- The Washington Times - Saturday, August 23, 2003


Edited by Dale L. Walker

Forge, $25.95, 432 pages


Westerns — like mysteries and science fiction — are considered to be pablum in academic circles. Yet like those aforementioned genres, they draw legions of readers because they are character-motivated and plot-driven. In the end, it’s usually a case of the triumph of good over evil, a staple of classic fiction. There is nothing modernist about a western.

“Westward: A Fictional History of the American West,” edited by award-winning western author Dale L. Walker, is an anthology of 28 short stories by as many writers. Some are well known practitioners of the genre (Win Blevins, Loren Estleman, John Jakes); others are newcomers (Troy Smith, Elaine Long, Bill Crider). The collection’s theme is historical. Most of the stories are set in the 19th century and feature historical characters interacting with fictional ones.

Richard House’s “Gabe and the Doctor,” is the story of the famous and difficult outdoor surgery at the 1835 Green River Rendezvous, where the physician-missionary Dr. Marcus Whitman removed a large arrowhead from Jim Bridger’s back. The iron point had been there for three years (Bridger picking it up when ambushed by Blackfeet in 1832) and muscle tissue had grown around it. Afterward, Whitman marveled at the young mountain man’s general vitality and absence of infection. The grateful trapper famously told him: “Meat don’t spoil in the mountains, doctor.”

Win Blevin’s “Melodies the Song Dogs Sing” is another fur trade era yarn in which Jedediah Smith (the American West’s most noted explorer after Lewis and Clark, and as a devout Christian, an anomaly among the mountain men) is remembered by his compatriot Thomas Fitzpatrick after Smith’s murder by Comanches on the Santa Fe Trail in 1831. After recounting Smith’s compelling biography in a cantina in Santa Fe, Fitzpatrick ends by saying: “I think he died where he wanted to, and maybe when. I think his casket of sand is a good one, and the murmurings of the river waters as good as hymns.”

In another story within a story, the married life of Gen. George Armstrong and Elizabeth Bacon — “Autie” and “Libbie” — Custer is examined in Susan Salzer’s “Miss Libbie Tells All.” Despite their legendary mutual devotion the marriage was flawed because it turns out that the tragic hero of the Little Bighorn was a notorious womanizer, causing his widow to tell a friend years later ” … that without betrayal, there can be no loyalty.” Mrs. Custer kept an elaborate shrine to the general’s memory in her New York apartment through a 57-year widowhood that culminated in her death at 91 in 1933.

The saloon reminiscence is a popular device in the “Westward” anthology, and like the previously considered Win Blevins piece, the narrator of Emery Mehok’s “Noah” uses a barroom setting to relate the details of the early life of “Kid Russell”, that is, Charles Marion Russell, the noted Western painter who got his start as a Montana cowhand in the 1880s, that early, hard life being the subject of his best work.

A companion piece could be Troy Smith’s “The Big Die-Up,” the story of the ferocious Montana winter of 1886-87, a winter that temporarily destroyed the regional cattle industry and marked the end of the “open range” era on the Plains. In the story, Jackson Vick rides the range counting frozen carcasses after a blizzard in scenes that recall Russell’s famous painting “The Last of 5,000.” The stoic young cowboy reflects that: “Now it was finally over. Nothing remained except to round up what survivors there might be.”

Loren Estleman’s “Big Tim Magoon and the Wild West” is a comic tale of Buffalo Bill Cody’s Wild West Show’s visit to a small western town called Paris City, named not for the French capital, but because “It was the largest producer of plaster of Paris products west of Chicago.” The Big Tim of the story’s title is a local pol with gubernatorial ambitions, who for publicity purposes latches on to the drunkenly swaggering Plainsman for a series of ill fated picaresque adventures that ultimately threaten both his wallet and political career. A surprise ending makes a point about the perils of worshipping celebrity.

A subtle clash of cultures is the theme of Dan Aadland’s “East Breeze.” In it a Norwegian homesteader simply named Knute surveys his new domain only to discover an old Crow Indian burial scaffold perched in a pine tree. Knute considers proper internment of the partially decomposed female corpse, but instead builds a small cattle and horse-proof fence around the tree because ” … the chiseled image of the Crow spoke somehow of prior claim … a claim he would honor.”

In “The Whispering,” another story about Indians, Janet Graebner chronicles the last few months in the life of Crazy Horse from his victory over Custer’s Seventh Cavalry on the Little Bighorn to his surrender a year later at Fort Robinson, Nebraska in May, 1877. The story ends with that “triumphal” surrender of 800 starving Oglala Sioux and their proud leader who himself had only four months to live. It is an ending as mysterious as Crazy Horse himself, a man — unlike contemporaries such as Sitting Bull — who refused to ever have his picture taken or portrait painted. Aside from personal descriptions, we have no idea what Crazy Horse looked like.

“York’s Story” — the piece contributed by “Westward’s” editor Dale Walker — invents a first-person account of the Lewis and Clark expedition as seen through the eyes of York, William Clark’s black slave. At story’s end, York tells us that though he regrets his life lived in bondage, he rejoices in the fact that he had ” … journeyed to the Western Sea and saw things no man of my color before me saw. How could I be bitter?”

“Westward” should appeal to readers interested in both western history and historical fiction. These are good stories of good stories.

Bill Croke is a writer in Cody, Wyo.

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