Saturday, September 1, 2012

Down the Santa Fe Trail and into Mexico: The Diary of Susan Shelby Magoffin, 1846-1847

In an earlier post I discussed my appreciation for the University of Nebraska Press' Bison Books imprint.

One of the Press' books I read recently was Down the Santa Fe Trail and into Mexico: The Diary of Susan Shelby Magoffin, 1846-1847. I have some interest in the Santa Fe Trail, and when I found this volume on the library's Sale cart, I thought it would be a handy reference.

Well, it is, But when I began reading it, I had no idea I was also going to be immersed in lots of Kentucky history, as well.

Susan Shelby Magoffin (July 30, 1827 – October 26, 1855) was tied to two families important to frontier history. Really, more than two.

She was the granddaughter of Isaac Shelby (December 11, 1750 – July 18, 1826), a hero of the American Revolution and the first and fifth governor of Kentucky. She was born near Danville, Kentucky. She was named for an aunt, who was married to Dr. Ephraim McDowell  (November 11, 1771 – June 25, 1830), a Danville physician famed for performing the world's first successful ovarian tumor removal by surgery. (The tumor weighed 22.5 pounds!)

At the time of the journey, Susan was 18 years old and had been married only eight months to frontier merchant Samuel Magoffin, whose family also hailed from Kentucky. One of Susan's sisters was married to Beriah Magoffin, 21st governor of Kentucky. Samuel's brother – and Susan's brother-in-law – James played an important role during the journey recounted in Susan's journal, serving as an emissary of the United States government to deal with the Mexican authorities as the Army advanced—because, while the Magoffins made their business trek to Santa Fe, the U.S. Army was battling the Mexican Army in efforts that would eventually expand the United States' border to the Rio Grande to include he Republic of Texas and New Mexico.

So Susan met another famous Kentuckian on her trip: Zachary Taylor (November 24, 1784 – July 9, 1850), General of the Army at the Battles of Monterrey and Buena Vista, afterwards known as Old Rough and Ready, and eventually elected as the 12th President of the United States.

Susan is quite proud of her Kentucky heritage, and she continually compares the men she meets during her trip with the Fine Kentuckian Qualities of the men she knows back home. For example, while in Santa Fe . . .

On leaving the Fort we rode to the opposite side of the city (to the West) to see the Gloriatta, an inclosed public walk. It was commenced by Gov. Gen. Garcia Conde, being planted altogether in indifferent looking Cotton-woods it is quite susceptible of improvement—a Yankee's ingenuity and Kentuckian's taste is wanting to make it a beautiful place. (pp. 141-142)

While in Santa Fe, she is visited by a number of the military men. To one such visitor, Susan says,

I complimented him a little and my own dear Kentucky, at the same time by asking him, for my own private information, if he [came] from Ky. as I believed most or all of the great men were from there, or connected with her in some way. (132)

Susan's allegiance to her home state sound a bit funny to our ears. But really, people today have local and state pride; and the boosters of college sports teams aren't so much different today. (SEC fans may be a bit more zealous.) But her biases aside, her journal provides a remarkable record of the time for a civilian caught in a war zone while the U.S. invades Mexico. The worries – for loved ones captured or for her immediate family, when rumors reach them that the enemy is approaching and killing all Anglos – and the delights of her journey are presented with details that military and business-oriented accounts overlook or have no concerns for. The details of the journey – the number of hours of travel, the stops for water or rest or repairs, the description of the landscape and its features, the difficulties of living on the trail – are wonderful for those who seek that sort of information, and her descriptions lift the Santa Fe Trail from being a dry historical subject to something alive and real.

Susan's place in history as the first Anglo woman to travel the Trail and journey into Mexico with the traders is made all the more important by her journal, which gives the modern reader a look at the War with Mexico, a wonderful view of travel and work on the Sante Fe Trail, and a sense of what people from North American culture experienced when they first encountered the South of the Border culture during the 1840s.

I heartily recommend this book.

Saturday, August 4, 2012

Riker's Gold by Skeeter Dodds

I picked up this novel wondering what kind of western writer someone named Skeeter might be. Checking the copyright page, he's apparently actually James O'Brien. I gargled the Internet and came up with nothing about this particular writer.

Riker's Gold was originally published as a Black Horse Wester in 2001. I read the large print edition published in the Dales Western Library.

I thought I would be in for a long, slow read when the novel opened with Jack Riker bemoaning the bad times: his once-fruitful farm has hit bad times, as the past few years have brought drought and a failing future to Riker and his wife, who has turned rather bitterly against him as well.

Then a soldier comes by and leaves behind saddle bags full of Army gold for Riker's safekeeping. The soldier is sick with a fever that has wiped out the rest of his company. He wants Riker to hold onto the gold until the Army sends someone looking for the lost troop. Then the soldier rides into the snow-covered mountains to die.

A band of thieves come across the soldier's trail and follow him into the mountains. They see him scribble a note, then fall over dead. Overcoming their fear of the illness that's claimed all the dead soldiers lying about, they take possession of the note and read about the gold and its whereabouts.

Meanwhile, Jack has ridden into town to lock the saddlebags in the safe within the sheriff's office. Jack is part-time lawman for the town. After a rattling argument with his wife, who wants him to simply take the gold and start a new life, Riker thinks the gold will be safer hidden in town until the Army shows up. But a nosey townsman peeps through the office window and sees Riker locking away the saddlebags, which raises his curiosity. The fellow is a known lush, and the wily bar owner can tell something is on the man's mind. Lubricating the gent with free drinks, he learns about the hidden saddlebags and wonders why Riker would make the effort to secure them.

The barowner has kept a long-simmering feud going with Riker, because he hankers for Riker's wife. When he learns the sheriff's safe holds gold, he stirs up the townspeople – who, like Riker, are beaten down by bad times – in a scheme to get the gold and Riker's wife, too. The conflict boils over when the deadly gang of thieves arrive in town, and the shooting begins.

Dodds uses the love triangle effectively in this story, building a range of conflicts from that emotional dynamic coupled with Riker's ethical dilemma about how to handle the gold placed in his care. Although there are plenty of characters willing to fire guns in this tale, Dodds plays a wary game with his primary character, Riker, by having the sheriff keep gunplay at bay until the final town-sized shootout that brings the story to a climax. Dodds handles this nicely.

I was intrigued enough by Riker's Gold to wonder how the author might handle another plot. I'll have to find out.

Sunday, July 29, 2012

Railroaded! By Mark Bannerman

Mark Bannerman is the pseudonym of Robert Hales writer Tony Lewing, whose first Black Horse Western was Grand Valley Feud, published in 1995. Steve Myall has a very nice interview with him from 2009 on the Western Fiction Review blog. You'll find it here.

Railroaded! was published as a BHW in 2001. I read the large print edition published in the Linford Western Library in 2003.

Here's the cover blurb:

After the Civil War, Kansas was a wild territory ripe for exploitation German immigrant Helmut Rapp and his wife come west, claiming land under the Homestead Act. With the new railroad thrusting towards his land, Helmut strives to preserve the life and obscurity he has worked hard to achieve.

Mark notes in his interview that he's a fan of Ernest Haycox. His well-crafted sentences, the details he uses to build his characters, and the descriptions of events all provide proof that he's studied Haycox's finer works. There is a pulse and rhythm to Bannerman's narrative that demonstrates his attention to his storytelling craft.

His structuring of the novel provides a nice example. Most BHWs I've read offer a linear narrative, building from a traditional exposition of place and setting, introducing characters, and then adding the points of conflict from A to B to C.

In Railroaded!, Bannerman opens with a dramatic scene spotlighting the primary character in mortal danger, then moves to a deep flashback, so that the narrative keeps moving forward to the point at which the novel opened—not the climax, but quite near it. Building his novel with this structure displays Bannerman's confidence in his skills and his awareness of how to place the load-bearing structures in a plot.

This story is an emigrant tale: Helmut Rapp's story begins in Bavaria, where – as a starstruck and somewhat na├»ve youth -- he marries stage star Ingrid. Ingrid continues to bed other men, and when Helmut discovers her continual infidelity and lack of remorse, he takes his savings and goes to America. He meets a resourceful Irish girl and marries her, sure that his past will not catch up to him.

Of course, how wrong he turns out to be introduces all kinds of conflict into the plot.

After he successfully builds a ranch in the west, Ingrid tracks him down and extorts him into signing over ownership of the farm to her. In return, she won't reveal that Helmut is a bigamist. She opens a brothel in town and lives the high life of a wild west entrepreneurial bordello queen.

Helmut's troubles grow exponentially when the railroad arrives and wants to buy his valley to make its way to the nearby town. The townspeople want Helmut to sell, because the railroad will bring money to the town's businesses. Helmut could be rich. But Ingrid holds the paper on his property, so he stands his ground and refuses to sell – even though the ground he stands on doesn't legally belong to him.

Conflict escalates until the reader returns to the first scene, where Helmut is on the run from the local marshal, a bloodthirsty gunman named Keno who doesn't mind if the line of the law wobbles a bit in favor of the railroad.

In terms of storytelling finesse, this is one of the best BHWs I've read. Bannerman demonstrates an expert hand at pacing and storytelling. Recommended.

Railroaded! is available from Amazon. Click here for a large print edition. Click here for the Kindle edition..

Monday, July 16, 2012

Former desert ranch of Roy Rogers sells for $645K


— A 67-acre Southern California ranch that once belonged to the late King of the Cowboys Roy Rogers has been sold for $645,000.

The Double R ranch near Victorville, in the Mojave Desert, includes a 1,700-square-foot home, a red barn, a stable with 15 stalls, a half-mile horse track and fenced pastures

Read more here:

The rest of the story can be reached by clicking here.

Sunday, July 1, 2012

Bison Books

The Bison Books imprint of the University of Nebraska Press is a great boon to scholars of western history, to fans and writers of western fiction.

It's true that many of the older documents and narratives that form their backlist are now available digitally from Gutenberg and other online sources as free electronic files. But it's nice to have a printed edition on one's shelf, close to hand, and the spine of which can trigger a thought that leads to digging through the pages of one or another of these tomes.

I have several Bison books on my shelves. I've been particularly fortunate the past couple of months to add to this collection thanks to my wandering thrift stores and library sales. Here are my recent acquisitions:

Magoffin, Susan Shelby: Down the Sante Fe Trail and into Mexico, The Diary of Susan Shelby Magoffin, 1846-1847. Edited by Stella M. Drumm. Foreword by Howard R. Lamar. 1982.

Majors, Alexander: Seventy Years on the Frontier, Alexander Majors' Memoirs of a Lifetime on the Border. Edited by Colonel Prentiss Ingraham. With a Preface by Buffalo Bill Cody. Introduction by David Dary. 1989.

Lavender, David: Bent's Fort. 1972

Adams, Andy: Wells Brothers, The Young Cattle Kings. Introduction by Jim Hoy. 1997.

These are all nice-looking books, filled with interesting info. I intend posting a review of the Magoffin volume soon.

Many thanks for Bison Books' keeping these texts readily available!

Thursday, June 28, 2012

Frederick Faust's Abrupt Endings

It's been awhile since I shared something about Frederick Faust, more popularly known as Max Brand. While Leisure Books was publishing fresh Brand paperbacks in the mass market format, a new title seemed to appear every month. But once Dorchester filed bankruptcy, new Brand westerns have been hard to find. Five Star is still releasing hardcover editions of Brand's work, but I don't know from whom they will appear as paperback editions (or if they will).

So, back to this re-post from the old Pulp Rack Web site:

Frederick Faust's Abrupt Endings

 by Duane Spurlock

Frederick Faust's stories frequently seem to defy the traditional plot arc, in which a denouement -- or falling action that wraps up loose ends -- follows the climax. More than one reader has commented with a grumble about the abrupt endings of Faust's stories. With the body of his tale told, the author seems to have no interest in providing a typical sense of closure to his readers. Like a rocket that has expended all its fuel and then falls to earth, a Faust story speeds pell-mell to its climax, and then stops.

One explanation for this trait of Faust's storytelling is easy to apply: that the editorial demands of pulp fiction magazines did not require the artifice of closure.

This argument suggests that readers weren't interested in a neat, tidy, wrapping up of narratives, or that editors didn't want or worry about such things. There may be some weight to this theory, but I don't believe it is the ultimate answer. Of course, in some cases a lack of closure led to readers' demanding more of the story. A prime example is Edgar Rice Burroughs' Tarzan of the Apes, which ends with Tarzan giving up his rightful inheritance so that the woman he loves -- Jane Porter -- may marry the man he mistakenly believes that she loves. Of course, Burroughs wrote a sequel -- The Return of Tarzan -- in which everything ends as readers had hoped, with John Clayton (Tarzan) recognized as Lord Greystoke and married to Jane.

A second explanation that one may apply to the lack of closure is that Faust's lifestyle -- his extravagant spending -- demanded the furious pace he followed in writing his fiction, and he had no time or inclination for crafting tidy endings. After all, wasn't he writing for a popular audience seeking entertainment, not for a literary audience expecting aesthetic pleasures?

There is a third explanation for the lack of closure: simply that Faust was unable to craft such scenes. Look at the typical course his stories run -- the protagonist is always moving forward against hardships, toward a goal (known or unrealized), tacking a seemingly unending succession of obstacles, natural and manmade; Faust simply ends his story when its hero overcomes the latest difficulty that is most pertinent to the immediate narrative. We can assume that other obstacles will lie ahead for the hero -- any closing action that Faust might craft (that is, closing action that is true to the world of the protagonist and the narrative he has inhabited) would actually form the beginning of a new story, a new series of hurdles to leap over.

For examples, and to demonstrate that Faust's tendency toward this sort of ending was not limited simply to his pulp magazine stories, let's turn first to a non-pulp publication, to a couple of non-western stories that appeared in an untypical Faust market, Good Housekeeping magazine. Faust had two stories published there -- "Miniature" and "Level Landings" in the September and October issues of 1939, respectively. In "Miniature," the protagonist has found a solution to the trials he has faced the past recent years. But by the end of the story, he throws away this option, even with the sure knowledge that he will face greater difficulties in the future.

At the end of "Level Landings," the awakened hero realizes that the expectations for him -- to marry his sweetheart and settle down to a comfortable domestic life with no physical threats, no dangers -- will be utterly unsatisfying for him. He feels the pull of a life filled with excitement and adventure, and the reader leaves the story with the full expectation for the hero to dump his fiance so he may seek out the bright face of danger.

In neither story do we see the sort of closure that readers of contemporary popular fiction have come to expect. The stories end with no real happiness, no complacency, no happy marriages that signal the end of a comedy by Shakespeare, whose work Faust so loved. Instead, the heroes of these stories look forward to further trials and obstacles to overcome.

Pulp Protagonists
Let's turn now to Faust's pulp protagonists. Like Hercules working through his twelve labors, Faust's heroes move from one task or difficult situation to another. A story recounts a hero's particular labor, then ends. In the case of Faust's series characters, the next story in the series covers another labor, and then ends. Even if a character reaches the end of his labors to win some treasure or knowledge, there is no closure, for other challenges shall arise for such characters.

For instance, Faust's "Reata" must perform three missions for Pop Dickerman to repay a debt. Reata's saga is told over the course of seven stories -- those devoted to each of his missions for Dickerman, and then the stories that recount his labors to clean his name in the eyes of the authorities.

Each story about "Bull Hunter" can be seen as focusing on that character's overcoming some great physical or situational challenge until he finally wins the hand of Mary Hood.

The "Thunder Moon" stories focus on the character's many challenges -- to prove his manhood (in differing ways) to the Cheyenne and to the whites and to himself -- and each story examines the character's trials as he faces these challenges. At the end of the series -- "Farewell, Thunder Moon" -- Thunder Moon has turned away from his Cheyenne brothers to marry a white woman, but the reader knows that the warrior's psychic split as a white man raised among Indians will still bring him torment in the life that may follow the closing of the story.

Whether Faust was actually unable to write scenes of typical closure, this hypothesis -- plus the examples just given -- suggests a fourth explanation for the abrupt endings of his stories: that he was instead following a tradition of heroic stories in which closure is not an element.

The Heroic Tradition
Faust was an avid student of older literatures, and it's quite possible to see him working within that tradition -- just as he was so devoted to writing out-of-fashion, classically styled poetry.

To further describe my point about the older tradition that may have been Faust's model, I'll rely on a quote from John Crowley's Aegypt because it makes the point so succinctly. In this scene from Crowley's novel about stories and histories, a character -- history professor Frank Walker Barr -- neatly summarizes the sort of heroic literary tradition of which Faust's protagonists might be a part:

"It seems to me that what grants meaning in folktales and legendary narratives -- we're thinking now of something like the Nibelungenlied or the Mort D'Arthur -- is not logical development so much as thematic repetition, the same ideas or events or even the same objects recurring in different circumstances, or different objects contained in similar circumstances." . . . .

"A hero sets out . . . to find a treasure, or to free his beloved, or to capture a castle or find a garden. Every incident, every adventure that befalls him as he searches, is the treasure or the beloved, the castle or the garden, repeated in different forms. Like a set of nesting boxes -- each of them however just as large, or no smaller, than all the others. The interpolated stories he is made to listen to only tell him his own story in another form. The pattern continues until a kind of certainty arises, a satisfaction that the story has been told often enough to seem at last to have been really told. Not uncommonly in old romances the story just breaks off then, or turns to other matters.

"Plot, logical development, conclusions prepared for by introductions, or inherent in a story's premises -- logical completion as a vehicle of meaning -- all that is later, not necessarily later in time, but belonging to a later, more sophisticated kind of literature. There are some interesting half-way kind of works, like The Faerie Queene, which set up for themselves a titanic plot, an almost mathematical symmetry of structure, and never finish it: never need to finish it, because they are at heart works of the older kind, and the pattern has already arisen satisfyingly within them, the flavor is already there . . . " (pp. 360-361)

It isn't so difficult to recognize in Faust's work elements of that older kind of literature, in which the adventures of the protagonist are the treasure -- for both the reader and the story's hero.

It is generally acknowledged that Faust's characters are larger than life in their personalities and abilities, are mythic in their proportions. As Faust collector and novelist William Nolan states in an article for the May 1997 issue of Firsts: The Book Collector's Magazine, Faust's "West was primarily a place of myth and fancy, an imaginary landscape people with demigods, wonder horses and legendary villains." (p. 41) So it isn't so difficult to understand how Faust -- an avid student of older literatures -- would cast his tales of action and adventure, of heroes surmounting challenges and crises in the mold of older traditions in which the niceties of the sort of "logical completion" that contemporary readers expect do not appear. Do not, according to the determination of the author, need to appear because the labors of the hero are all that is essential to the story: These labors prove and prove again the worthiness of the protagonist to be considered heroic.

Think again of Bull Hunter. Each of his stories recounts his facing some hardship; his saga ends with a sort of incompleteness -- "The Trail Up Old Arrowhead," the last of Faust's five stories about Bull, ends with Bull unconscious, clobbered by the conniving Hal Dunbar. Bull unknowingly is saved by Riley, with whom Dunbar had conspired to kill Bull. But Riley drives off Dunbar when he recognizes the truly heroic presence that fills Bull. Riley leaves as well after making sure -- from a hiding place -- that Bull will revive once Pete Reeves arrives.

There is no scene of marriage to beloved Mary Hood, no assured declaration of a "happy ever after" ending. But Riley reaffirms the lesson of the Bull Hunter stories when he essentially summarizes them to Dunbar:

"Here's a simple gent, lying here stunned. Well, it ain't the first time that he's beat the both of us. He's lying there knocked cold, but he'll be found by a partner, Pete Reeve. And he'll be brought back to Moosehorn, and he'll marry the prettiest girl we ever seen. How does he get all this? Just by being simple, Hal, and honest. . . " (p. 248, Leisure Books edition)

The last entry in the Thunder Moon series offers another example. In "Farewell, Thunder Moon," the adopted Cheyenne warrior's true family travels west and locates the lost son and his tribe. Thunder Moon/William Sutton is torn between the two worlds that call to his soul. He loves Charlotte Keene, a beauty from the white world, yet he cannot make himself abandon the frontier. Similarly, Charlotte is unwilling to give up on her love for him. So, in Chapter 14, she agrees to leave behind her civilized world and to live in the wilderness with her beloved.

In Chapter 16, Thunder Moon and his white visitors are set upon by Cheyenne warriors jealous of his accomplishments. After dispatching the would-be murderers, Thunder Moon realizes that his trust has been betrayed by men he considered to be like brothers to him. This betrayal severs all ties with his Cheyenne past.

There is no final scene of William Sutton and Charlotte Keene leaving the frontier together, no romantic fade out. There is only Thunder Moon's monolog, which effectively ends the novel and the series, summarizing the primary dilemma of the entire series and its resolution:

"The river was between me and my life as a Cheyenne. The river is between us, and I never can cross it again. There is blood upon the water. This night my friends have gone from me. I was a Cheyenne. My name was Thunder Moon. All the prairies knew me. But Thunder Moon is dead. Do you hear? The knife of Standing Antelope found the heart of that chief. He is dead. He will return no more. . . .

"I was two people in one. . . but now one half of me is dead. I am going home to my own people. I am William Sutton at last." (pp. 79-80)

It's interesting that in the passage quoted from Aegypt, Crowley's Barr mentions The Faerie Queene -- Robert Easton notes it as a favorite of Faust in Max Brand: The Big Westerner. And like Edmund Spenser's poem, Faust's stories of larger-than-life characters and mythically powerful animals hark back to "works of the older kind" -- tales whose structure depends upon incident and adventure; not upon plot arcs, development and denouement. As in "Level Landings," it is striving against adversity and overcoming danger that mark the hero. Settling down to domestic comfort -- the typical denouement upon which many hundreds of grade B westerns have faded out -- has no place in the rugged landscape drawn by Faust.

Crowley, John. Aegypt, Bantam Books (New York: 1994)