Monday, April 14, 2014

The Virginian (Owen Wister)

The Virginian
Owen Wister
Public Domain Books
Fiction, Western
**** (Good)

DESCRIPTION: The Virginian left home at fourteen to escape the stodgy, hemmed-in future embraced by his brothers. His roving ways and skill in the saddle at last brought him to Sunk Creek in Wyoming as a ranch hand. Here, as related by an Easterner acquaintance, the young man unexpectedly loses his heart to a Vermont-born schoolmarm... a courtship complicated by her New England breeding, cattle rustlers, and a personal rivalry that might destroy everything.

REVIEW: First published in 1902, this is considered the first "true" Western. Even as it was being written, the world it described - a world of cowboys and tenderfoots and settlers carving new lives from seemingly endless tracts of unspoiled wilderness - was already fading into memory. Within the book itself, the characters often acknowledge the coming end to a way of life that, in some ways, seemed to still be in the act of being created. Wister captures an era in his words, a country that somehow is both civilized and rough, where a man could literally ride into nothing and create an empire - or start with everything and lose it all. There's a certain larger than life quality to life on the frontier, as he describes it; I don't know if nostalgia was already coloring the era, but it makes for interesting reading. He also creates the epitome of the gentleman cowboy in the never-named Virginian, a soft-spoken Southerner with a keen mind, a quick wit, and a firm code of ethics that's tested nearly to the breaking point more than once. He almost seems too good to be true, especially as viewed by the sometimes-narrator, the endlessly naive Easterner tenderfoot who is also never named (and who never witnesses long stretches of the story.) To be honest, I'm not sure what purpose the narrator truly served, except to give readers a window into the alien world of the Western frontier of the 1880's... and to give the Virginian someone to talk to on occasion. The love interest, Molly, starts out so mired in her East Coast ideals of propriety and proper breeding that it was hard to rationalize her decision to move to the lawless West, let alone the Virginian's instant and unshakable attraction to her. Her moment of truth shocks her as much as it does him, not to mention the reader. The storyline often meanders like a lowland creek, pausing at the occasional eddy or pool before slowly trickling onward, with the occasional burst of whitewater now and again. It slowly builds to a tense climax... then meanders about some more before finally reaching an ending that's almost too neat.
In the end, while the wandering plot cost it a star in the ratings, Wister's distinctive characters and deft portrayal of a vanished world kept it at four stars.

You Might Also Enjoy:
Riders of the Purple Sage (Zane Grey) - My Review
Six-shooter Tales (I. J. Parnham) - My Review
Letters of a Woman Homesteader (Elinore Pruitt Stewart) - My Review

No comments:

Post a Comment