My sister and I were obsessed with the channel AMC when we were kids. Left home along during the hot Alabama summers, staying indoors was often our only choice. This was way before their new programming with shows like Mad Men and Breaking Bad, when you could flip on the television to find some black and white movie playing at all hours (except in the middle of the night when it was all infomercials of course). We watched it all–the Thin Man series, anything with Cary Grant or Fred Astaire. Some Like it Hot with Marilyn Monroe, Tony Curtis, and Jack Lemmon made us laugh hysterically.
I grew to love the Westerns. I was indiscriminate at the time, watching anything with cowboys and guns. Stagecoach might be on my top ten favorite movies of all time. As I grew older, I became more discerning and critical of movies, as one does. Several movies made me realize that they could transcend the genre–The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly of couse. And in particular Unforgiven in 1992 changed the way I watched Westerns, like many movie goers I imagine.
Of course as a huge reader, my movie habits transcended into my reading habits. I admit it, I read a bunch of Louis L’Amour. It was like my Sweet Valley High: Formulaic easy reads that fed my need for cowboys, a little dirty, doing stuff, with hearts of gold etc. I grew out of it when I discovered John Steinbeck.
But I still get excited when I see novels set in the West. The Sisters Brothers by Patrick deWitt was one of my favorite novels of 2011 (my dog Lucy thought it should have won the Booker). When I read about Little Century by Anna Keesey, my Western Spidey sense tingled. The novel mixes the classic genres of frontier and western, which is fine by me–after all, my sister and I also loved Little House on the Prairie.
The novel opens with the arrival from Chicago of Esther Chambers to the small town of Century, Oregon; the town desires more than anything the railroad building a station and tracks through the town. Esther travels there after the death of her mother to find the last living relative. In Century, she finds a town in limbo, struggling between cattle herders and sheep herders. Her cousin Pick is a cattle herder and immediately she senses the animosity between the two groups. Pick talks Esther into helping his cause by falsely filing a claim on a piece of land that gives him control of the town’s water supply. At first, Esther gives her cousin her full support but as she lives in Century, she gets to know more people and sees beyond the black and white picture Pick paints for her. She also meets Ben Cruff, a sheep herder, whose friendship turns into a romance that will change her mind.
Though seemingly a conventional novel, I found Keesey’s writing really elevated the story. Long descriptions of the landscape, the cold winters, and her relationship with both Ben and Pick make it an artistic success as well as a home-run for Western fans.