During the year 2000, Western American Literature asked readers to nominate a notable novel published since 1990. This list of “not-to-be-missed works of contemporary fiction of the American West” was a chance for all readers to recognize and applaud recent novels in the field. Rather than thinking only in terms of absolutes—a kind of “Best West” list—we asked readers to nominate books they think might be the subject of future scholarship in the field, as well as books notable enough to recommend to colleagues looking for the right contemporary novel to add to a syllabus or to offer to a friend just looking for a “good read.” The results are listed below, arranged alphabetically by the novelist’s last name. The response to the call for nominations was not overwhelming, but the modest list that did result was interesting nevertheless. Happy reading!
—Evelyn I. Funda, Utah State University, Logan
Strange Angels. By Jonis Agee. New York: HarperPerennial, 1993. $12.00.
Agee is the most prolific of the recent Great Plains novelists that includes Kent Haruf, Dan O’Brien, Douglas Unger, Ron Hansen, and, in Canada, Sharon Butala, but while these latter writers, with the exception of Butala, have produced one or two fine fictional treatments of the region, Agee produces stories and novels at a steady clip. Recently, she joined the faculty in the Department of English at the University of Nebraska, where, we can hope, she will continue to focus her fictional attention on the people who populate the small towns and rural reaches of the Great Plains.
Strange Angels is set in the Nebraska Sandhills made familiar by Mari Sandoz, and like Sandoz’s family in Old Jules, the children in Agee’s Bennet family must come to terms with their father’s legacy, left to each in equal measure. Agee creates characters who see themselves as losers and throw-aways while revealing strengths and sympathies the reader comes to admire. The Bennet children’s lives are intricately connected with each other, with the other complex and colorful characters in their ranching community, and with the land that, as in any good western work, is an important character in her novel.
—Diane Quantic, Wichita State University
The Temptations of St. Ed & Brother S. By Frank Bergon. Reno: University of Nevada Press, 1993. $22.00.
Frank Bergon knows his Nevada, and the characters and issues so sharply defined in this novel will resonate with Westerners especially. The battle for the book’s fictional Shoshone Mountain, the site of a proposed nuclear waste dump, becomes a reflection of the battle going on in the souls of the modern monks St. Ed and Brother S in their struggles with the temptations of this world. Backed by an assortment of Native American activists, Desert Rats, a BLM ranger, and drop-out kids, the monks find themselves up against talk-show hosts, technicians, and the cool and scary bureaucrats of the Department of Energy, with their vacant materialism, loveless view of sexuality, and destructive ideas of power. The outcome is inconclusive, but the book holds out the possibility of other kinds of power and knowledge, which are represented not by the nuclear clouds of the technocrats but by the mystics’ Cloud of Unknowing and the ancient energy of the sun. This is a comic novel in the great tradition.
—Zeese Papanikolas, San Francisco Art Institute
Wild Game. By Frank Bergon. Reno: University of Nevada Press, 1995. $22.00.
Frank Bergon is a writer intensely concerned with the contemporary West, and in particular with Nevada, and in Wild Game he weaves together a number of issues that help describe the modern western condition.
Based loosely upon the story of Claude Dallas, Wild Game follows the pursuit of a modern-day, self-fashioned mountain man by an all-too-human, all-too-male Nevada state wildlife biologist, Jack Iragaray. Iragaray is a man powerfully shaped by certain masculine myths and mythologies of the West, as well as by his own Basque heritage. Bergon brings these several forces to bear upon his character and upon his greater narrative; as he does so, he interrogates the very western history which has, in many ways, produced both the pursued and the pursuer in his novel. Writing in a realistic mode, Bergon manages to comment insightfully upon both the past and the present; he also points to ways in which some of the contemporary dilemmas facing the American West might be approached, if not solved.
—Gregory L. Morris, Penn State Erie, Behrend College
When We Were Wolves. By Jon Billman. New York: Random, 1999. $21.95.
Jon Billman’s debut collection, When We Were Wolves, features stories set exclusively in the contemporary West, mostly Wyoming and South Dakota. The book received immediate praise from Pulitzer prize winners Annie Proulx and Larry McMurtry, and also from Rick Bass. McMurtry later used one of Billman’s stories in his new anthology of western stories, Still Wild (2000). Billman, who calls Wyoming home, covers a broad range of western issues in his various stories: dustbowl-era baseball, fighting forest fires, crop dusting, religious conflicts with the Mormon church, and history—from George Custer and Jim Bridger to present-day politics. The stories are witty and, at turns, heart-breaking.
—Twister Marquiss, Southwest Texas State University, San Marcos
Woman Hollering Creek and Other Stories. By Sandra Cisneros. New York: Vintage, 1991. $11.00.
Sandra Cisneros’s is a richly textured exploration about sustaining identity in the American West. You get a diversity of voices here—male, female, contemporary, and historical. The stories weave myth, history, language, and popular culture to acknowledge the complexity and the beauty of western American and Mexican American experience.
—Gioia Woods, Northern Arizona University, Flagstaff
The Blossom Festival. By Lawrence Coates. Reno: University of Nevada Press, 1999. $20.00.
Lawrence Coates, who teaches at Southern Utah University, was chosen as a Great New Writer by Barnes & Noble, and the novel—Lawrence’s first— was in its third printing by mid-December of 1999. It was chosen as a book of the year by the Southern California Booksellers Association, as the leading fiction by a Utah writer for 1999, and has won a prestigious WESTAF award. I am daring to nominate a book that I acquired for our press not only because it meets your criteria so well, but because it was very hard for me to get it published, and I am delighted that this first book by a very promising author has been so well received. It’s at the top of my “good read” list of recommendations, and I have bought copies for a number of my friends.
The Blossom Festival is a richly panoramic chronicle of rural life in the Santa Clara Valley during the decades before World War II. Against the lush backdrop of literally millions of fruit trees unfold the personal dramas of a fascinating cast of characters.
Young Harold Madison, taking a page from his own father’s book, seduces and abandons Betsy Moreberg, whose tyrannical father, a successful home builder, packs her off to bear her illegitimate child at a distance. The boy, Peter, returns when his mother agrees to marry Steen Denisen, an ambitious immigrant who wants Betsy’s father’s business as well as Betsy. Steen seeks nothing better than to bulldoze thousands of fruit trees to make way for new homes as little San Natoma becomes a bedroom community for San Jose, and the land-rich father of Olivia and Albin Roberts must sell prime orchards to keep his family afloat during the depression.
As Peter struggles with his harsh stepfather, he becomes fascinated with Olivia, who has always wanted to star in the annual Blossom Festival, the traditional spring pageant that heralds the new growing season. Olivia has befriended Fumiko Yamamoto, the nisei daughter of Japanese fruit growers, and they make grand plans for their lives following high school graduation. The rancorous politics of race and the palpable presence of the overseas war conspire to mar the Blossom Festival of 1940, however, and the friends will scatter, Fumiko’s family to a Japanese relocation camp.
The Blossom Festival is an honest rendering of the complex relationships between parents and children in the changing context of a rich region of California that is leaving behind its agricultural past to become Silicon Valley.
—Trudy McMurrin, Acquiring Editor, University of Nevada Press, Las Vegas
Ride with Me, Mariah Montana. By Ivan Doig. New York: Atheneum, 1990. $14.00.
The third in Ivan Doig’s series of Montana novels about the McCaskill family, Ride with Me, Mariah Montana takes place during Montana’s centennial year, 1989. Sixty-five-year-old Jick McCaskill tells about his travels throughout Montana as “chaperon” to his grown daughter, Mariah, and her ex-husband, Riley Wright. The young divorced journalists both work for the same Missoula newspaper, he as a reporter, she as a photographer; and their editor has told them to drive around Montana to find subjects suitable for the paper’s series on the state’s centennial. Using this picaresque set-up gives Doig the chance to touch on dozens of subjects that show how Montana’s past has shaped its present. Ride with Me (which Doig dedicated to Wallace Stegner) mirrors Stegner’s Angle of Repose, since both novels show how the past provides benchmarks that allow us to gauge how well we’re weathering the pervasive changes that, with all the force of a Montana blizzard, batter our cultural and moral moorings. Moreover, the ending of Ride with Me illustrates Doig’s belief that Westerners can find ways to save the land they love. He builds effectively on the West’s literary tradition while also pointing the way to a postfrontier future.
—James H. Maguire, Boise State University
The Meadow. By James Galvin. New York: Henry Holt, 1992. $12.00.
The paperback edition of James Galvin’s The Meadow carries a quote from Bill Kittredge on its cover: “A masterpiece. The Meadow is one of the best books ever written about the American West.” I agree wholeheartedly. Told through shifting perspectives and points of view, Galvin’s novel tells of a single western landscape and of the generations who worked to make this inhospitable environment into a home. “Who does the meadow belong to?” one character wonders. “No one owns it, no one ever will,” is the authorial reply. With his own voice and a complex of others, Galvin examines the profound dilemma of western settlement, where the land has always been a presence more powerful than the men and women seeking to tame it. Even as he addresses significant issues of land use and of human interaction, Galvin does so with compelling characterizations and with a poetic prose that evokes a keenly imagined setting and scene. The Meadow is indeed a masterpiece. It reads well; it teaches well; it has that indefinable quality that brings a reader back to a text again and again. In my opinion, The Meadow should top any list of contemporary western fiction.
—Ann Ronald, University of Nevada, Reno
Plainsong. By Kent Haruf. New York: Knopf, 1999. $24.00.
I am nominating Plainsong, an extraordinary novel. It falls within the tradition of American regional fiction, set in an absolutely authentic high plains town in eastern Colorado. The stories of the seven main characters weave together and reveal the soul of a community, in a language that is spare and lovely. Plainsong is a fully realized work of art.
—Lawrence Coates, Southern Utah University, Cedar City
[Note: Plainsong was also suggested by George F. Day and Susan J. Rosowski.]
Remember Me. By Laura Hendrie. New York: Henry Holt, 1999. $24.00.
Wallace Stegner rejected western myths about romantic loners on a boundless frontier and perceived survival as dependent not on self-reliance but on the cooperation of neighbors. Laura Hendrie’s first novel, set in the tiny town of Queduro in northern New Mexico, where she lives, not only affirms Stegner’s thesis but also takes aim against a contemporary national malaise, the inability to become attached to anything. In a story that pits an individual against society, she wisely leaves room for the embroidery of belonging, identity, and love. Her voice is tough and tender, skeptical and cheerful.
Rose Devonic, a twenty-nine-year-old outcast, struggles to win respect from lifelong neighbors who have treated her with brutal indifference. Having lost home and family, she lives in an abandoned motel or out of her car, but she, like most others in Queduro, earns a living selling traditional embroidery and is thus an insider, not easily put down. “When it comes to love,” she says, “most people don’t even want to see the real thing.” She is determined to face such people down and the ghosts of the past that have alienated them. Authentically western, Remember Me acknowledges the possibility of alienation—and says to hell with it.
Hendrie’s story collection Stygo won the Rosenthal Foundation Award of the American Academy of Arts and Letters and the Mountain and Plains Regional Booksellers’ Award and was a finalist for the PEN/Hemingway Award.
—Alexander Blackburn, Colorado Springs, Colorado
Liar’s Moon: A Long Story. By Philip Kimball. New York: Henry Holt, 1999. $23.00.
I want to nominate Philip Kimball, a little-known Kansas-based writer of rare power and talent, whose Liar’s Moon: A Long Story is a grand and mythic story of the settling of Kansas during and after the Civil War, when former slaves, cattle drovers, immigrating farmers, and Indians came together in a complex swirl up and down the Great Plains. The action takes place from about 1852 to 1890 when Wounded Knee marked the subduing of the West. Kids falling off the wagon being raised by coyotes, white children being captured and adopted by Indians, Buffalo Bill recruiting cowboys, Indians, and adventurers to be part of his wild west show, politics, and, oh yes, the loss of innocence—this novel has it all. It is an original tall tale pieced together from folklore and history, a wonderfully entertaining fiction. His first novel, published in 1984, Harvesting Ballads, is actually the second book in his planned trilogy about the Great Plains, Liar’s Moon being the first.
—Theodore C. Humphrey, California State Polytechnic University, Pomona
Green Grass, Running Water. By Tom King. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1993. $21.95/ New York: Bantam, 1994. $11.95.
Green Grass, Running Water by Cherokee author Thomas King is a comic, postmodern novel that satirizes sacred texts of the dominant North American culture from the Bible to the Lone Ranger from an indigenous point of view. It is also a story about identity, representation, exploitation of natural resources, heroes, heroines, and scapegoats using wordplay and a trickster’s sense of language. Coyote and four old Indians from the indigenous, oral tradition escape from their “prison” where they are held by The Word in the body of a psychiatrist named Joe Hovaugh. On their journey they assist their grandchildren from the Blackfoot nation in setting the world back in balance. The narrative is an epic word war for the rights to tell the real story of North America. As the human characters live their stories and the mythic characters retell theirs, Canadian and U.S. history and literature are reconstructed in terms of indigenous witnesses and storytellers from the past and the present.
—Melissa Hearn, Northern Michigan University, Marquette
Thomas King’s Green Grass, Running Water is an ambitious book that takes on pressing issues that are currently of concern to the fields of western American literature and American Indian studies. Postmodernist narrative strategies meet tricksterism head-on as four Indian escapees—aptly named Ishmael, the Lone Ranger, Robinson Crusoe, and Hawkeye—make their way to the Canadian town of Blossom near the Blackfoot Indian Reserve where they set about fixing things that seem wrong. Elements that need to be reworked here include the master narrative of westward expansion, the clichéd endings of classic Hollywood Westerns, romantic plot devices, and white myths of Indian identity. King’s novel is a complicated but entertaining text that examines issues of politics, knowledge, identity, narrative, and power. Green Grass, Running Water is also a favorite among students.
—Susan Kollin, Montana State University, Bozeman
Animal Dreams. By Barbara Kingsolver. New York: HarperPerennial, 1991. $14.00.
Barbara Kingsolver’s Animal Dreams is a favorite of mine. Among the many things that I like about the novel is the bond between the sisters—the older, Cosima (Codi), and the younger, Halimeda (Hallie). An adult Codi returns to her home of Grace, Arizona, after fourteen years because their father, Dr. Homer Noline, seems to be suffering from senility. Codi, with her punk-rocker haircut and stylish shoes, accepts a job at the high school, having abruptly terminated her medical career. Meanwhile, Hallie, who recently gave up her job as a pest-control expert at the local extension office, is heading toward war-torn Nicaragua to help the farmers. Without a mother, the girls are intensely close, and Codi, reluctant to see Hallie head toward the dangers in Nicaragua, savors her last call before Hallie crosses the border; Codi “just stood still for a minute, giving Hallie’s and my thoughts their last chance to run quietly over the wires, touching each other in secret signals as they pass, like a column of ants.” I feel the connection between Codi and Hallie is tangible. Kingsolver gives us multiple points of view; Codi tells her own story in first-person narration, Doc Homer’s is told from third-person perspective, and Hallie’s is revealed in her letters to Codi. This is a rich, satisfying read.
—Elizabeth A. Turner, William Rainey Harper College, Palatine, Illinois
Man from the Creeks: A Novel. By Robert Kroetsch. Toronto: Random House of Canada. Out of Print.
Robert Kroetsch’s Man from the Creeks might be his best novel. It begins with the Robert Service poem “The Shooting of Dan McGrew” and goes from there, as only Kroetsch can, into flights of gorgeous language and tall tale at once.
—Anne Kaufman, Sidwell Friends School, Washington, D.C.
Mother Tongue. By Demetria Martinez. New York: Ballantine, 1997. $12.00.
For those not dissuaded by the brutal history of the Americas fictionally recrafted by Leslie Silko’s Almanac of the Dead (1992), Demetria Martinez’s Mother Tongue offers a fresh depiction of survivors of Central American atrocities and their North American allies. Salved by the passage of time and the curative powers of remembering and storytelling, Martinez’s novel dissolves much of the brittle ironic distance found in Silko’s text. Martinez successfully “break[s] a few hearts . . . [and] make[s] people look ugliness in the face.” But she also successfully humanizes her protagonist, Maria, depicting her realization that her “heart needed to be broken and reset properly so it could carry her through life.”
Mother Tongue is narrated by Maria, who recounts her experiences as a nineteen-year-old, Mexican American Albuquerquean coming to consciousness while serving the 1980s sanctuary movement. Into this narrative, Martinez weaves the voices of Maria’s lover, José Luis Romero, a Salvadoran refugee; her wizened godmother, Solédad; Amnesty Internationalesque “Urgent Action” documents; reactionary U.S. newspaper articles; and her unfocused, idealistic son. This polyphony disrupts Maria’s romanticized depictions of her lover, just as it radically undermines the media misrepresentations of U.S.-supported El Salvadoran military repression.
Revealing Martinez’s poet’s eye and pen, Maria’s narrative is frequently overwrought. Yet her decadent metaphors are tempered by Solédad’s “words short and fiery as fuses” and by Maria’s self-consciousness regarding the limited ability of memory and words to represent reality. Martinez also creates tension between Maria’s dilettantish dabbling in a heady pastiche of Eastern religions and psychobabble and José Luis’s grounded experience of liberation theology: stating that “when a refugee told his or her story, it was not psychoanlysis, it was testimonio, story as prophecy, facts assembled to change not the self but the times.” Having partially healed “invisible wounds” inflicted amidst North American privilege, Maria jealously confesses that her wounds were “not on the same scale as death squads and disappearances. . . . [But] I keep feeling like it’s all part of the same pattern. Of people loving power, or some such thing, more than life.” Through passages such as this, Martinez’s novel reminds us of the limited powers of witnessing and of oppressive historical forces that love can transcend. Almost.
—Matt Burkhart, Utah State University, Logan
The Crossing. By Cormac McCarthy. New York: Random House, 1994. $13.00.
OK, I’ll bite. As I think over this quasi-delicate problem of selection, at least two things come to mind. One is to think seriously about whether any fiction of the American West in the past decade has literally brought me to tears—you know, simply made me cry. The other thing is that in a dominant surveillance culture so invested, to paraphrase Dave Hickey, in parenting us all into early senility, I would like to wander around on occasion in excess, in risky business. Now this particular desire of course might also bring one to tears, if not also to candidacy in a twelve-step or witness protection program. But in terms of western fiction of the last decade where, among other things, excess is courted and where one might also be brought to tears, there’s just one book for me that will never get voted off the mesa: Cormac McCarthy’s The Crossing.
In terms of “excess,” this novel—unlike All the Pretty Horses—does not foreground a straightforward linear quest plot, and its prose delivers some of the greatest action sequences and philosophical monologues in verbal registers resonant of Hemingway and Faulkner or Flannery O’Connor at their best. The journeys and the issues confronted and worked through are quite simply immense: love and fraternity, kinship and justice, the elusiveness of mastery and the mystery of death. Billy Parham’s eventual border crossing to locate stolen horses or his [dead] brother is in some way about the integrity of the family, which is always threatened in McCarthy’s world. But such crossings and the violence in McCarthy’s work are really more about the very style of the endeavor, the way things are done in the world to establish and then forward values. And while a certain etiquette of violence links McCarthy’s work with Wister’s The Virginian, here old Dad is no longer at the head of the table and the deal thus comes down to improvisatory competency and collaboration, the ethics of emergent tasks which, at times, miraculously bind people together in the face of all odds. And in terms of tears, the combination of beauty and terror rendered by McCarthy in the novel’s opening section as Billy tries to return a captured wolf to its homeland in Mexico is just overwhelming, too much to bear, really. McCarthy is dangerous, for this novel just refuses to be burdened by its larger culture’s nostalgia and its avoidance of all things which just might produce really raw emotions. So for me there’s The Crossing. All the rest is journalism and infomercials. (Well, there IS this new novel by James Welch…)
—Steve Tatum, University of Utah, Salt Lake City
My Year of Meats. By Ruth L. Ozeki. New York: Viking, 1999. $12.95.
Wouldn’t you like the recipe for meatloaf made with a half gallon of Pepsi—not Coke, has to be Pepsi. (Is this one of those deep hidden literary allusions? To John Belushi on SNL in the 1970s?) Or beef fudge? By far the funniest book I’ve read in the past couple of years is My Year of Meats, by Ruth L. Ozeki, a kind of postmodern and multinational The Jungle. Japanese American documentary filmmaker Jane Takagi-Little is hired by a Japanese advertising agency representing a beef lobbying group to produce and direct a show for Japanese TV entitled “My American Wife.” “Meat is the Message.” Throughout the novel she receives faxes from her Japanese boss (John Ueno, pronounced, he says, Wayno) with instructions like the following list of “DESIRABLE THINGS” her “American Wives” should possess:
1. Attractiveness, wholesomeness, warm personality
2. Delicious meat recipe (NOTE: Pork and other meats is second class meats, so please remember this easy motto: “Pork is Possible, but Beef is Best!”)
3. Attractive, docile husband
4. Attractive, obedient children
5. Attractive, wholesome lifestyle
6. Attractive, clean house
Initially gung ho, Jane becomes increasingly critical as she finds out more about meat production and packing, and soon she begins to focus shows on subversive “unattractive”—perhaps even disobedient—subjects. Like the videotaped shows and the faxes, the novel moves back and forth between the United States and Japan, exposing the effects of global capitalism with humor and outrage. Japanese readers might find Ozeki’s critiques of Japanese men, marketing, and media too heavy-handed, but she’s equally sharp and cynical about Americans, and her book shows an awareness of class issues too often lacking in current fiction. Ozeki can’t avoid a fantasy feminist ending, but her wit, cleverness, and social satire make My Year of Meats a great read.
—Melody Graulich, Utah State University, Logan
Half Asleep in Frog Pajamas. By Tom Robbins. New York: Bantam Books, 1995. $12.95.
Global markets, cancer gurus, missing amphibians, loose monkeys, and the safe sex rapist all converge one rain-soaked Seattle weekend and transform lives in Robbins’s comic econovel. A work of antic wildness, Half Asleep in Frog Pajamas proves one can approach a serious subject like environmental catastrophe with quick wit, satiric vision, and humor that hits high and low. Robbins has been curiously ignored by scholars of western American literature, though his demythologized western settings, inventive narrative, and virtuosic style place him among the finest of “New West” novelists. Seattle is a New Western urban space, posteverything (postmodern, postindustrial, posthip) and globally, even galactically connected. As a place of transience, it provides the kinds of confusion and diffusion Robbins sees as necessary conditions of change. Half Asleep in Frog Pajamas is part polemic, part romance, part satire, and part spiritual tract. Blurring all kinds of distinctions, including species boundaries, Robbins has created a unique narrative that stays with one and remains a memorable artifact of a tumultuous decade.
—Susan Naramore Maher, University of Nebraska at Omaha
Diamond Trump: Events Surrounding the Great Powder-House Blowup by the Man Who Lit the Fuse. By Ron Robinson. Sioux Falls, S.D.: Ex Machina, 2000. $l9.95.
You can’t help but like Raymond G. “Preacher” Hardokker, the reluctant safecracker who lit the fuse in Ron Robinson’s latest suspense novel Diamond Trump. You have to pull for a man who is trying to go square, especially when every step he takes carries him deeper into a deadly quagmire of underworld intrigue and he ends up with a gun at his head and a match in his hand and half the dynamite in South Dakota at his feet.
And if you pull hard enough and can read the signs, you may track Preacher all the way from prison to “the whole truth” that the shot-down and blown-up powder-house woman never told the authorities in those days after the blast. One truth, most assuredly, is that the 1930s in Siouxland had no more cataclysmic event than the l936 New Year’s detonation of the Larson Hardware powder-house east of Sioux Falls, South Dakota. But the whole truth is that the 1990s in Siouxland had no more startling revelation than the story behind the blast, buried until now in the notes of Argus Leader reporter Alice Marie Sutherland.
In Diamond Trump Robinson has produced a prize winner, a tale of suspense with one of the most intriguing yet disturbing endings in American fiction.
—Arthur R. Huseboe, Augustana College, Sioux Falls, South Dakota
A Thousand Acres. By Jane Smiley. New York: Ballantine, 1991. $12.00.
The Pulitzer Prize and the National Book Critics Circle Award might alone be enough to recommend this novel about the struggle between the three Cook daughters and their father as they work a thousand-acre farm. Although it has been tauted as an Iowa remake of Shakespeare’s King Lear (even more so since the Jessica Lange-Michelle Pfeiffer film), the book defies simplistic pigeon-holing, and I recommend it because I see Smiley writing a novel that eloquently questions the land ethic so central to western American literature, the myth that, no matter what, the relationship between land and humans remains sacred, inviolable, and beneficial to the human. By writing a book focused on the poisoning of land (which, in turn, poisons everything else: morality, relationships, body, and spirit), Smiley creates a novel that is painful to read, but one that is profound and courageous.
—Evelyn I. Funda, Utah State University, Logan
The All-True Travels and Adventures of Lidie Newton. By Jane Smiley. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1998. $12.00
From the beginning of her story, Lidie Newton is a charming and engrossing narrator. She admits she’s plain, still unmarried, and therefore, “an odd lot, not very salable, and ready to be marked down.” Even the most sympathetic reader must admit, as Lidie sits near an upstairs floor grate simultaneously eavesdropping on her sisters and hiding from housework, that she is a flake.
Lidie soon stumbles into marriage with Thomas Newton, an abolitionist, and moves with him to Kansas, a hotly contested territory in the 1850s slavery debate. And that’s when the story really gets good. There are plenty of novels with plucky first-person narrators. But the real joy here is that Lidie grows and develops, and her perspective on life goes beyond clever ploys to evade womanly duties.
Jane Smiley succeeds in making politics fascinating. She also confidently crisscrosses her character through the era’s classes and regions. Lidie encounters slaves, slave owners, abolitionists, political activists, uneducated ruffians, rich people and poor ones, finding points of identification and empathy among all of them. For example, her happiness over her own husband’s safety sours when she thinks of another wife’s loss: “I thought of Mrs. Brown, who seemed, in my mind, to be myself in a different dress.” Lidie’s adventures take her through every social stratum. She even spends time disguised as a young man.
The book’s format makes it a fun read. Chapters have titles like “I Eaves-drop, and Hear Ill of Myself” and “I Sully My Character.” Jane Smiley makes her fictional Lidie Newton a former student at the real-life Miss Catharine Beecher’s “Hartford Female Seminary” and includes snippets from Beecher’s A Treatise on Domestic Economy, for the Use of Young Ladies at Home, and at School (1841). Lidie tries to pattern her life after the advice in her tattered copy of Miss Beecher’s manual. Where Miss Beecher’s advice falls short, Lidie finds ways to forge ahead. Her story is enjoyable and honest.
—Angela Ashurst-McGee, Mesa, Arizona
A Deeper Wild. A Novel. By William L. Sullivan. Eugene, Oreg.: Navillus Press, 2000. $18.95.
At last there is a “cracking good” novel based on the life of Joaquin Miller (1839/41?1913) whom William Everson has called “the creator of the ‘Western Archetype.’” A Deeper Wild by William L. Sullivan is so far the most engaging and nearly factually correct interpretation of Miller’s experiences in the gold fields and in matrimony. Sullivan graciously provides the reader with chapter notes delineating the facts from his fiction. Fortunately, Sullivan has hiked and written of much of the country covered by Miller in his day, and so Sullivan brings a fresh new approach to interpreting the much maligned and misreported life of Joaquin Miller, author of Life amongst the Modocs (1873), which Malcolm Margolin says “still has the power to catch us and move us as no other work of this era can.”
—Margaret Guilford-Kardell, Editor, Joaquin Miller Newsletter
The Englishman’s Boy. By Guy Vanderhaeghe. New York: St. Martin, 1996. $14.00.
My nomination for the list is Guy Vanderhaeghe’s The Englishman’s Boy, a 1996 historical novel that brilliantly interleaves the history of the Cypress Hills massacre of Assiniboine by U.S. wolfers in 1873—one of the formative events for the North West Mounted Police—with a fictional rendering of Hollywood’s fixation with Westerns during the 1920s. A story remiscent in some ways of The Great Gatsby, Vanderhaeghe’s is a postmodern meditation on western mythologizing. The book won Canada’s Govenor-General’s Award for Fiction in 1996.
—Robert Thacker, St. Lawrence University, Canton, New York
Restlessness: A Novel. By Aritha van Herk. Red Deer, Alberta: Red Deer College Press, 1998. $14.98.
Aritha van Herk’s novel Restlessness is set in Calgary (and almost entirely in the Palliser Hotel). Its protagonist is a nameless woman who has hired an assassin to end her life. The novel continues van Herk’s explorations of story/ language/voice/gender and, of course, genre and form. A number of her earlier novels have taken some critical heat for the mix of genres but this one, I think, shows most clearly the power of challenging established notions of order.
—Anne Kaufman, Sidwell Friends School, Washington, D.C.
La Maravilla. By Alfredo Véa Jr. New York: Penguin, Plume, 1993. $13.95.
Imagine a place inhabited by an aristocratic Spanish-Catholic curandera, Yaqui Indians, Blacks, Whites, Chicanos, Okies, Arkies, and Asians; a place of juke joints, transvestites, prostitutes, and the ghosts of wandering hoboes; a place where the pious and sinful alike can run their extension cords to draw electricity from the Mighty Clouds of Joy Church; a place where an enormous feast can bring them all together for “history you can eat.” Such was the sort of world in which Alfredo Véa grew up during the 1950s, and such is the world that he brings to life again in this at once comic, tragic, and magical novel about a squatter settlement located to the east of Phoenix, in the city’s “unofficial trash heap.” Centered largely on the experiences of young Beto, grandson to the curandera and her Yaqui husband, La Maravilla explores the ways in which the people of “Buckeye Road” are sustained in their passions, fears, and relationships. Much more than just an evocative memoir, this highly significant reworking of Chicano literary tradition weaves together most, if not all, of the variegated cultural forces and identities that converge in the American West, and it does so in a richly textured style that supports the alternately mystical and material conditions at the heart of Beto’s initiation into community.
—Nicolas Witschi, Western Michigan University, Kalamazoo
Montana 1948. By Larry Watson. New York: Pocket, 1993. $12.00.
My entry for the contemporary fiction would be Larry Watson’s Montana 1948 because it tells an accessible, intelligent story about the New West and about the very way that history is “told,” “written,” and “remembered.” Its deceptively simple style belies the complex range of ideas that the novel addresses: borders, white-Indian relations, gender issues, family loyalties and jealousies, growing up. Above all, it is a book that makes me think about the nature of history and how in the West it has been the product of myth and of “post mortem cover ups” (as Watson terms it). However, as the novel also shows, it is often easier to run with the myth than have to deconstruct it and offer some convincing alternative in its place.
—Neil Campbell, University of Derby, Great Britain