Category Archives: Western novel

Dear Blog Readers,

Portland, Oregon radio host Ed Goldberg interviewed me about The Bones and the Book for Author! Author! and here’s the link: http://www.allclassical.org/author-author/jane-isenberg/

Ed’s a very skilled interviewer, so it was fun chatting with him.

I’m working hard on a new book now, so I post blogs less frequently, but you’ll see another note to a muse soon.

Sincerely,

Jane Isenberg

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Filed under feminist fiction, Historical mystery, Immigrant story, Jewish fiction, mystery, Uncategorized, Western novel

Dear Laura Ingalls Wilder,

Little House in the Big Woods

Little House in the Big Woods

Everything I learned about what an American family should be like, I learned from your Little House books, and I loved learning it! Thank you for teaching me all about ideal parenting, nature, and pioneering in the America that lies west of New Jersey. Now that I actually live in a leafy green burb about as far west of The Garden State as one can get, I sometimes feel a bit like a pioneer myself. Then I recall your books and smile.

I never told my parents, but they often didn’t measure up to Laura’s Pa and Ma, especially in the do-it-yourself department. I loved the way her Pa

Pa's Fiddle

Pa’s Fiddle

can put up a house, put together a bed, and, with the help of a few neighbors, make a barn happen. When the pantry is empty, he just goes out and shoots a wild turkey or deer and voila! dinner’s on the table which, of course, he’s crafted himself. After the meal, he plays the

Pioneer Woman

Pioneer Woman

fiddle and sings and tells stories, so they don’t need a TV. And her Ma’s no slouch as a DIYer either. Without a single appliance, she manages to skin, pluck, and cook whatever Pa shoots and provides delicious gravy and sides. She thinks nothing of spending days on her knees hulling corn for a special seasonal dish or waiting for the sap to flow to provide sugar. She sews, knits, or crochets all their clothes and linens, milks cows, and hauls water for laundry that she hangs on shrubs or prairie grass to dry.

Unlike Laura’s Pa, my dad seldom built anything, but occasionally managed to steady a wobbly table, blow up a bike tire, or open a sticky-lidded jar. He had a few hammers, wrenches, screw drivers, and pliers which he arranged in orderly rows in a “workshop” in the basement. Confronted with a leak or a power problem, he’d utter a stream of profanity and call a plumber or electrician. When I was seven he and my uncle sheet rocked our attic and turned it into a bedroom and a bathroom so he and my mother could move upstairs when my grandfather came to live with us. My uncle was unemployed at the time, but my dad had to be in the office, so his role, enacted on evenings and weekends, was more supervisory than hands-on. I was an adult before I realized how smart you have to be to supervise somebody performing a task you have no clue how to do yourself.

Bendix

Bendix

Like Laura’s Ma, my mom could do a lot of housewifely things. She was a splendid cook who kept up-to-date by going to New York to take lessons in Chinese and French cooking. She could bake anything. And whatever she cleaned, which was everything, stayed that way. But often she didn’t feel up to cooking or cleaning, and we had no word for depression back then. She wanted to return to teaching, but my dad disapproved, and we had no word for feminism then either. Perhaps she figured that if her domestic prowess couldn’t keep her beloved husband from straying, why bother. So she got him to agree to hire a live-in housekeeper/cook whom she taught to do what she no longer had the heart for.

Most amazing of all, Laura’s parents never argue or complain about all the work they have to do, while mine─ whose lives seemed pretty cushy in comparison─ fought and kvetched a lot. So all this ideal family stuff in your books could have struck me as dull and sermon-like had you not fashioned each chapter around Laura’s take on an exciting event and used the seasons, senses, settings, and struggles that are the stuff of pioneer life to keep young readers interested. I always admired your informative and lively writing, as in this description of bedtime in Little House in the Big Woods.

Ma kissed them both and tucked the covers in around them. They lay there awhile, looking at Ma’s smooth, parted hair and her hands busy with sewing in the lamplight. Her needle made little clicking sounds against her thimble and then the thread went softly, swish! through the pretty calico that Pa had traded furs for.

Laura looked at Pa, who was greasing his boots. His moustaches and his hair and his long brown beard were silky in the lamplight, and the colors of his plaid jacket were gay. He whistled cheerfully while he worked and then he sang.

  So imagine my surprise when I read A Wilder Rose, a recent novel by Susan Wittig Albert, based on your letters and diaries and those of your daughter Rose Wilder Lane. In her Author’s Note which precedes the novel, Albert tells us that A Wilder Rose is

the tale of two exceptional women: a mother who had a fascinating pioneer story to tell but whose writing skills were not up to the challenge of shaping and polishing it for publication; and a daughter, a gifted and much published author who had both the skill to turn her mother’s stories into memorable books and the publishing connections that would get them into print.

A Wilder Rose

A Wilder Rose

Albert’s novel is rich in details of the Depression and of your life and that of Rose, your daughter and, ultimately, your editor. As a

Editor at Work

Editor at Work

writer, a daughter, and mother of a daughter, I was fascinated by the forces that drove each of you to undertake and continue a contentious collaboration. Albert has done a splendid job of researching and contextualizing this partnership and turning it into an exciting novel of her own that is worthy of its two talented writer-subjects.

While I was surprised to learn the significance of Rose’s contribution to the books that I loved as a little girl, this knowledge did not make me love those books any less. You knew you had moving and memorable stories to tell, and I’m grateful to you for doing what you had to do to tell them and share them with me.

Sincerely,

Jane Isenberg

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Filed under American classic, Children's book, Memoir, Uncategorized, Western novel

Dear Sandra Dallas,

True Sisters

True Sisters

Thank you for True Sisters.  As a new member of Women Writing the West, I read it to prepare to attend that organization’s 19th annual conference where both you and I would receive Willa Awards. When we met, I told you how much I enjoyed your stirring novel, but there wasn’t time to tell you why. There are several reasons. While reading it, I felt as if I were striding along beside your fictional Mormon women pulling a handcart through the snow on their real and perilous trek from Iowa City to Salt Lake City during the freezing winter of 1856.

Who knew from handcarts? Not this New Jersey native, still trying to fill in the canyon-sized gaps in her knowledge of western history. But I soon learned

Handcart

Handcart

that these flimsy contraptions designed to carry things and to be open to the elements were the cash-poor pioneers’ covered wagons and all that the Mormon Church could afford. The few novels I’ve read featuring Mormons have been written by lapsed Mormons. Not surprisingly most Mormons they’ve written about are also of the lapsed variety, but in your acknowledgements you explain that you are not a Mormon, and in your novel the women and men pushing those puny uncured wood carts up snow-covered mountains and across frozen rivers are not lapsed.

Most are true believers including Louisa who considers her husband, their leader, to be god’s spokesperson. Jessie, who loves farm life, is tired of the dried-up

Mormon Missionaries in England

Mormon Missionaries in England

church and farmland of England, so she finds the young Mormon religion and fertile American soil appealing. Nannie and Ella, two Scottish sisters, are also drawn to the new American religion. Ella is swayed by the Mormons’ claim that theirs is the “pure religion Our Lord founded so long ago” and Nannie is persuaded by the rhetoric of an engaging young male missionary. Something of a cynic, I was struck by both the effectiveness of the missionaries’ pitch and the credulity of those who buy it. Anne, a pregnant mother, is the only one of the women you detail who is not moved to become a Mormon. Nonetheless Anne feels compelled to leave her home in England to follow her husband and children to America after he sells their family business without consulting her. Before reading True Sisters, I had no idea that Mormon missionaries proselytized abroad, but they did, and so these women and their families are not only pioneers, but emigrants as well.

And emigrants are just a vowel away from immigrants whose stories I know, so I wasn’t surprised to learn that their losses begin on the transatlantic crossing when Anne’s young daughter falls ill and dies. The loss of a child is unbearable and yet must be borne. This little girl’s death is just the first of many losses suffered on this terrible journey. Like most emigrants, they bring with them a few precious items from the homes they left, but to make room in the small carts for the aged and infirm, foodstuffs, and other necessities, they repeatedly have to leave behind their treasured mementos in piles beside the trail.

But there are far worse losses. Many fall victim to hunger, illness, cold, and injury. Near the end of their trek, those still alive are stacking not only belongings,

Woman Pulling Handcart

Woman Pulling Handcart

but bodies “like logs in the snow.” Death is gender blind, but childbearing is not. Pulling a hand cart is especially hard if you’re pregnant. So is starving. And breastfeeding. And what about giving birth in the snow by the side of that same handcart?  The now verboten Mormon practice of “celestial marriage” or polygamy was not gender blind either. The prospect of being taken as a sister-wife or having one’s husband take a sister-wife haunts the women. A few live seemingly contentedly as sister-wives, but being a sister-wife is no woman’s first choice.

In Memoriam Brigham Young

In Memoriam Brigham Young

Because many of the problems the travelers face are the fault of their leaders who are all men, you make it clear without being in the least didactic that female leaders might have made different decisions and that patriarchy itself is flawed. Even so True Sisters is not an anti-Mormon screed. And thanks to your careful reading of archival material, your sense of balance, detailed description, and convincing dialogue, the story you tell about this awful journey is ultimately uplifting. We see the women bond to help one another and their men bear the painful experiences they share. These are tough, smart, and resilient women, true sisters to one another and true heroes to us all. And you give them powerful voices to tell of their experiences so they can take their deserved places in the pantheon of western heroes and so they can inform and inspire transplanted writers like me.

Sincerely,

Jane Isenberg

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Filed under American classic, Coming of age story, feminist fiction, Immigrant story, Western novel

Dear Sherman Alexie,

Reservation Blues

Reservation Blues

Thank you for Reservation Blues which was recommended to me by a friend who knows I’m researching the Yakama Nation. I was a little skeptical about how a book about the Spokanes would illuminate the Yakama Nation, but I figure both Washington tribes share gripes with history and maybe, like Sephardic and Ashkenazic Jews, their many differences are not as great as their similarities. In your moving and marvelous novel, one of the marvels you conjure up for the reader by way of magical realism is Robert Johnson coming back from the dead to bring the blues to the Spokane Indian Reservation. He inspires Thomas-Builds-the Fire, a young tribal storyteller whose stories “climbed into your clothes like sand, gave you itches that could not be scratched,” and two young friends, Victor Joseph and Junior Polatkin, to form a band they name Coyote Spring. We root for Coyote Spring to succeed, make them rich and famous, and liberate them from the rez. They could use a break. Victor was orphaned early, abused, and lives to bully, gamble, drink, and fantasize about money. His sidekick Junior, who’s supposed to be pretty smart, dropped out of college and drives a Bureau of Indian Affairs water truck on the rez when he’s not drinking and bullying. These two may be drunk, disorderly, undereducated, and violent, but, like Thomas, they’re also musically talented, loyal, courageous, generous, humorous, and eager for love.

Tribal Storyteller

Tribal Storyteller

 Audiences flock to hear Coyote Spring, but still, the band fails. Its failure is a reenactment of the betrayal of Native Americans by whites. The treacherous executives of the recording studio are named after the generals Wright and Sheridan who orchestrated long ago battles in one of which the tribe’s horses were slain, insuring that they would have trouble defending themselves, and offering unfair treaties. The band’s failure is also due, perhaps, to the fact that Coyote Springs is not a real “Indian” band. The blues and rock ‘n’ roll they play are not indigenous to them, but borrowed from another oppressed group. Even Robert Johnson’s efforts to help the band ultimately fail, perhaps because his own people still need help themselves.

Slaughter of Spokane Tribal Horses

Slaughter of Spokane Tribal Horses

Pundits and professors often lament the fact that so many Americans are ignorant of our own history. It is noteworthy that each band member, no matter how drunk or damaged, knows the tribe’s history, knows the details of hopeless battles fought and lost, treaties broken, spirits crushed, identities erased. Each of them knows this litany of losses, knows he once had land, a living language, music, and religion, and lots of life-sustaining salmon in clean and close-by rivers. And Native Americans do not overlook our entwined histories any more than Palestinians ignore the historic tangle that underlies their relationship with Israel. Your novel is enriched by the way you work tribal history and culture into every layer of your story. You capture tribal culture as it is: the drinking, the gaming, the perpetual hunger, the barely habitable homes, the complex relationships between the Indian and the white man, not to mention the white woman, and the overwhelming hopelessness.

But you also include vestiges of the tribe’s more vibrant and viable past. One of these vestiges is Big Mom, a modern medicine woman who embodies that past in her large frame and even larger heart. She uses their own past to strengthen the inhabitants of the rez. At the end when Thomas, his girlfriend, and her sister finally leave what’s left of Thomas’s ancestral home for Spokane, their spirits are buoyed by the presence of the historically significant “shadow horses”  resurrected and galloping beside their truck.

You’re a poet too, so each chapter in this book is prefaced by a song/poem that sets the reader up for the events to come. My favorite is the one that introduces the final chapter in which one band member is buried and another leaves the rez for good. The poem, a lament for the many who do not survive reservation life and a call to action, begins, “I saw ten people die before I was ten years old/And I knew how to cry before I was ever born/Wake alive, alive, wake alive, alive . . .” Hell, I know families whose pets live better than the kids born on the res. A lot better. And since I’ve moved to Washington, I’m aware of this inequality in a way that I wasn’t in New Jersey. Perhaps that’s because here only a few generations have elapsed since we waged those battles and broke those treaties. The wounds still bleed, the losses still hurt, and in Reservation Blues it seems as if those on the losing side still suffer from PTSD while we winners enjoy amnesia.

The Absolutely True Story of a Part-Time Indian

The Absolutely True Story of a Part-Time Indian

With help from storytellers like you, we Americans face the genocide that, like slavery, is part of our history. Your stories in The New Yorker and your award-winning books for kids and adults arm the survivors struggling on the reservations while informing the rest of us how America looks to its victims. That you manage to make this terrible mirror an engrossing and memorable read is nothing short of miraculous.

Sincerely,

Jane Isenberg

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Filed under American classic, Coming of age story, Native American Novel, Uncategorized, Western novel

Dear Ivan Doig,

Work Song

Work Song

Thank you for Work Song! Aware of my desire to explore western writers, several of my friends insisted I read it, and I’m glad they did. In this first person novel about Morrie Morgan, a young former school teacher making his way in Butte, Montana just after WWI, you demonstrate that it’s possible for a man to write historical fiction about the American west without including descriptions of flaying, scalping, and other brutalities.

Perhaps our narrator Morrie avoids these atrocities because when he arrives in Butte in 1924, copper mine owners, not cowboys or Comanches, are the villains. One doesn’t think of Montana’s iconic Big Sky as a backdrop for such a grim urban industrial complex. The inhumane working

Miner at Work

Miner at Work

conditions in the mines are hidden deep underground and the mine’s environmental damage is as yet unforeseen. Nevertheless, the setting is Dickensian.  But Morrie is no small orphan boy condemned to slave in the bowels of the earth. You assign that bit part to a lad so skinny he’s named “Russian Famine.” Morrie himself is a grown man, a handsome bachelor, classically educated, with a past just shady enough to make him interesting and a tongue of sterling silver. In the movie he’d be played by Hugh Grant.

Grant’s British accent would work because most of the folks in Butte during this chaotic postwar interval are immigrants drawn there by the guarantee of employment in the mines. Ignoring the fact that Montana is literally a word in another language, I never thought of The Treasure State as an immigrant magnet. And I rarely, if ever, thought of Butte at all. In fact, before reading your novel all I knew about Butte was that once a notorious red light district flourished there. But in Work Song I learned that in 1924 Butte was home to 100,000 miners, almost all immigrants.

As a former resident of Hoboken, New Jersey, that old immigrant mill town and port city where On the Waterfront was filmed, I’m no stranger to conflicts between labor and management. So I can say with some assurance that your approach to the often bloody battles between unions and owners is relatively gentle. Hugh Grant is no Marlon Brando. The Butte you describe is real enough and brutal enough but you spare us the mine owners who remain like puppeteers, in the background pulling the strings. Your decision to keep your story and your protagonist literally above the fray interests me because when I set my Bel Barrett mysteries in my beloved Hoboken the place was still gritty with the residue of its own past. And, like you, I opted to keep that grit in the background and so made Bel a sassy sort determined, like Morrie, to rise above it.

The Most Irish Town in America

The Most Irish Town in America

I loved Morrie’s take on Butte, when the town’s immigrant workers pour from the mine at the change of shift. “It was as if Europe had been lifted by, say, the boot heel of Italy and shaken, every toiler from the hard-rock depths tumbling out here. Old habits had followed them across the ocean, husky Finns clustered with other Finns, the Cornishmen not mingling with the Italians, on across the map until each of the nations of Butte came to its own home street.” You paint these newcomers with a light brush, making us smile at the old Welsh miners who share Morrie’s table at the boarding house and again at the Norwegian funeral director who slants his advertising towards the Irish rather than towards his own countrymen because “Norwegians don’t die enough for him to make a living. The Irish, they’re another matter.” Your treatment of Butte’s foreign born workers interests me because my next book is set in Washington State’s Yakima Valley, another place where jobs, here in agriculture, attract immigrants and where the changing demographic increases the potential for conflict.

Butte, Montana

Butte, Montana

After reading Work Song, I see Butte also as a place where the ongoing struggle between worker and owner that defines capitalism created an indelible monument. Morrie recalls his first view of the place from the train . . . “the dominant rise of land, scarred and heaped and gray as grit which was referred to in everything I’d read as the Richest Hill on Earth, always grandly capitalized. . . . It was a butte called Butte.” I found other descriptions of Butte that I also liked, especially one in which Morrie compares the “long-legged black steel frameworks over the mineshafts” atop the hill to “a legion of half-done miniatures of Eifel’s tower.”

Mine Shaft

Mine Shaft

I identified with Morrie, an accountant, who chooses not to work for the mining company so as to distance himself from its unpopularity.  And I was amused by his description of his first job as the designated crier at funerals and glad when he got a more appropriate one assisting the wealthy and eccentric head of the town library. Both “white collar” positions contrast greatly with the dangerous drudgery going on below ground. But it’s not always possible for Morrie to avoid confronting the fact that potentially hazardous explosions are being conducted underground because the boarding house is often shaken by them. In fact, for Morrie, Butte is an interesting place to visit, but it’s unlikely that he’ll remain there even though he is quite smitten by the pretty widow who runs his boarding house. Fortunately he stays just long enough to teach the union members a song, a work anthem of sorts, to rally and sustain them as they strike for fair wages and safe working conditions. And there are a few other fairy tale touches at the end which I fully appreciate and which Ms. Jane Austen will not mind your borrowing.

Butte Public Library

Butte Public Library

Just as I identify with Morrie, I also identify with you because instead of focusing only on the grim, you opt to people your pages and your beloved native state with good hearted souls who make us realize that even in a hellish place like Butte, the American dream lives on in the minds and hearts of our newest arrivals. Thank you for reminding me to look for it in the denizens of Yakima.

Sincerely,

Jane Isenberg

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Filed under American classic, Immigrant story, Uncategorized, Western novel

Dear Thomas McGuane,

Nothing but Blue Skies

Nothing but Blue Skies

Thanks for your comical 1992 novel Nothing but Blue Skies. Since I moved west, I’ve been searching out “western” authors and you were highly recommended. Most of the western stories I’ve read have been a bit grim. That’s why I was surprised to find humor in a book chronicling the self-destructive acts of a Montana businessman grief- stricken after his longtime wife Gracie leaves him. But Blue Skies is a hoot. Forty-something Frank Copenhaver still lives in his hometown, Deadrock, Montana, where Gracie dumped him. After spending just a few pages with Frank, I didn’t blame the woman. In fact, when I read his account of his very first visit to Gracie’s family home, I couldn’t figure out why she married him in the first place. He ate and drank too much at dinner, so later that night, unable to find the bathroom he defecated out his bedroom window, soiling the front of his hosts’ house. The next morning, rather than offer to clean up this impossible-to-miss mess, he didn’t even own up to it but simply drove away. Gracie married him anyway.

As a young man tiring of hippiedom and exiled from the family business for literally turning one of the properties he was managing into a pigsty, Frank went to work and eventually made money. By the time Gracie leaves and their beloved daughter Holly has nearly finished college, Frank owns several rental properties, a cattle ranch, and other lucrative investments. He’s a respected member of Deadrock’s business community.

Maybe that’s why his self-sabotage is so amusing. Or maybe I found his story funny because, as you put it, his loneliness takes some “peculiar forms.” Abandoned by Gracie, Frank screws her best friend and drinks way too much, but these are conventional behaviors for dumped spouses. Your “hero” gets more original or “peculiar” when he roams around town at night peeping into people’s windows, has acrobatic sex with Gracie’s bff outdoors in someone else’s truck, fires his ranch manager, transforms the town’s historic hotel into a huge chicken coop, and ignores mail, phone calls, deadlines and commitments essential to his assorted business interests. These peculiar forms of grieving nearly cost him his home, his credit rating, his ranch, his savings, and, of course, his good name.

Nothing but Blue Skies gave me insights into the minds of some business people. These folks are a species I had little experience with until I moved to Washington State

Businesswoman

Businesswoman

from the east coast in 2003. I left behind dear friends who are mostly teachers, artists, and “human service professionals.” But in Washington and retired, I’ve found friends who are former developers, investment bankers, insurance agents, realtors, retailers, marketers,   and IT people. Accompanying Frank on his downward trajectory helped me understand the similarities between a person who earns her living peddling reading or sculpture or therapy and one who peddles beef or real estate or stocks. Until I read Blue Skies, I had focused on our differences. But your book showed me how those differences fade when we suffer. Alone and unloved, Frank undermines his business interests just as an artist or teacher, feeling similarly, will also find a way to shoot his/her professional self in the foot.

Shooting Oneself in the Foot

Shooting Oneself in the Foot

Fishing in Montana

Fishing in Montana

Although Frank is a native Montanan, there’s little that is specifically western about his midlife rampage. Aside from references to cowboy boots,

Rockies in Montana

Rockies in Montana

cattle, and Stetsons, Frank could just as well be in Maine or even Manhattan except when he goes fishing. He is most at ease when he is up to his boot tops casting in a cold stream under a blue sky and observing the insect life, the surrounding vegetation, and the fish swimming his way.  Outdoors in the wild, Frank seems to regain his self-respect. Perhaps that’s because he realizes that although “the tone of the West” was set “by the failure of the homesteads, not by the heroic cattle drives. . . that wasn’t the whole story.”  Frank’s love for where he lives is unconditional. “He knew it was a good place. . . . There was something in its altitude and dryness and distances that he couldn’t have lived without.”  I enjoyed seeing Montana, a state I’ve never visited, through Frank’s bloodshot fisherman’s eyes.

And I enjoyed reading about Frank’s Montana in your justly acclaimed poetically condensed prose like this synopsis of much of American history: “The Fourth of July. Few people knew the country had not always been an independent nation. Most people took it as a day in honor of the invention of the firecracker, and towns like Deadrock bloomed with smoke and noise and pastel streamers of light on the evening sky. This year, what no one expected was that the hundreds of Indians who lived away from their reservations, on small plots or in tenements or in streets and alleys, would march on this quiet city with its sturdy buildings, broad central avenue, and flowery neighborhoods, and ask for their land back. It ruined the Fourth of July.” The way Frank sees the land itself,  “Blue skies, white flatiron clouds, sagebrush and grass, rhythmic hills betraying sea-floor origins . . .”  will sharpen the way I look at Washington.

Native-American Pictographs in Montana

Native-American Pictographs in Montana

Sex Pistols Logo

Sex Pistols Logo

Finally, Frank’s recollections of youthful sex, drugs, and rock ‘n’ roll are among the most expressive I’ve read. “And what fun those darn drugs were. Marvelous worlds aslant, a personal speed wobble in the middle of a civilization equally out of control. And it was wonderful to have such didactic views of everything, everyone coming down from the mountain with the tablets of stone. Hard to say what it all came to now. Skulls in the desert.”  I read your Ninety-Two Degrees in the Shade, so I know you can write your way out of a sealed coffin, but the words you put in Frank’s mouth make him the most literate, poetic broken-hearted businessman I know!

Thanks so much for this absorbing, amusing, and fascinating novel.

Sincerely,

Jane Isenberg

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Filed under American classic, Humorous fiction, Satire, Western novel

Dear Bruce Holbert,

Lonesome Animals

Lonesome Animals

I want to become a western writer which is, I think, different from a writer of westerns. I’m an urban East Coast transplant to Western Washington with a story I want to tell set in the area around present day Yakima. To tell my tale, I have to learn about Eastern Washington as it was,  imagine how its past figures in its present and then imagine how together, past and present influence people there. Only then will I be able to imagine how area inhabitants will behave in the story I aim to write. All this imagining is easier for me if I get some help from other writers who have experienced Eastern Washington firsthand. So when Seattle Times reviewer Adam Woog listed your new novel Lonesome Animals set in the Okanogan region as one of the best mysteries of 2012  and mentioned that East of the Cascades your own roots tunnel down deep and that your novel’s protagonist is based on your great grandfather, I read your book.

As a timid retired English prof who eschews violence on paper, film, and in real life, I’m an unlikely fan of your grisly story.  But even though, or maybe

Grand Coulee Dam

Grand Coulee Dam

even because, your protagonist, retired Sheriff Russell Strawl, fits my definition of a psychopath, I kept turning the pages. And even though the bleak mountainous Okanogan landscape of the Depression Era where Strawl tracks his quarry is short on tourist attractions except for the Coulee Dam going up, I read on. It was more than just the suspense of a manhunt or even your powerful prose that held me captive. It was the westerness of Strawl, his story, and its setting. This westerness is what kept me up late to finish it in spite of the evisceration, flaying, and filleting of living people that you describe with the predictable frequency of Austen recounting house parties at the manor. I kept trying to figure out what defined this pervasive sense of westerness.

Roy Rogers and Trigger

Roy Rogers and Trigger

Strawl is a far cry from the western hero I grew up watching in the movies, the laconic cowboy in a white hat who outguns the bad guy, rescues the woman, and gallops off into the wide open spaces with her behind him on his white horse. In fact, you announce in your first sentence that this “strong silent man of the West” is a myth. Instead Strawl is a badass whose loveless childhood and violent career have made him a monstrous loner incapable of sustaining family life or any other social life either. His brains and toughness are both feared and venerated even when he hurts innocent people. You explain that men of the vast and still Okanogan country only appear laconic because the silence around them drives them into constant conversation with themselves, so they perceive a greeting or comment as “the jar of another’s words pouring into the torrent of their own.”

When I read that, I thought I might identify with your protagonist because I talk to myself all the time and have since I was a lonely only child. But I’m delighted to be interrupted and have never been accused of being laconic. I don’t identify with Strawl. I don’t even like him. But I admire his smarts and his “western” skill set: horseback riding, camping, shooting, hunting, and easy familiarity with the native flora and fauna.  And because my Yakima-set novel will include several nasty types, and because I’ve never created a protagonist I didn’t like and identify with, Russell Strawl, almost a caricature of a sociopath, is instructive.

Rural swaths of Washington State attract folks who, like him, are looking to lose themselves. But the territory Strawl lives in and polices is changing and its wide openWide Open Spaces spaces are fewer and farther apart. The Coulee River is being damned and the native tribes are retreating to smaller and more remote allotments of land. Religious zealots of all sorts are turning up along with loonies, eccentrics, and survivalists. And these disparate folks mingle with decidedly disastrous results. Strawl adopts an Indian boy who, upon exposure to Catholicism, becomes a self-anointed prophet attracting followers into a mountain encampment that makes Waco, TX look like a Zen spa. Just as the dam subdues the Coulee, cars, trains, and trucks replace horses, and towns form where once there was only a settler or two. Thanks in part to Manifest Destiny, Strawl’s territory, like Huck Finn’s, is “getting civilized.”

Or maybe not so much. In 2003, shortly after I moved here, I heard Seattle Police Chief Gil Kerlikowske speak. He was touting the low homicide rate in Seattle compared to the higher rate in the countryside. Extending his arm and pointing, he said, “But out there it’s still the wild, wild West.” Maybe this westerness that I seek to understand and define has more to do with ambivalence towards encroaching “civilization” and the crowds and complexity it brings to those wide open spaces revered by so many early Americans. Maybe the promise of freedom inherent in Manifest Destiny was false. Maybe real westerners see dams and other promises of “progress” as enemies of their freedom which thrives in the wild and resists taming. After reading your gripping and scary story, I have a better idea of what Chief Kerlikowske meant and of how to think about Eastern Washington where urban gang bangers now scrap over turf with skinheads, Aryan Brothers, Native Americans, winery owners, retirees, survivalists, immigrants, farmers, religious folks of all stripes and not many more sheriff’s deputies than policed the vast area in Strawl’s day.  Thanks to Lonesome Animals, I feel better prepared to start writing my own version of a western.

Sincerely,

Jane Isenberg

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Filed under American classic, mystery, Uncategorized, Western novel