Book Talk: On the western front

The western genre continues to provide a rich mine for stories of adventure that are often as compelling as any other tale.

The western genre is not as popular as in the early and middle decades of the last century. But it continues to provide a rich mine for stories of adventure that are often as compelling as any other tales in any other genre.

In fact, the conventions of the genre most often play out today in deep space—the only difference is the setting.

The Englishman’s Boy (1996) by Guy Vanderhaeghe, a fine Canadian writer, is a cinematic tour de force that brilliantly juxtaposes Hollywood in the 1920s with one of the most bloodiest, brutal events of the Canadian West—the Cypress Hills Massacre in 1873.

The western story focuses on a boy left stranded when his English employer dies of fever. It tells how he joins a posse chasing Indian horse thieves up into Canadian territory and the grim slaughter that unfolds at the Cypress Hills.

Fifty years later, the boy, named Shorty McAdoo, is a grizzled bit player in pioneer Hollywood and draws the eye of a movie mogul intent on creating an epic western around him, in the tradition of his hero, D.W. Griffith. This tale of Hollywood is told by young screenwriter Harry Vincent, a scenarist from Saskatchewan hired and sent off by the movie mogul, Damon Ira Chance, to get Shorty’s story.

The Englishman’s Boy, winner of the Governor General’s Award for Fiction in 1996, possesses the sweeping scope of an epic western and superbly evokes a sense of time and place for each of the settings.

The stark beauty of the prairies and unprecedented extravagance of Hollywood rendered by the author provides a vibrant background for the vital action, adventure and intrigue of both stories in this unforgettable novel. But it is essentially the story of two ruthless central figures, an ironic tale of power and greed and the irresistible pull of dreams that arise from the haunting story of a young drifter.

Deadwood (1986) by Pete Dexter, an accomplished, talented author and the winner of the U.S. National Book Award for Paris Trout (1988), is a dazzling novel of tone, scale, pace, mood, character with an unflagging sense of the dramatic and ironic. It is the story of the last days of Wild Bill Hickok and opens with the legendary gunman, and his best friend Charley Utter, riding into Deadwood, a wicked frontier settlement in the Black Hills.

Wild Bill, aging and sick, approaches Deadwood with a premonition that he will die there. A few weeks later his premonition becomes true when he is shot in the back of the head by a madman named Jack McCall. Fortunately, Deadwood is mostly the story of Charley, his constant companion and an insightful man of extensive and varied experience.

But is also traces the bizarre and fascinating stories and of McCall, Calamity Jane, the Bottle Fiend, the China Doll, the town’s whores and whoremasters, a preacher appalled with the sin and vice of Deadwood and his boy disciple who becomes a babbling, inadvertent prophet of civilizing forces that will alter the Dakota territory forever.

The Sisters Brothers (2011) by Canadian author Patrick deWitt is an engrossing novel that transcends boundaries even as it tramples on the conventions of the genre. It opens by paying homage to pulp Westerns and ends on a remarkable philosophical note as the two brutal killers at the heart of the story are forced to reconsider their lives.

Eli and Charlie Sisters, the two protagonists of the story, are widely known and rightfully feared. The two are sent by a frontier baron known as the Commodore from Oregon City to California to kill a prospector named Herman Kermit Warm. As the two journey to San Francisco and eventually to the Sierra foothills where Warm works a claim, they encounter a witch, a bear, a dead Indian, a parlour of drunken whores and a gang of killer fur trappers.

But as the bloody journey unfolds, the two brothers explore the consequences that flow from many of the clichés of the old west and start to look less like two stone killers and more like two traumatized young men—an extraordinary literary feat. In this light it is easy to see why the Sisters Brothers won the 2011 Governor General’s Award for Fiction.

These are just three of several remarkable western novels available at the Okanagan Regional Library Other Western authors of note include Elmore Leonard, far better known as a crime writer, and Elmer Kelton, a talented storyteller and voted the Greatest Western Writer of All Time by the Western Writers of America.

Peter Critchley is a reference librarian at the Vernon branch of the Okanagan Regional Library.