Sunday, August 19, 2012

Review: Little Century by Anna Keesey

Western set novels seem to be a growing trend right now. But these new western novels certainly aren't "cowboys and indians" novels. As a matter of fact, they rarely have a cowboy or a Native American in the text. They are, instead, the riveting tales of the folks who went west to settle for a host of good and bad reasons. Anna Keesey's novel Little Century actually does have cowboys (well, hands on a cattle ranch properly never called cowboys) but it is more the tale of eighteen year old Esther Chambers as she moves to the desert of Oregon searching for a way to move forward in her life and the ways in which she is confronted by the terrible, heated tensions of range wars in an open land where water is at a premium and means the difference between life and death, success and bankruptcy.

Esther moves west to her only remaining relative, cattle rancher Pick, and agrees to make a claim on a piece of land that he has long had his eye on. It has a seasonal lake on it over which Pick wants control. He wants to be able to use it to water his cattle and perhaps more importantly to keep the sheepherders away. Although Esther had no idea when she put in her claim, she has stumbled into a bitter and ongoing range war between the local cattle ranchers and the more itinerent sheepherders. The town of Century, Oregon is full of tension between these two factions and it erupts into petty violence periodically, often enough to cause the officials charged with determining where to run the railroad cause for alarm as they warily consider Century for a depot.

Although Esther is really just a place-holder for the Half-a-Mind claim for Pick, she has to fulfill the requirements to hold it herself and she comes to decide that she'll plant crops and do her best on this contested land. As she settles into her new life, she also comes to meet and befriend several of the townsfolk, learning their stories and sharing her own. She becomes intimately tied into the water disputes in this dry and unforgiving land and when she learns to see one of the sheepherders as a person rather than the enemy Pick sees, her whole perspective shifts. When the penultimate violence strikes, she has to weigh family loyalty against the tentative stirrings of love. The escalating violence crescendos when the long-standing range wars put the future of a railroad depot in Century in grave danger. And no one is immune from the fallout of that final battle.

The novel starts out slowly as Esther works out the lay of the land and learns to take the measure of the people around her. But as the story moves forward, it starts to pick up as more characters take shape and are fleshed out. The pacing is a little uneven with the beginning feeling like extended scene building but eventually the plot picks up some and the story gains some legs. Keesey's at her best describing the land, making the desert environment vivid. The characters often seem only to endure in this harsh land and even fleshed out they can be a bit too colorless.

The ideas of justice and rights, both personal and public, pervade the whole of the novel. What starts out as the reader concurring with Esther about which faction is in the right grows and changes, becoming increasingly nuanced as Esther's understanding of the situation, the undercurrents and back room alliances, grows and changes as well. Remaining true to her maturing moral compass, Esther finds the courage to stand firm or to act as necessary as the book progresses. The historical information about the wars fought for water and grazing rights, the towns that rose up out of the dust and then wasted away, and the hardy and hard people who populated these places is interesting and well-handled here. While it was sometimes a slog to get through, over all, this was a decent enough read.

Thanks so much to the publisher for sending me a copy of this book for review.

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