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I’m a greenhorn lover of Westerns, and am thus tempted to open this review with, “If you liked Deadwood, you’ll like Anna Keesey’s debut novel Little Century.” I am a fan of both, and surely such a declaration would win Keesey, an Iowa grad who recently turned 50, some instant readers. In truth, though, the comparison would constitute a bait-n-switch. Yes, Little Century is set in the frontier West; yes, it is rife with violence and greed, brimming with action and romance; yes, you will come to know, and love, a tight-knit community of misfits (hero-types and villain-types, speculators and busybodies, sinners and prophesiers), each with secrets and fatal flaws; and yes, this fictional Wild West, where only the fittest survive, will reveal much to you about human nature — about good and evil, loyalty and courage, and the complex morality of love.
But the similarities may end there: where Deadwood is gritty, Little Century is lyrical. Where Deadwood gives us South Dakota in the 1870s — a world of rough-and-tumble men (in which women mostly make sour lemonade out of sour lemons) — Keesey gives us the high desert of Oregon at the turn of the century, primarily through the experiences of women. And where Deadwood creator David Milch often rivets his audience via shock-factor (slit throats, raunchy sex favors, human pig-feed), Keesey crafts for her readers a rich and satisfying tale of restraint.
Perhaps it would be more accurate to say that there is something distinctly Pacific-Northwesty about Little Century. I am not native to that region, so I may again be treading on thin ice here; but I did live there for several years. Before that, my first introduction to the Northwest was through a friend from Seattle, whom I met in college in New York City: she was tough and can-do, more willing than anyone I knew to get her hands dirty (literally and figuratively); the sort of person you’d want with you if ever you were lost in the woods or took a wrong turn down a dark alley. She was also a bundle of positive energy: I distinctly remember walking down Broadway and noticing that random people would make eye contact and smile whenever I was with her (which almost never happens in New York). In our grown-up years, through real-life tragedies and losses, this friend of mine was the person I felt I could tell anything — my ugliest failures, my worst fears — and nothing would faze her. She was both temperate breezes and dark nights, green grass and stormy skies; and knowing her pretty much prepared me for what it would feel like to live in the Northwest.
Little Century is a book I’d recommend to my friend, and to anyone who embraces the dark and bright sides of life with equal gusto.
Our protagonist, Esther Chambers, recently orphaned at 18, leaves Chicago for Century, Ore., where her only living relative — a distant cousin, 30 years old, named Ferris “Pick” Pickett — raises cattle. There’s plenty of land, it’s homesteading country, and charming, laconic Pick asks Esther to squat in an abandoned cabin near a sometimes lake (it dries up half the year) so that he can add the land, and the coveted water-source, to his already estimable holdings. Pick seems trustworthy and kind (to both Esther and the reader), and Esther is alone in the world with no other plans, so why not? With a little help from Pick’s faithful ranch hand Vincent, the cabin is made habitable, and Pick charms Esther into lying to the land clerk about her age — she needs to be 21 — so that they can pull off the deal.
‘It has to do with fooling someone who deserves like the devil to be fooled. Maybe you played at pretending not so long ago. You ever try to fool someone? […] If we pull the wool over his eyes, we’ll have a good joke to take back with us to Century […] What do you say Esther?’ he asked, smiling. This smile was cheeky, mischievous, though the impression arose from the high placement of his neat, pointed eyeteeth and he may have been unaware of it himself. ‘Feel like helping out your old cousin?’
He wanted her help to conspire against a bully. Nelly Bly would leap at such a chance. She smiled back. ‘If I can.’
And with this economical little setup, the seeds of both the plot, and the characters’ essential, conflicted selves, are planted: Esther is young and green and wants to please her cousin, but she also admires pioneering rebel women like the journalist Nellie Bly. Pick is gallant and playful, but also ambitious, pragmatic, and clever. These two characters are tied by blood, and they are also drawn to each other as man and woman, in a quiet, mutually respectful way. Each sparks and clashes with other characters — Esther with a poetry-reading sheepherder named Ben Cruff, Pick with a dark-eyed, half-Paiute Indian woman named Dolores — in more typically romantic ways; but it’s the subtle affinity between Esther and Pick, which ultimately reveals not-quite aligned desires and fine-line contrasts in moral fiber, that I think is a real accomplishment of the novel, and the most provocative. Forgive me, but yet another TV analogy seems apt here: think Don and Peggy from Mad Men.
Aside from this skillful character/relationship evolution, Little Century offers plenty of page-turning action: it’s cattle ranchers versus sheepherders out on the high desert, for apparently there isn’t room enough for all. The conflict starts with petty window-breaking, builds toward sinister intimidation tactics (Keesey’s restraint shines here — one subtle but chilling incident involves cutting off a little girl’s braid), and culminates in flock-slaughtering and the murder of a beloved (to Esther) local merchant. In addition to land and water-source grabs, the railroad is coming, and various players seek to influence the company rep, by whatever means necessary, to bring the line through Century.
Even with all this hard-conflict action, Keesey builds narrative momentum not via conventional suspense strategies — in fact, there is a good deal of predictability in the plot, which may bother some readers — but through character insights, thematic depth, and prose both taut and lovely, which Keesey applies equally to action and exposition. Here, Esther watches from a hidden place as masked cattle-herders send a flock of sheep to their gruesome death:
Now the fallen sheep form a gray berm, and those falling hit it and slide off, thick and inert. This sound is quieter; it is like a lull. She rises and darts through the rocks to Duniway, who is rigid at the end of her picket rope, her eyes insane and white. Esther, using all her weight on the rope, tries to pull the mare close to calm her. But Duniway stamps and foams, her hind end clattering back and forth in desperation. In her flailing she strikes Esther’s jaw and nose […]
At last they have all fallen. There are hundreds. They lie piled and scattered from the base of the bluff down to within a few yards of the lake […] The tender complexities that animals enclose in their skins are exposed, and the fumes of blood and water and oil make an aromatic colloid that in daylight would have pinkened the air. Some of the sheep are still living, and so with the smell rises a sigh of complaint, a last irritability. Esther kneels and leans against a large, cool boulder and spits a little blood […]
Here, we see an interior moment, i.e. Keesey’s insights into Esther’s coming of age:
She, too, has changed her mind […] No, not even that. Her mind is like a tulip in a bank of tulips that have come up red year after year, and in bud it looked like any other – slim, furrowed, and green — and even began to rosify like all the others, and then, finally, it opens. In the sea of red, this one’s petals alone are dappled with orange and the stamens are black. So the mind has not changed at all, really. It was called red too early, before it ripened into its final character.
Little Century is Esther’s story, but for me it was Pick’s character, the subtleties of which unfolded slowly and substantially, that generated the most compelling suspense. Is he worthy of Esther, and of the land he aims to obtain? Yes and no. When it comes out that, years back, Pick fathered Dolores’s child, then abandoned both, Esther confronts him. His response is as undramatic and authentic as any response might be today:
‘I can’t recall all of what I was thinking, because I was young and it was a long time ago. But let me ask you. Would you marry an Indian?’
‘I don’t know,’ she says, hot but even. ‘And I don’t have to know.’
‘Well, I balked at it. It didn’t fit my idea of me, somehow […].’
And Esther’s response shows us her “ripening” mind, recalling to the reader the dangers of bifurcating justice and empathy, not to mention the distinct ways in which men and women have historically approached sexual morality:
Pick is waiting for her disapproval, but the fact that he waits for her to decry his having loved a woman, rather than his having ignored a child, makes her think he doesn’t know her at all. He judges, and expects others to judge also. He doesn’t know the difference between himself and other people.
Is Little Century a “woman’s book?” I asked myself this as I read, mostly lamenting that it probably is, from a marketing perspective. It’s a book about a girl, after all, and far fewer men read books about girls than women read books about boys; the math on that is pretty clear.
But it’s also a book about insiders and outsiders, friendship, forgiveness, love of the land, male mid-life ambition, corporatism, journalistic integrity, racial prejudice. (It is not, thankfully, a book about a girl who finds her boy: the ending, which I won’t give away completely, is quite satisfying in the way it allows us to choose-our-own-adventure). It’s a book with both a big heart and a big mind, not to mention a generous soul. Like my Seattle friend, both Esther Chambers and Anna Keesey are not afraid to either get their hands (and petticoats) dirty, or to plunge into emotional depths. In an interview at NW Book Lovers, interviewer Brian Juenemann asked Keesey if she’s “worked a feminist Western on to the shelves,” to which she replied
I hope so! I adore those irrepressible nineteenth century women who just went out and crusaded and conducted their business with energy and intellectual authority and healthy doses of ego.
Why such a book (and many others) would not appeal to the average male reader is frankly a mystery to me. But maybe it’s a coming-of-age thing for the reader as much as the character: I myself fled the Northwest for New York in my late 20s, feeling restless and creeped out by all that competent spiritedness. Ten years later, a novel peopled by healthy, energetic, authoritative women was just what I needed — dark and bright, cruel and kind. Comparisons and gender politics aside: if you like good books, you’ll like Little Century.