Monday, September 30, 2013

Bob Stockton, Counting Coup

Coup were the bragging rights earned by Plains Indians on the field of battle between tribes. Counting coup was the ceremonial recital of a warrior’s achievements, be they merely touching an enemy, striking, wounding or killing him and taking a scalp. This historical novel is a recital of episodes in the frontier life of trapper, scout, and Indian fighter, Kit Carson. 

Plot.  The central character is Tom Adams, formerly a captain in the Union Army during the War Between the States. Adventure has drawn him to California, and the novel is structured around his interviews with Jeb Ford, a man who knew Carson.

Ford is a crusty mountain man who fetches up in Carson City, Nevada, where Adams has taken a job as agent for Wells Fargo express. Much of the novel reads like a verbatim transcript of Ford’s graphic recollections of encounters with hostile Indians. The closing chapters retell the story of engagements between Americans and Californios in the war with Mexico.

Quite a number of other historical figures walk the pages of the novel, including John Fremont, Gen. Kearny, Sam Clemens, and Commodore “Fighting Bob” Stockton, a predecessor of the book’s author. They are joined by a dozen others, unknown or forgotten, ranging from a ship’s captain, a telegraph operator, and a barmaid to “Emperor” Joshua Norton I, a deranged but beloved man who roamed the streets of San Francisco. For me, the most fascinating part of the novel came at the end, where Stockton describes what happened in later life to each of his characters.

San Francisco, Portsmouth Square, 1851
Also of interest is what we learn of the Wells Fargo’s express business, running coaches and freight wagons between Sacramento and Carson City, Nevada. And readers get a short history lesson from the days of California’s Bear Flag Republic and General Kearny’s near defeat at the hands of Gen. Pico outside San Diego.

As winter descends in Stockton’s novel (and in Ann Parker’s Silver Lies, reviewed here recently), a reader is reminded of how westerners had to endure snow and bitter cold. The traditional Hollywood western, usually shot in Southern California or Arizona, made the West seem always summery. But the novelist, without needing to resort to special effects, can let the snow fly and the temperatures drop.

Saturday, September 28, 2013

Glossary of frontier fiction: B
(buck ague - "By the Sad Sea Waves")

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.”

buck ague = nervousness while taking aim at deer or other game. “Would you get buck-ague in a pinch and quit me if it came to a show-down? Are you a stayer?” Caroline Lockhart, Me—Smith.

buck and wing = a kind of tap dance. “In the center of the room was a large man dancing a fair buck-and-wing to the time so uproariously set by his companions.” Clarence E. Mulford, Bar-20.

buck at faro = variant of buck the tiger, associated with the game of faro played in frontier saloons. “What’ll we do—take in the Niagara Falls, or buck at faro?” O. Henry, Heart of the West.

buck nun = a hermit; a cloistered male. “I might as well go be a buck nun and be done with it.” Stewart Edward White, Arizona Nights.

buckbrush = common name for several species of North American shrubs that deer feed on. “The country was very rough, and the buck-brush grew thick.” W. C. Tuttle, Thicker Than Water.

bucker = a logging worker who saws logs into lengths. “The ‘buckers’ had then wormed their way among that giant heap of trunks and limbs and matted boughs, and sawn the good timber into lengths.” Martin Allerdale Grainger, Woodsmen of the West.

bucket = saddle scabbard for a rifle. “The troopers had still their rifles in the buckets, but it was safe for Apache then to let go his hold.” Frederick Niven, Hands Up!

bucket man = derogatory term for a cowboy. “Sometimes they were called ‘pliers men,’ or ‘bucket men’ by ex-cowboys who would have scorned to carry a ‘bucket of sheep dip,’ or to bother too much about mending a gap in a wire fence.” Emerson Hough, The Story of the Cowboy.

bucket shop = an unauthorized office for speculating in stocks or currency using the funds of unwitting investors. “That keeps more men broke than a Wall Street bucket-shop.” Frank Lewis Nason, To the End of the Trail.

bucking strap = a device worn by a horse to prevent it from lifting its hind-quarters to either kick or buck. “‘I can’t think what got the fellow, or me either,’ he added, with a look of chagrin. ‘I never thought I needed a bucking-strap; but it seems as if I did.’” Adeline Knapp, The Well in the Desert.

bucko = an aggressive, overbearing, domineering person; a bully. He spoke like a bucko mate, and his words stirred the bile of Dextry. Rex Beach, The Spoilers.

bucky = general reference to a male. “You can bully and browbeat a lot of railroad buckies when you’re playing the boss act, but I know you!” Francis Lynde, The Taming of Red Butte Western.

Thursday, September 26, 2013

John Reese, The Wild One (1972)

What I most enjoy about a John Reese western is how he takes the conventions of the genre and makes them completely unpredictable. The conventions this time are right there on the cover from the title to the artwork to the tag line:

He was a boy in a man’s boots, packing a man’s gun, and sitting in a man’s saddle when he went riding into strange country…

All familiar and all true as far as they go. But try to guess what actually happens between the covers of this novel, and you’ll be mistaken.

Plot. Its plot is the basic bildungsroman (and there should be a simple word for that in English), a story about the moral and psychological growth of a novel’s main character. You see it over and over in westerns, a young man in his late teens forced by circumstances to take on the responsibilities of adulthood. It usually involves a crisis in which he leaves home and has to prove his mettle, usually with the use of a gun.

That character in this novel is Henry Ely, almost 18 years old, who is already flirting with trouble when we meet him in chapter one. Despite his mother’s warnings, he’s saddling up to meet with a neighbor’s wife for what he half expects will turn into the loss of his virginity. By the end of chapter two, he’s been hunted down by her husband and three sons, who beat him to within an inch of his life.

Thus begins an odyssey that takes him from Texas to a godforsaken settlement in New Mexico, where he gives himself another name, Jack Neely, and takes a job with a horse trader. There he inadvertently crosses a gun slinging outlaw, beats him in a fistfight, and eventually has to defend himself in a gun duel. Having developed nerves of steel by this point, he develops a reputation as a man-killer.

Nebraska Sandhills
Before long he is working as a foreman for a large cattle and sheep ranch in Wyoming, where he yearns to be his own man. That means running his own business. He has a dream of breeding mules using mustang mares. A partner has his eye on a ranch for sale in the Nebraska Sandhills, if they can somehow raise the money. And there’s this nice little bank waiting to be robbed.

And so on, through several more chapters, as the plot careens onward taking one unexpected turn after another. At the end, Jack (now Henry again) emerges from it all a grown man, having shown his grit by weathering several crises, including the loss of his virginity.

Characters. What makes all this work so well has a lot to do with how strongly characters drive the plot. Henry, as just one example, is so clearly a one-of-a-kind individual. A complicated guy, he doesn’t care whether or not you like him. He’s unsentimental and bonds with other people only as far as he can trust them. Which is not a lot.

Wednesday, September 25, 2013

Political correctness

Recently I picked up a historical novel that came with a warning from the author. I was told that if I held to any form of political correctness I would be offended. And it made me wish again that the term “political correctness” were abolished. It has become so over-used it doesn’t mean anything anymore. It’s not even a bumper sticker.

People who use it should be required to say what they mean. For instance, “It’s a free country and a) I can say what I like, b) I can show my prejudices if it suits me, c) I don’t have to grant any respect to people different from me, and d) I don’t believe in being nicey-nice about it.” If that’s not what they mean, they need to say so and explain.

For help, I direct anyone with internet access to wikipedia to discover the history of “political correctness.” Currently it takes over 4,000 words there to describe where the term came from and the many different ways it has been used over the last century.

Some may be surprised to know that it began as an epithet used by Socialists to characterize Communists who rigidly adhered to “correct” interpretations of the Party line. Later in the 20th century the term got new life by critics of attempts to banish the language of prejudice from public discourse. The theory behind this effort was that language itself can be used to perpetuate unfair forms of discrimination. In a country founded on the belief that all are created equal, that seems a worthwhile goal.

As an example, substituting the word “disabled” for “crippled” helped draw awareness to unfair discrimination against men and women in wheelchairs. It reminded Americans that the 14th Amendment applies to all persons, not just those who can step onto curbs and climb stairs to get to a job or access public services. Here in the U.S. it helped lead to the Disabilities Act of 1990. Tell me that’s a bad thing.

But in any reform movement—and not at the same time for all people—enough change becomes too much. As other groups of Americans began calling attention to social and economic disadvantages, their efforts gave rise to the idea of multiculturalism. This is the belief that American culture is not a melting pot that dissolves away all differences. It’s more like a salad of different ingredients, each worth preserving and savoring.

Social programs and government policies based on this idea met a wave of resistance, and the term “politically correct” was reborn. This time, instead of coming from advocates of socialism, it came from the Right of the political spectrum. So when a writer warns me that he or she is being politically incorrect, I want to know what exactly they mean. There is a world of possibilities, not all of them easily justifiable.

In my own case, as I write about popular western fiction of a century ago, I am dealing with novels that consistently use racist talk. Rather than sidestepping it as an embarrassing feature of them, I’ve made a point of taking a good look at it. That language is a record of how Americans perceived and understood race and ethnicity back then. It reveals a lot about our cultural history and how we got where we are today.

So I’ve included it as I write about the subject: uses of “darkie,” “greaser,” “redskin,” and so on. Note the quotation marks around each. I want readers to know I’m quoting from the authors and their characters, so there’ll be no mistake about whose words they are. I do the same for “half-breed,” “breed,” “squaw,” and “squaw man.”

But for the sake of full disclosure, I need to add that I often use the word “Indian” instead of “Native American.” My reasons for that are simple. In everyday use most Indians seem to prefer the term “Indian,” and “Native American” is a term that has been bestowed on them by nonIndians. I use “Native American” sometimes when an honorific seems in order. But I don’t put either term in quote marks. For more on this, go to Troy Smith's discussion of Indian and tribal nomenclature.

For similar reasons I use both “black” and “African American.” I remain open to debate, but having lived my formative years when “Black Power” and “Black Pride” were used respectfully, I continue to assume that “black” is not insulting or discriminatory for most African Americans. For whites, I do just that, use the word with no quotes. I don’t raise a fuss about “Caucasian,” but it seems awkward and a misnomer. I’m not from the Caucasus, and I don’t think I know anybody who is.

As for other self-identified groups in our big country, I try to be respectful, not because it’s politically correct to do so but because it’s courteous. There is always room for differences of opinion, and using unbiased language leaves open the doors for discussion, argument, and debate.

Bias immediately closes them, as when someone refers to Second Amendment advocates as “gun nuts.” That kind of talk is not going to get anyone anywhere. It just ramps up the rhetoric to where everybody’s shouting and nobody’s listening. As I often want to say to some folks, “a little courtesy won’t kill you.”

Image credits: Wikimedia Commons

Coming up: John Reese, The Wild One

Tuesday, September 24, 2013

John Rose Putnam, Into the Face of the Devil

Putnam writes a straight-up traditional western, with good guys, villains, gunplay, and a little romance. Instead of ranches and open range, it is set on the flanks of the Sierras during the California gold rush. The story is told by its 16-year-old narrator, Tom Marsh, alone in the world after the death of his father and brothers. Events in the novel, as they involve him, make it a coming-of-age story.

The plot makes apt use of the genre’s well-established conventions. A pretty girl, Lacey Lawson, arrives in a mining camp ominously called Hangtown. She is looking for her father, who has gone missing. Rivalry for her affections with a hard-drinking miner gets Tom on the wrong side of the novel’s villain, known as K.O., the “devil” of the title.

Tom narrowly misses being shot dead in an ambush, and the danger for him mounts as he determines to search for Lacey’s father. Right away there’s a mystery. Who is her father and what is he doing in the gold fields? Is he investigating criminal activity or is he a criminal himself? Is he dead or alive? And who is the mysterious K.O.?

Putnam takes us on a ride on a fast horse through the ins and outs of the plot as it swiftly unfolds. Against the wishes of older and more sensible men, Tom attempts to pursue the villain single-handed and gets in way over his head. The novel is a sequel to Putnam’s previous gold rush novel, Hangtown Creek.

Into the Face of the Devil is currently available in paperback and ebook formats at amazon.

Coming up: Political correctness

Monday, September 23, 2013

Books as touchstones

Recently, Elisabeth Grace Foley over at her blog, The Second Sentence, posted a list of books that changed her life—which got me thinking. Over the (many by now) years, a lot of books have become touchstones of one sort or another. Some have become so much part of the fabric of me that it’s hard to even recall them. But these are some that came to mind.

Lord Jim. This may seem a little laughable, but I was brought up in a strictly conservative religion that wasn’t funny at all. Eight years of parochial school had me separating right from wrong by a standard far too dogmatic. The mistake Jim makes in this Conrad novel is unforgivable, yet he wins and holds a reader’s sympathy. Hard to imagine that it produced a crisis of faith, but it was an early step for me in becoming more of a humanist.

Peyton Place. It’s not easy to talk about this today in a way that’s not embarrassing. When Grace Metalious’ racy bestseller came out in paperback, I was in high school. It had caused a storm, and I had to find out what all the talk was about. The novel’s relaxed attitude toward sex turned out to be pretty healthy for a kid who needed to lighten up about the subject.

Letters and Papers From Prison. This collection of writings by Dietrich Bonhoeffer had me riveted for a long time. Here was a theologian who stood up to Nazism on moral grounds and was imprisoned by the Gestapo, which executed him in the final hours of the War. The book is a record of doubt and belief that stands as a persuasive counter-argument to my own unbelief. You have to respect a book that does that.

Saturday, September 21, 2013

Glossary of frontier fiction: B (boom - buck)

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.”

boom = to promote, extol. “He was too new to flaunt his authority, and boom a reformation, before he felt sure of its chance in the place.” Frances Charles, In The Country God Forgot.

boom stick = one of the logs fastened together to make a boom to hold floating logs. “Oh, the back-breaking job of boring boom-sticks when your auger keeps biting into stubborn knots!” Martin Allerdale Grainger, Woodsmen of the West.

boomer = a booster for settling lands, especially Indian lands, before it became legal. “I always was such a poor hand afoot that I passed up that country, and here I am a ’boomer’.” Andy Adams, Cattle Brands.

bootblack tough = a criminal who starts out as a petty crook. “But the men we were after were not ‘boot-black toughs,’ as the West calls such characters who have graduated through picking pockets, knuckle-dusting—in groups—late homing merchants in alleys, breaking open freight cars, to shooting clerk and teller in some small mining camp.” Frederick Niven, Hands Up!

booze clerk = bartender. “He congratulated himself that he had filled his pocket from the booze-clerk’s sugar-bowl before the mix came.” Caroline Lockhart, Me—Smith.

boss = the best, excellent. “You don’t want to go in there. We’ll show yer the boss place in Market Street.” Owen Wister, Lin McLean.

bosun’s chair = a seat suspended by ropes, originally used to lift a navy ship’s officers on board. “Murphy had rigged up a sort of a rude bo’s’n’s chair out of the largest piece of wood he could find.” Cyrus Townsend Brady, The West Wind.

botfly = a stout hairy-bodied fly with larvae that are internal parasites of mammals. “A botfly buzzed suddenly about the forelegs of the off-wheel horse.” Dell Munger, The Wind Before the Dawn.

Bouguereau, La Nuit, 1883
botts = a parasitic infestation of the intestines of animals, especially horses, by larvae of the botfly. “Why, once over on Snake River, when Andrew McWilliams’ saddle horse got the botts, he sent a buckboard ten miles for one of these strangers that claimed to be a botanist.” O. Henry, Heart of the West.

Bouguereau, William-Adolphe = a French painter (1825-1905) of realistic genre paintings using mythological themes and emphasizing the female human body, popular on the walls of 19th-century saloons. “The translucent flesh-tints, pearl-white flushing into pink—‘Bouguereau realized at last,’ as Nannie Wetmore was in the habit of summing up her cousin’s complexion—was as marvelous as ever.” Marie Manning, Judith of the Plains.

Boulanger March = musical composition by L. C. Desormes (1841-1898). “He thundered off ‘Boulanger’s March,’ you bet, it was a daisy.” William De Vere, Jim Marshall’s New Pianner. Listen below.

bouncer = something exceptionally large of its kind. “Ain’t she a strapper? Ain’t she a bouncer?” Frederick Thickstun Clark, In the Valley of Havilah.

bourgeois = master of a trading post. “We were loaded with supplies for the American Fur Company’s posts on the upper Missouri, and carried a number of engages of the Company, and a certain Frenchman, Jules Latour, who had been appointed bourgeois of the old Fort Union.” John Neihardt, The Lonesome Trail.

bousy = intoxicated, drunk. “The first thing he knew being landed on his back before his bousy finger could press the trigger.” Frederick Niven, Hands Up!

Thursday, September 19, 2013

Richard Wheeler, Sierra (1996)

Above all, this is a love story. You may not think so, considering how much of the novel is devoted to the gaining of wealth. But in the end, the effort to get rich turns out to be a dubious enterprise. The four young characters at the heart of the story learn that the love of another is more precious than gold.

Set in the years 1847-1851, during the time of the California gold rush, the novel has the scale and ambition of Larry McMurtry’s Lonesome Dove. It uses a sliver of American history, portrayed vividly and in depth, to deal with down-to-earth human themes. And it’s easily an equal of McMurtry’s novel—often superior to it.

Plot. You get two main plots for the price of one in Sierra, and they only briefly touch each other. One is a love-at-first-sight story of the daughter of a Californio ranchero and a young volunteer just discharged from the Army at the end of the Mexican-American War. The other tells of a newly married Iowa farmer who crosses the continent to look for gold in California, leaving behind his pregnant wife.

The volunteer, Stephen Jarvis, and his novia, Rita Concepción, are star-crossed lovers. Neither speaks the other’s language, and her family is dead set against him. Hoping to put together enough money to marry, Jarvis takes a job at Sutter’s Fort in the Sacramento valley. By chance, he is on a crew building a sawmill for Sutter when gold is discovered in the streambed of the millrace.

49er panning for gold
In a year’s time, he has acquired a fortune worthy of the girl he has given his heart to, but her family has married her off to a man from a rancho family much like their own. Heartbroken, Jarvis goes into business as a supplier of goods and materials for the wave of gold-hunters descending on California. With a natural head for business, he becomes wealthy many times over.

The Iowa farmer, Ulysses McQueen, has a much different story. Little more than a boy on an adventure, he has a grueling experience from almost the moment he leaves home. Death from disease, accident, and misfortune wait at every step of the way, and he arrives in California too late to make an easy fortune. Meanwhile, he puts off writing his wife back on the farm until she wonders whether he has died. She finally sets off to find him.

That takes you midway into this richly detailed novel. And Wheeler builds considerable suspense as obstacles mount up, preventing the happy reunion of both couples. Meanwhile, we meet a host of characters who inhabit the novel’s teeming social fabric.

Story and history. One achievement, among many, is the way the novel illuminates and enlivens a moment in time already fixed in place by national myth. Wheeler immerses the reader in a tumultuous period of history, at the time of a convulsive leap ahead in economic, political, and social change. His characters are being swept along by forces far beyond their understanding, chief among them their own desire to get rich quick.

Not only are characters unaware of their place in history. They know so little of their own present. The novel reminds us of the length of the news cycle before the advent of electronic communications. Mail delivery is sporadic, and they must wait months for letters to travel between East and West. Characters rely heavily on word of mouth, which may or may not be reliable.

Tuesday, September 17, 2013

Pamela Nowak, Changes

This historical western romance is equal parts history and romance. Set in Omaha in 1879, it tells of a trial that was a milestone in advancing Indian rights. The central character is a young woman, one-quarter Sioux, who falls quite in love with one of the attorneys in the trial.

Plot. Lise Dupree is a survivor of the 1863 Sioux Uprising in Minnesota, which ended in the mass execution of 38 Indians and the tribe’s forced removal to the western prairies. Passing as white, she works as a librarian at the Omaha Public Library, a job she would not be able to hold if her Sioux background were known.

When a small band of Ponca Indians from the Niobrara refuses to be relocated to Indian Territory, they are taken prisoner, chiefly through the effort of an Indian agent, Rufus Christy. Their situation is abetted by a scheming politician, Adam Foster, who has groomed a protégé, Zach Spencer, for election as state senator.

The Ponca are being held by the Army at Fort Omaha without charge. To delay and hopefully prevent further action against them, they sue for a writ of habeas corpus. Spencer as district attorney is called upon to make the case in court in defense of the government. Foster welcomes the trial because it will ignite the anti-Indian vote and give Spencer free publicity in the newspapers.

What gets ignited instead is Spencer’s sudden attraction to Lise as he first meets her while using the library’s law books. And the attraction is mutual. Young and handsome, with a boyish charm, he thrills her with his flirtations. His only fault, in her eyes, is that he’s building a case against the Ponca rather than in their support.

Chief Standing Bear
She is already quietly helping Tom Tibbles, the editor of the Omaha Herald, and Susette LeFlesche, whose father is chief of the Omaha. Both are marshaling a legal team and doing research for the Ponca. Sympathetic to their cause is General Crook, commanding officer at Fort Omaha.

Thus is set in motion a courtroom drama in which an argument based on treaty law is pitted against one on Constitutional law. While Indians are not citizens, what’s at issue is whether they are people covered by the 14th Amendment. This dimension of the story is illuminating, and a reader is reminded of the Kiowa chiefs trial related in Johnny Boggs’ Spark on the Prairie, reviewed here recently.

Nowak has done some research, and she has taken most of her characters from the pages of history, including General Crook, Tom Tibbles, Susette LeFlesche and her father, the plaintiff attorneys, the trial judge, and the Ponca chief himself, Standing Bear.

Romance. Sharing the storyline of competing legal and political interests is the romance that flourishes between Nowak’s two fictional characters, Lise Dupree and Zach Spencer. Theirs is an affair heated by intense attraction and frustrated by a variety of obstacles. They are repeatedly drawn together and forced apart again by misunderstandings, divided loyalties, and the meddling interference of Foster and Christy.

Nonreaders of western romances—and I’m thinking mostly of males—will be more than a little surprised by the explicitness of Nowak’s love scenes. The sexual tension builds from the couple’s first encounter. Almost nothing is left to the imagination as their meetings escalate from fevered kissing and groping to unbridled intercourse.

Monday, September 16, 2013

Ann Parker, Silver Lies

Review and interview

Some make a killing while some just get killed in this western mystery set in Leadville, Colorado, during the silver rush of 1879-1880. And the mysteries multiply after the novel’s central character, a saloon owner, finds there’s a body in the frozen mud outside her alley door.

In the pages of this novel, author Ann Parker has persuasively created a whole social world sprung into being by the discovery of silver in the Rocky Mountains. Inez Stannert and her partner, Abe Jackson, keep the beer and whiskey flowing at the Silver Queen for everyone from the silver barons to the Cornish miners who labor underground.

At the novel’s start, Bridgette O’Malley is the cook in the kitchen supplying bread and stew. And on Saturday nights, the town’s leading citizens gather for a game of high-stakes poker, with Inez dealing the cards. However, a third partner in the business, Inez’ husband, has gone missing for most of a year.

Leadville, Colorado, c1880
Plot. The death of an apparently decent and trustworthy assayer is passed off as an accident by the town’s truculent marshal. But it leaves Inez more than a little curious, especially when the man’s office has been broken into and ransacked. Something suspicious is going on in town, and she is determined to find out how it came to have fatal consequences for the assayer.

The mystery deepens as we meet more characters. A newcomer to town, the Reverend J. B. Sands, raises a number of questions as he seems unusually worldly for a man of the cloth. Thoroughly handsome, he is also something of a lady-killer, and Inez finds herself being romanced by the man.

Romance. Male readers unused to romance fiction will find the story shifting into quite another key as Rev. Sands and Inez flirt with intimacy and then yield to it. Love scenes are way different when told from a woman’s point of view. There’s maybe nothing in fiction more revealing of the gender gap.

For one thing, romance emerges from a field of sexual politics in which men are used to dominating and—especially in the frontier West—outnumbering women. Hollis, the town marshal, is an extreme example, openly hostile to women. Sands, by contrast, is a smooth operator, and there’s some question whether his real motives might be sharply at variance with his polished manner.

Intimacy requires both trust and surrender. When it leads to unmet expectations and fear of betrayal, there is a heavy debt of injured pride. That leads to stormy scenes between mismatched lovers, and this novel has its share of them.

Street scene, Leadville
Themes. Injured pride may well have been the title of the novel, as it runs as a theme from beginning to end. Discussing Milton’s Paradise Lost, one character describes the fallen angel, Lucifer, as the victim of it. And injured pride is a condition that sooner or later gets most of the novel’s characters into difficulty, including Inez.

The wintry weather is another constant theme in the novel, as characters trudge through the town’s frozen streets. Snow is forever falling, and we are often reminded of the cost to the hems of full-length skirts as women navigate the sludge and mud-caked walks.

An after-Christmas soiree at one of the town’s hotels offers a welcome reprieve from the weather. The chapters describing this elegant event are a genuine pleasure, from the Eden-like greenery and the invited guests in evening dress to the string quartet enthusiastically mangling Vivaldi and Mozart. For contrast, there’s the overheated and dimly lit interior of the town’s high-class whorehouse.

Snow, Leadville, August 1882
Women. Parker picks as a point of view character a woman who would have the freedom and independence of few other women on the frontier. As a saloon owner, she is freer to mingle with the rougher elements of town and much less constrained by the requirements of respectability.

Still, as a woman, she deals with being openly stared at by ill-mannered men, and she is also vulnerable on the worst streets of town. Thus, she carries firearms, sometimes concealed, sometimes not. For anonymity, she sometimes dresses as a man. This gets her access at night to a whorehouse, where she is in search of information from one of the prostitutes.

She is also not answerable to the most exacting dictates of Victorian morality. Having Abe Jackson, a black man, as a business partner would have raised eyebrows among readers of frontier fiction 100 years ago. Her affair with Rev. Sands would have absolutely shocked them. A married woman tempted to extramarital sex—and with a man of God—would have branded her as a “fallen woman.” The thrills she feels when being touched by him and her awareness of his body in and out of his clothes would have branded her as wanton.

On a scale of relative iniquity, however, Parker places her heroine well above the brazen madam of the town’s classiest “parlor house.” She also ranks above the coolly arch proprietor of yet another whorehouse, in Denver, who smokes cigarettes as she discusses the finer points of her trade and her customers.

Prospectors crossing a stream
Style. The tone is straightforward throughout, with an undercurrent of suspense, as the stakes rise and the threat of malice escalates. Now and again there comes an outburst of graphic violence. In the end, as an element of psychopathology is unmasked and takes over, the violence gets pretty nasty.

The novel has a Dickensian cast of characters, including the surprising appearance of none other than Bat Masterson. There are a couple moments of humor, as when the Rev. Sands enters the saloon and Inez hears the newly hired piano player segue into “What a Friend We Have in Jesus.” And one of her employees, a back-bar flunky named Ulysses, is called “Useless” by everyone.

The mystery itself is densely plotted, and so many unanswered questions and speculations crop up that even a seasoned mystery reader may well feel bewildered. At the end, a life-threatening crisis takes the focus, leaving several details unexplained. Finally, there’s been so much going on that it takes a couple of chapters of denouement to sum it all up, including the romantic subplot.

Wrapping up. Overall, Silver Lies is enjoyable on many levels, particularly for its portrayal of a booming frontier mining town, crawling with life 24 hours of the day. It was first published in 2003 by Poisoned Pen Press and has recently been released as an ebook. It is currently available at amazon and Barnes&Noble for kindle and the nook, also at Powell's Books and Abebooks. You can visit Ann Parker’s website here.

Ann Parker, Photo by Charles Lucke

Ann Parker has generously agreed to spend some time at BITS today answering questions about the writing of Silver Lies. I'm happy to turn the rest of this post over to her.

Talk about how the idea for this novel suggested itself to you.
Silver Lies, and indeed all the novels that follow, evolved out of a desire to explore this particular area of Colorado—Leadville in particular—during a specific time—the boom years of the Colorado Silver Rush. When I first became interested in this timeframe of Colorado history, we were deep into the dot-com boom here in California, and I was intrigued by the psychological and economic parallels between these particular “get-rich-quick” times of vast enthusiasms and optimism that, to some extent, flies in the face of reality.

Only a few ever rise from rags to riches in any given boom… but many who fall under the spell of overnight success get swept up in the hope that, despite the numbers to the contrary, THEY will be one of the lucky ones. Then, there are the pragmatic types who see the golden opportunity in feeding the dreams… The folks in Leadville, for example, who “mined the miners.”

Did the story come to you all at once or was that a more complex part of the process?
The story evolved as I wrote the first draft. When I pondered the possibility of writing a book, the opening scene came to me in a flash and with a feel in my gut: Here is the beginning. I had no idea why assayer Joe Rose was in such a fix or what he was doing in one of the nastiest back street alleys in Leadville’s red-light district in the darkest hour of a cold winter night, nor who was out to get him.

My writing process… particularly for this first book… was akin to driving in the night with the headlights on. Every chapter I wrote illuminated the next. It wasn’t until the final third of the book that I could see to “the end.” At that point, I grabbed a little yellow sticky note—about two inches square—and scribbled down a handful of key scenes I needed to finish the story. That was as close to an outline as I got for Silver Lies.

Talk a bit about editing and revising. After completing a first draft, did it go through any key changes?
Oh my yes. Since my initial writing process was one of discovery and I wasn’t following a pre-set outline or story arc, my first draft was massive: about 160,000 words (600+ pages). I was told that, for it to be marketable, I had to shrink it down. A lot.

I threw out subplots, stripped out characters that didn’t forward the story, and added another suspect or two (because, despite its length, I really didn’t have enough suspects). I also worked on paring down the language. I tend to be very wordy in my first drafts—channeling the 19th century, perhaps. Even after all this, the end result is still pretty long as far as first novels go: over 110,000 words.

Saturday, September 14, 2013

Glossary of frontier fiction: B (blackman - boodle)

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.”

blackman = a game in which one player stands between two facing teams, a distance apart, and after calling out “blackman,” attempts to tag runners crossing from one side to the other. “I respect a woman more that’ll let her dishes go, and go out and play black man with her children.” Emma Ghent Curtis, The Fate of a Fool.

Blackstone and Chitty = a law book, Commentaries on the Laws of England, written by William Blackstone, first published in the 1760s; the 1826 edition with notes by J. Chitty was often reprinted in America. “By virtue of his diploma, and three years of country practice in the New Hampshire county town where his father before him had read Blackstone and Chitty, he had his window on the fourth floor of the Farquhar Building lettered ‘Attorney and Counselor at Law’.” Francis Lynde, The Grafters.

blam-jam = mild expletive for “damned.” “We can’t get that blam-jam handcar up to Palisade and back without somethin’ more’n four-man power.” A. B. Ward, The Sage Brush Parson.

blandander = to cajole with flattery; to talk nonsense. “I know where I’m goin’, an’ that’s more thin you know, ye blandhanderin’ divil!” Francis Lynde, The Grafters.

blanket mate = a working partner, who may share the same bedroll. “The artillery is a case of s’prise, the most experienced gent in Wolfville not lookin’ for no gun-play between folks who’s been pards an’ blanket-mates for years.” Alfred Henry Lewis, Wolfville.

blatherskite = rubbish, foolish talk. “For she would have fought anything on four legs for the life of that loose-jointed, red-and-white blatherskite she held to be prince of his race.” George Pattullo, The Untamed.

blazer = a hoax, lie, trick. As he says this, Black Jack sets up a bottle an cup, an then for a blazer slams a six-shooter on the bar at the same time. Alfred Henry Louis, Wolfville Days.

blench = pallor. “The man in the doorway was tall and lean, and the prison blench upon his face was an unpleasant contrast to the ruddy tan of the faces about the table.” Marie Manning, Judith of the Plains.

blind = of a way or path that is confusing, uncertain. “You have to take a long squint, like when you’re in the woods on a path that ain’t been used much lately and has got blind.” Harry Leon Wilson, The Lions of the Lord.

blind lead = a vein of valuable minerals not visible from the surface (metaphorically, keeping quiet about something). “Doc Peets, whose jedgement of females is a cinch, allows she’s as pretty as a diamond flush, and you can gamble Doc Peets ain’t makin no blind leads when its a question of squaws. Alfred Henry Lewis, Wolfville.

blind pig = an unlicensed drinking house. “You make the Senator’s job and your job and public service all round a bunco game, a bunco game with marked cards; while we Service and Land fellows act the decent sign for a blind pig.” Agnes C. Laut, The Freebooters of the Wilderness.

Bloomingdale Hospital
block system = a system of railroad signaling that divides the track into sections and allows no train to enter a section that is not completely clear. “Little things, insignificant in themselves, but in the light of his present understanding, looming large as the danger signals of a well-ordered block system.” James Hendryx, The Promise.

Bloomingdale = a private hospital for the care of the mentally ill founded by New York Hospital, located in Morningside Heights and built c1820. “If I spoke all the truth I know and acted upon it, my friends would have me now in Bloomingdale.” Elizabeth Higgins, Out of the West.

Cavalryman in blouse, left
blouse = a jacket as part of a US military uniform. “Several men were leaping from their broad galleries, some just pulling on a blouse, others in their shirt-sleeves, but all hastening towards the stables.” Charles King, Dunraven Ranch.

blow = inform, confess. “‘Did the Big Swede blow on me?’ he asked excitedly.” Frank Lewis Nason, To the End of the Trail.

blow in = to spend money. “The one thought they shared in common was that of the wages that would come to them at the end of the drive; of the feverish joy of ‘blowing in,’ in a single night.” Marie Manning, Judith of the Plains.

blow one’s stuff = squander money. “He could play two deuces pat at bluff, / Could ‘crack a bottle,’ or ‘blow his stuff.’” William De Vere, Jim Marshall’s New Pianner.

Friday, September 13, 2013

The show-not-tell of subtext

Annerocious over at her cheeky screenwriting blog recently posted a darn good explanation of subtext. It illustrates nicely, for any writer, how to “show not tell.”

She begins:

“Writers of spec screenplays often make the mistake of explaining things to readers, as if there is no other way of being understood.
Subtext is the opposite of that.
Since the easiest way to demonstrate this is to write two scenes, one with subtext and one without, that is what I did.
See if you can guess which one has subtext.” [Click here.]

Image credit: Wikimedia Commons

Coming up: Glossary of frontier fiction, B (blackman - boodle)