calf.” Edgar Beecher Bronson, Reminiscences of a Ranchman

katzenjammer = a hangover. “Woke up next day with a katzenjammer.” William De Vere, Jim Marshall’s New Pianner.

keeno = excellent, wonderful, first-rate. “‘Keeno!’ shouts back Ches, some exasperated.” Robert Alexander Wason, Happy Hawkins.

keep a weather eye open = to stay alert. “Surrounded as he was by other horses, he kept his weather eye open for a race.” Andy Adams, The Log of a Cowboy.

keep case/cases = to watch closely. “The rest of the guests got to noticin’ too, an’ when they’d finish they’d just stick around an’ keep cases.” Robert Alexander Wason, Happy Hawkins.

keep up the stroke = to labor without resting. “‘How do you manage to keep up the stroke?’ ‘Law bless you!’ she laughed easily, “I ben trained into it.’” Vingie Roe, The Heart of Night Wind.

Kelpie, T. Dow, 1895
kelpie = a supernatural creature of Scottish and Irish folklore, appearing as a horse luring riders into the water where they are drowned and eaten. “O’ course a man likes to try his chance on the chips once in a way, and to the kelpies o’ the drinkin’ places one must leave a few dollars.” Marah Ellis Ryan, Told in the Hills.

Kentucky breakfast = a three-pound steak, a bottle of whisky, and a setter dog. “What’s the dog for? Why, to eat the steak, of course.” Stewart Edward White, Arizona Nights.

Thursday, February 20, 2014

Dane Coolidge, The Soldier’s Way (1917)

This is a ripping yarn set among a band of American mercenaries and soldiers of fortune during the last years of the Mexican Revolution. It appeared first in 1917 as a four-part serial in The Popular Magazine. While prepared in a book-length version by Coolidge, it was not published as such until 2006 by Five Star.

Plot and character. The story is based on that of the so-called Gringo Battalion that fought in the army of revolutionary general Pancho Villa. Coolidge singles out two Americans from among them to illustrate the daring, the egoism, and adrenalin-fueled risk taking that drive the actions of such men.

One is the Irish-American Beanie Bogan, who with the rank of sergeant commands the respect of a small “legion” of American fighters, most of them deserters from the U.S. Army. The other is Bruce Whittle, a descendant of the Scots warrior hero, Robert the Bruce. While Bogan is all business, a skilled leader of fighting men and a veteran of combat, Whittle is a man seeking oblivion in death on the battlefield. The girl he passionately loves has married another man.

In spite of himself, Whittle has an instinct for survival that not only keeps him alive. His high-risk exploits earn him popular acclaim, while making him an outlaw at home. As a U.S. citizen he is deemed guilty of violating his homeland’s official policy of neutrality in the conflict.

Mexican rebel camp, c1911
Set on the international border along the Rio Grande, the story starts on the U.S. side in Del Norte, where Bogan recruits Whittle into the “foreign legion” fighting under Col. Gambolier, a French military consultant to revolutionary general Pepe Montaña. The underfed, poorly armed, and undisciplined army of revolutionaries is camped in the mountains above the garrison town of Fronteras, well defended by government troops. Military progress is at a stalemate.

In a strategy to isolate the town in advance of an attack, Bogan and Whittle accept a mission to dynamite a key bridge on the railway from the interior. Their job done, they find themselves betrayed by Montaña and Gambolier. This sets in motion a series of plot turns that has the Americans assembling their own assault on the town. The remaining chapters are an account of fierce street fighting, as they make their way by night and house by house to the central plaza to lay siege to the government strongholds.

Tuesday, February 18, 2014

Dorothy M. Johnson: Gravel in Her Gut and Spit in Her Eye (2005)

A BITS reader recently sent me a copy of this 30-minute video made for Montana PBS about the life of western writer Dorothy M. Johnson (1905-1984). It is an informative, entertaining, and expertly told account of a determined and inventive writer who made a difference in the way western stories are conceived and told.

Her influence remains a strong presence in the unfolding genre of frontier fiction today. Hers was an intelligence that inquired of both myth and history and returned from that inquiry with discoveries that many other western writers, steeped in convention, could not see, or did not care to—a condition, alas, that sometimes continues in places today.

There are a number of talking heads in the video, and the memories of those who were friends, students, and acquaintances reveal much of her temperament, her humor, and her grit. With Margot Kidder as the voice of Johnson and Stan Lynde as narrator, the warmth and affection for the western story that Johnson brought to its writing come persuasively through.

The efforts of others to put into words the genuine contribution she made to western storytelling fall a bit short of really measuring her stature. Academics interviewed fall into what feel like tentative generalities about how she anticipated the “revisionism” of the 1960s and 70s. Even the late Elmer Kelton seems to regard her only as an accomplished woman writer. And while he may rank her with Mari Sandoz and Willa Cather, why does she not bear comparison with others who happen to be male?

Altogether, director Bill Bilverstone and writer Sue Hart have paid honest tribute to their subject. They include many photos of Johnson over her lifetime, and their narrative reminds us of the lean times she lived through and survived as a struggling writer, working for many years in New York, far from her home ground in Whitefish, Montana—before The Saturday Evening Post and then Hollywood found her.

Dorothy M. Johnson
Wrapping up. At the time of the film’s release, writer-producer Sue Hart noted that people know the films based on Johnson’s stories but do not know of Johnson herself;  “I wanted to make sure that people never forget her.” This video bio makes a notable effort to rectify that.

Gravel in Her Gut and Spit in Her Eye is currently available on DVD from Montana PBS. For more Overlooked movies and TV, click on over to Todd Mason’s blog, Sweet Freedom.

Further reading:

Coming up: Dane Coolidge, The Soldier’s Way (1917)

Saturday, February 15, 2014

Glossary of frontier fiction: J
(jerkwater - junto)

Below is a list of mostly forgotten terms, people, and the occasional song, drawn from a reading of frontier fiction, 1880–1915. Each week a new list, progressing through the alphabet, “from A to Izzard.”

jerkwater = a train not running on the main line; so called from the jerking (drawing) of water to fill buckets for supplying a steam locomotive. “‘We are in the thick of things over on the jerkwater just now,’ he explained, ‘and I don’t like to stay away any longer than I have to.’” Francis Lynde, The Taming of Red Butte Western.

Jerusalem crickets = a mild expletive. “‘Jerusalem crickets!’ was his comment as he measured the aim.” Paul Leicester Ford, The Great K&A Train Robbery.

jib = to refuse to move forward; said of an animal in harness. “That boy’s done a mighty heap of work around here since I took him on; he’d come nigh shamin’ a jibbin’ mule.” Ridgwell Cullum, The Sheriff of Dyke Hole.

jick = one of the Jacks in a game of cards. “‘Couldn't find ’em nohow,’ says he; ‘hunted high and low, jick, Jack, and the game.’” Henry Wallace Phillips, Red Saunders.

jig juice = alcohol, spirits, whisky. “He pikes over to call on the mayor, and sets up the jig-juice to him, pours flattering words in his ears.” Frederick Niven, Hands Up!

jigger = a gadget, small mechanical contrivance. “Is this ’ere jigger in the pipe a damper?” Frederick Thickstun Clark, In the Valley of Havilah.

jim crow = small-time, low-class. “You can gamble thar wouldn’t be no jim-crow marshal go pirootin’ ’round, losin’ no eye of mine an’ getting’ away with it.” Alfred Henry Lewis, Wolfville.

jimber jaw = a projecting lower jaw. “Soon the buck came in with his gun, a tall young Siwash in a worn fur cap, with thin, handsome upper features, but a brutal jimber-jaw.” Robert Dunn, The Youngest World.

Tuesday, February 11, 2014

Almost back in the saddle

Tulips taking a bow, 2/9/14

As many of you reading this know by now, I was diagnosed in late January with a brain tumor, assumed malignant. On January 30, a neurosurgical team at Desert Regional Medical Center in Palm Springs went in after it. Removal was successful, and we now await full recovery.

I am at home with my wife, a tireless caregiver and patient advocate beyond measure or comparison. My daughter is also here for a time before returning to her home back East, reasonable travel weather permitting.

Blog. I expect before long to be blogging regularly again. The one hitch is that I have lost full use of my left arm and hand—a condition I hope is temporary. Single-handed keyboarding is a bit of a chore.

To be honest, after the kind of trauma that comes with literally having your cranium cracked, I worried that I would lose the capacity to continue what I’ve been doing here—thinking and writing about frontier fiction and westerns. As mental and physical energies have rallied, my concern about that has abated. If anything, I may come out on the other side of this more garrulous than ever. (You have been warned.)