THE AMERICAN WEST (mostly): Fact and Fiction (mostly fiction)

"NOBODY GETS TO BE A COWBOY FOREVER." -- Chet Rollins (Jack Palance) in MONTE WALSH (NG, 1970)

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Wednesday, May 18, 2016

ROMAN:A Novel of the West by Douglas C. Jones

"On the day Roman Hasford's father came home from the war in June of 1865, it was raining.  The new green of the Ozark hardwood timber was like washed lettuce, dripping clear crystals in the slow but steady fall of water from a pale sky that held the sun close above the clouds and was about to break through at any moment.  It was not a bleak day.  It was a pearl-gray day, shining and gentle, with even some of the birds ignoring the weather and making their sparkling calls that seemed, like the leaves, to be washed clean by the rain."  

In two of Douglas C. Jones' earlier novels, Elkhorn Tavern and The Barefoot Brigade, the reader learned Roman Hasford's backstory.

Because his father was a soldier in a Confederate regiment fighting in Virginia and Tennessee, Roman, at age fourteen, began to assume the mantle of man of the house as he attempted to protect his mother and sister and their home from bushwhackers and jayhawkers who ravaged and plundered the area.

If that wasn't enough, large Union and Confederate forces clashed in a major battle, the battle of Pea Ridge, sometimes called the battle of Elkhorn Tavern, that was fought on and around the Hasford farm in the Arkansas Ozarks.

But now the war had ended and Roman's father had returned.  Roman couldn't help resenting the fact that he was no longer in charge and that he had to take orders from his father, while realizing that his father had every right to give those orders.  And anyway, after the danger and excitement of the last few years he didn't look forward to settling down to the peaceful pursuits of an Ozarks hill farmer.

Therefore, at age eighteen, seeking independence from father and with an urge to see and experience the wider world, he left home.  And as many young men did after the war, he headed west.  Well, sort of.  He settled in Leavenworth, Kansas, which was actually much more north than west from his home, but in every other way very much a western frontier town.


Because he was intelligent and industrious he was able to make important connections in Leavenworth and was soon on his way to becoming a prosperous young businessman.  But not all was peace and tranquility.

Post-Civil war jayhawkers and bushwhackers were also experiencing difficulty in making the transition from war to peace and they continued to plague the border land. And to the west the Cheyenne were fighting a holding action against western encroachment and expansion.

Roman, at age twenty-two, even found himself with a small group of soldiers and scouts surrounded by a large group of Indians in eastern Colorado in what came to be called the battle of Beecher Island.  The irony was not lost on Roman that the Indians were led by a Cheyenne chief known to the whites as Roman Nose.

The battle of Beecher Island
As with Jones' other historical novels there is an intermingling of fact and fiction and an interesting mix of colorful fictional and historical characters.  Since Leavenworth was the site of the major frontier military post, it comes as no surprise that a number of real military officers make cameo appearances, including Winfield Scott Hancock, George Armstrong Custer, George Forsyth, John Pope, and Philip Sheridan.

Furthermore, the battle of Beecher Island is an actual historical event and, yes, the Cheyenne warriors were led by a chief known as Roman Nose.

Published in 1986, Roman received the Western Writers of America's Spur Award for Best Historical Western.  Later editions were published under the title Roman Hasford.

"Few writers can summon forth the agonies and joys of the rites of passage as poignantly as Douglas C. Jones, who in 'Roman' counterbalances that highly personal experience with a broader one of the coming-of-age of the American West .... as always Jones' vision is as singular as a thumbprint. -- Loren D. Estleman 

Thursday, May 12, 2016

WYATT EARP: Frontier Marshal by Stuart Lake, Part I

As Western legends go, Wyatt Earp was a relative latecomer.  In 1927, Walter Noble Burns published Tombstone: An Illiad of the Southwest, but it wasn't the big seller his The Saga of Billy the Kid was a year earlier.  The latter book not only reintroduced Billy to the general public, but it ignored much of the historical record by romanticizing the young outlaw's persona to the point of transforming him into a veritable Robin Hood of the Southwest.

The Tombstone book, on the other hand, wasn't nearly as widely read, and thus Wyatt Earp remained a relatively obscure individual, but not for long.

The general public did become aware of him in 1931 when Stuart Lake published Wyatt Earp: Frontier Marshal.  It became a best seller and established the O.K. Corral in the public consciousness and created the image of Earp as an incorruptible paragon of saintly morality who fought for truth, justice, and the American way (No, wait, that was Superman.  No matter. Lake's Earp successfully fought the same battles, but without the benefit of super powers.)  What Lake began, Hollywood finished.  Four movies were based on the novel as well as a popular TV series that ran from 1955 to 1961.  Lake served as screenwriter and/or "expert" consultant on all the movies and the TV series and thus profited financially from his book right up until his death in 1964.

Lake wrote in the foreword of the book that "Wyatt Earp was a man of action. He was born, reared, and lived in an environment which held words and theories of small account, in which sheer survival often, and eminence invariably, might be achieved through deeds alone."

Furthermore, "[t]he man won from contemporaries who were his most competent judges -- from intimates, from acquaintances, and from enemies alike -- frontier-wide recognition as the most proficient peace officer, the greatest gunfighting marshal the Old West knew."

Okay, but if that recognition was frontier-wide why was Earp virtually unknown in 1931?  The answer is that not only was he not known frontier-wide during his days as a peace officer and, with the exception of some old-timers in the southwest, very few people had even heard of him fifty years after the showdown in Tombstone's O.K. Corral in 1881.  

It was Lake's book that made him famous -- and legendary -- and mythical.  As with all mythical legends some of what Lake wrote was based on fact, but much of it fell into the category of tall tale.  Like Walter Noble Burns, Lake never let the facts get in the way of a good story.

However, what made it believable to so many readers for so long is the fact that Lake had the co-operation of Earp in writing the book.  Not only was he able to interview Earp on several occasions and quoted him verbatim in long passages that go on sometimes for pages, but he also claimed that "[s]cores of eyewitnesses to the scenes portrayed have been interviewed to verify circumstantial details; thousands of miles have been traveled to unearth substantiating material; hundreds of time-worn documents and files of frontier newspapers have been examined for pertinent content; literally thousands of letters have been exchanged with competent old-timers in developing this work."

Then why in light of all that conscientious research described above is the book today shelved in the fiction section?  The answer is because that is where it belongs.

Wyatt Earp in 1923, age 75

My reprint copy of Lake's book, published in 1994, has this blurb on the front cover: "The only authorized biography of the legendary man who inspired two of the year's biggest movie events!"  That would be TOMBSTONE, starring Kurt Russell, and WYATT EARP, starring Kevin Costner.  Both films are fictional of course, but even at that they are more historically accurate than Lake's authorized "biography." 

Tuesday, May 10, 2016


"One of the best Civil War novels I have ever read." -- James M. McPherson, author of Battle Cry of Freedom

Martin Hasford, torn between his love of his family and devotion to their welfare on the one hand and a sense of loyalty toward his state on the other, reluctantly enlists in the Confederate army.

It is his hope that his unit will remain in Arkansas and defend it from a Yankee invasion.  But as fate would have it, his regiment is sent to Virginia and, as we saw in Jones' Elkhorn Tavern, a major battle erupts back home in his backyard.  To add insult to injury, Hasford learns that his daughter has married a wounded Yankee officer. 

Meanwhile, his regiment sees action in some of the biggest, most significant, most lethal battles of the war -- Antietam, Gettysburg, the Wilderness.  They are even transferred west of the Appalachians for a period of time where they fight in the battle of Chickamauga.

Antietam: the Civil War's deadliest day
Among Hasford's closest friends in his company are the Fawley brothers -- Zack and Noah -- and a Black Welshman by the name of Liverpool Morgan.  This is their story, too.

In a brief introduction, Jones writes a perfect summation of the book:

This is a story of the common soldiers.  It is not a story of causes or politics or social systems, not of generals and grand strategy, but of simple soldiers and how they were in some ways amazingly different from modern soldiers, and in others amazingly the same.  There were a great many like these who, despite all odds, at least attempted to do whatever was asked of them.

"...this is a sturdy, above-average Civil War fiction -- strong on unromanticized detail and day-to-day grit." -- Kirkus Review