In the short story “Them Old Cowboy Songs” by Annie Proulx, a young white couple marry and settle in a log cabin near or in Southern Wyoming. Needing to buy their own livestock, the young man sets off to do some well-paid cowboy work, leaving his pregnant wife alone.
The young wife goes into labour far earlier than expected, gives birth to a stillborn child after four days and dies alone in the cabin. Likewise, Archie dies on the job herding cows.
In contrast to this tragic plot we have a subplot which is tragic in its own way but contains humour to offset the overall tragedy: In the home town of the young wife lives a more beautiful young woman named Queeda, daughter of the station master. Harp Daft uses the telescope to spy on her step-mother, eventually writing a love letter that suggests to everyone that not only is he in love with the step-mother, but has offered enough information (gleaned from the telescope) to suggest that all sorts of adulterous acts have been going on. Though Daft has killed himself after writing the love letter, Mrs Dorgan’s life is feared to be effectively over too, as it turns out she was ‘rescued’ from a whore house by Mr Dorgan. Queeda may suffer the same fate, the two being close. So Mrs Dorgan points out that her beauty and Queeda’s beauty is an asset to his prestige and political aspirations, and for now she is allowed to stay.
‘Those old cowboys songs’ are like ‘those old first world war poems’ in that the life of the pioneer and cowboy is romanticised.
Examples of such songs are offered in the text:
- The Old North Trail (possibly made up for the story — refer to a song like Old Chisholm Trail).
- Go Long Blue Dog (see Old Dog Blue)
- When the Green Grass Comes (see The Green Green Grass of Home or Where The Green Grass Grows)
- Don’t Pull off My Boots (see Nothin’ But Cowboy Boots)
- Two Quarts of Whiskey (see a whole list of country songs about whiskey)
and so on.
This sort of music, the great-grandmother of modern country, features lyrics about disturbing situations but the people in these narratives always manage to rise above their circumstance.
We like to remember Wild West pioneers as mythic heroes, who endured hardships but who nonetheless survived. As Proulx says in her preface, this simply wasn’t the case; many (if not most) died before they had time to produce off-spring. In other cases, entire families died at once, leaving no descendents. Those are not the direct ancestors of those of us living today, so we tend to forget all about them.
Music is important to Archie, who has a fine ear and can learn songs after hearing them only once, or make up new songs as easily as conversing. Indeed, Archie McLaverty is taught to play piano on a piece of wood painted with black and white keys. This is a powerful image partly because learning to play piano this way would be all but impossible — ‘the illusion of music where none actually exists’. This describes the mythology itself. The ‘black and whiteness’ of the plank of wood could also stand in for the ‘black and white’ way in which we tend to think of goodies and baddies of the Wild West, or divide into ‘heroes’ and ‘victims’ the settler subgroup.
This must have been a thing, because the same image is used in The Homesman, starring Hilary Swank and Tommy Lee Jones.
SETTING OF “THEM OLD COWBOY SONGS”
Set in 1885 in the American Wild West.
There are three mountain ranges in the United States that go by the name ‘Sierra Madre’, but going by Annie Proulx’s earlier collection ‘Wyoming Stories’, I’m guessing this story takes place near the Sierra Madre Range of south-central Wyoming and north-central Colorado. (Turns out this book is subtitled ‘Wyoming Stories 3’.)
Annie Proulx is particularly adept at conveying mood and atmosphere of the setting/season with a few strokes of colour:
Some mornings the wind stirred the snow into a scrim that bleached the mountains and made opaline dawn skies. Once the sun below the horizon threw savage red onto the bottom of the cloud that hung over Barrel Mountain and Archie glanced up, saw Rose in the doorway burning an unearthly color in the lurid glow.
July was hot, the air vibrating, the dry land like a scraped sheep hoof. The sun drew the color from everything and the Little Weed trickled through dull stones.
CHARACTERS IN “THEM OLD COWBOY SONGS”
What stands out to a modern Western reader is how young the protagonists of this story are, given the skill set needed by pioneers in the late 1800s.
Archie McLaverty (17) — born to Irish parents who died when he was young. Raised by a woman whose own son didn’t like Archie or accept him as a brother. Inherited 100 dollars from his foster mother and bought land for a house because he was too young to get it given to him as a settler. His youthfulness is described by the way his mouth looks ‘etched onto’ his face; his skin has not yet had time to weather into cowboy leather. Red cheeks, auburn hair. It’s significant that Archie had Irish parents because it accounts for how he would know the lyrics to so many songs.
Rose McLaverty (nee Mealor) (14 or 15) — ‘Rose was not pretty, but warmhearted and quick to laugh. She had grown up at the Jackrabbit stage station, the daughter of kettle-bellied Sundown Mealor, who dreamed of plunging steeds but because of his bottle habit drove a freight wagon…Rose’s mother was grey with some wasting disease that kept her to her bed, sinking slowly out of life.’ Note the situation of Rose’s parents: Just like today, people died slowly of disease, or slowly from lifetime addictions, failing to fulfil their own modest dreams.
Tom Adler — More liked by Rose than by Archie. He used to travel the seas, and has one ear pierced. The ring tells people that he has been east round Cape Horn. Has a rich collection of stories about storms, whales, icebergs etc. Is now an old prospector, wanting safe harbour in his old age.
Tom’s Cat Gold Dust — Tom’s cat must be first billed as a character in this story. Is interested in catching the weasel that moved in as soon as Archie and Rose cut wood and stacked it for winter. Along with the weasel, Tom recognises at the end of the story that animals do quite well in the wild — the cat has survived by gradually turning more and more feral. When he finally sees Gold Dust, her fur is sleek, and she refuses the bacon he offers her.
Mrs Peck — took Archie in when he was orphaned at 14
Bunk Peck — Mrs Peck’s son, jealous of Archie, ungenerous when the will is settled. (Note the wonderfully brusque name, which matches his personality.)
Robert F. Dorgan — ‘The stationmaster was the politically minded Robert F. Dorgon, affable and jowly, yearning to be appointed to a position of importance and seeing the station as a brief stop not only for freight wagons but for himself.’
Flora Dorgan — ‘[Robert’s] second wife, Flora, stepmother to his daughter, Queeda, went to Denver every winter with Queeda, and they became authorities on fashion and style.’ Flora looks down on Rose and Rose’s family.
Queeda Dorgan — Because she gets along so well with Flora and is always dressed in finery, Rose both ‘admires and despises’ Queeda Dorgan. Queeda is set up as a contrast character for Rose; Rose is plain, Queeda is elegantly dressed. ‘But it was hard, keeping clean. Queeda Dorgan, for example, had little to do at the station but primp an wash and flounce, but Rose, in her cabin, lifted heavy-kettles, split kindling, baked bread, scrubbed pots and hacked the stone-filled ground for a garden, hauled water when Archie was not there.’ Unlike Rose, Queeda lives. But her life is as precarious as anyone else’s we learn, right at the end, when the step-mother is almost turfed out.
Harp Daft — an old bachelor, the telegraph key operator who works with Robert Dorgan at the station. Very unpleasant to look at. From the window of the station he spies on Mrs Dorgan with a telescope. He says he uses it to seek out constellations.
Sink Gartrell — Sink is a cowpoke Archie works with who gives Archie advice about steering clear of the guy in charge and how to fall off a horse without injuring yourself too much. Notice the number of Germanic, hard-sounding names, names which match the land. Sink and Archie die together in the big blizzard.
THEME OF “THEM OLD COWBOY SONGS”
First, a word on the message. There is a strong message in this story, evident from the get-go: The Wild West was not the heroic but comfortingly cosy setting of the stories that survive. But of course, in the hands of this master writer, there is a lot more to the message; the themes expand upon the message.
If you want to send a message, try Western Union.
Our Fear And Sense Of Risk Is So Often Misplaced
Take note of the way the first three characters die, setting up a tragicomic pattern:
Archie’s mother — cholera (an unsurprising death to begin with)
Archie’s father — overdosing on medicine thought to prevent cholera (a comically ironic death)
Mrs Peck — caught in a grass conflagration started by herself while singeing chickens (ironic because you wouldn’t expect to die in a grass fire, let alone one started by yourself, let alone while carrying out such a mundane task)
We also hear of an early settler who died of hunger (but who had the river named after him), a man named Mr Town who got killed with his well caved in and him in it. Rose’s parents move to Omaha hoping to help Mrs Mealor’s health, thereby failing to even be buried in the station graveyard. They are forgotten forever. Archie and his friend of pneumonia during a blizzard. The pervert with the telescope kills himself by drinking lye. None of these deaths involve the folkloric rivalry between whites and Indians.
By 1885, Native Americans were starting to pose less of a threat to white settlers, because their numbers had been greatly reduced in massacres carried out mid-century. Life itself presented dangers of its own though, as made use of in this story, the threat of Indian violence was still in the air. Mrs Buck Roy, the new freighter’s wife, was terrified of Indians. The simple act of lone child birthing was more likely to kill a white woman than a Ute, but it was these unseen warriors who were at the root of most fears. When Archie asks his closest neighbour to check in on Rose every so often in his absence, is he really worried about the possibility that his young wife might haemorrhage during childbirth and die alone, or is he worried that an Indian may take her if there is no obvious man of the house?
What is the modern equivalent of misplaced fear? We are still scared of what we cannot see. Vaccines are thought by many to carry higher risks than the diseases they prevent. Many are more afraid of plane travel than of driving a motorcar down a highway, despite the fact that highway driving is far more risky. Women are told to avoid parks alone even though, for women in general, the most dangerous place is in her own home, with a man who has at some stage told her he loves her.
By painting parks/cities/the world as a Wild West that only a fool would traverse unguarded, we’re being fed a distracting lie that impinges on our rights to use public space equally.
That’s a quotation from the Australian article hyperlinked above, and it’s no coincidence that the Wild West is used as a simile here; the myth of the pioneer in the American Wild West (and Australia has its own version) is still powerful today. Modern society — especially for women — still has its own Wild West; parks, elevators, carpark basements, deserted woodland, night-times in general.
Survival So Often Comes Down To Luck
Archie tries to send a letter to his wife, though he doesn’t yet know she has died, only to find he can’t afford the postage. The pieces of his letter are compared to playing cards:
Archie, who had only one cent, tore up his letter and threw the pieces in the street. The wind dealt them to the prairie, its chill promising a tight-clenched winter.
Some lived and some died and that’s how it was.
TECHNIQUES OF NOTE
Every object mentioned/described at the beginning of the story turns out to have some gory significance before the end:
- The door step stone which ends up being used for a grave stone
- The note on the table that ends up being mistaken for a possible confession.
Some stories — and many modern movies, especially — open with a flash-forward to an action scene in order to capture the audience’s attention. Annie Proulx does not use that exact technique here; instead we have (what looks like) a quotation, but is probably the author’s own sage observation:
There is a belief that pioneers come into the country, home-steaded, lived tough, raised a shoeless brood and founded ranch dynasties. Some did. But many more had short runs and were quickly forgotten.
This opening lets the reader know from the outset that this story is about one of the forgotten families. Bad things are going to happen here, and the effect is the same as if we’d been thrown straight into a dangerous scene. Pre-WW2, Western stories were all about the glory and the expansion of America. This changed after WW2, and now we really only see anti-Westerns. (Annie Proulx is one of the stand-out examples.)
The foreshadowing continues, of course, not only in the first paragraph with more mention of death, but later on, for example with the moths:
At the evening meal, their faces lit by the yellow shine of the cool oil lamp whose light threw wild shadows on the ceiling, their world seemed in order until moths flew at the lamp and finally thrashed themselves to sticky death on the plates.[Rose] seemed unaware that she lived in a time when love killed women.
Another day she had gathered two quarts of wild strawberries, her fingers stained deep red that would not wash away.
By afternoon the backache was an encircling python and she could do nothing but pant and whimper, the steady rattle of rain dampening her moaning call for succor.
Happiness Juxtaposed With Tragedy
Annie Proulx is by now well-known for foreshadowing horrible scenes with pleasant ones. Like fans of horror films can never relax when a family sings happily in the car while off on holiday, fans of Proulx know that happy scenes won’t end well:
‘There is no happiness,’ Proulx writes, ‘like that of a young couple in a little house they have built themselves in a place of beauty and solitude.’ Few American writers are as good as evoking that idea as she is, and hardly any can watch it all unspool with quite her sense of timing. Proulx is like Hawthorne in that respect: innocence never persists more than a paragraph, hope never makes it through a story. Not long after Rose discovers she is expecting their baby, Archie takes a job as a cowboy upstate, for a year. But the job goes bad, and so does the baby, and so does Rose, and soon enough the little home is broken up by a couple of winters and returned to scrub.
In Annie Proulx’s new story collection, a young rancher about to build a cabin on his claim in the late-19th-century Wyoming wilderness walks the perimeter of his 80 acres singing old cowboy songs. This ritual marking of his place takes him all day, and in the dusk he returns, his voice a raspy whisper. The careful observation of such a ceremony would seem to suggest that time might shed its blessings on the rancher and his wife, that they might enjoy peace and ease here and the grace of days.
Who are we kidding? This is Annie Proulx.
In perhaps the greatest juxtaposition, the silver spoon heirloom given to Rose as a wedding present is the tool she uses to dig the shallow grave of the dead infant that has killed her into the bargain.
What about those of us who write without the burden of reputation? This is somewhat of a freedom, but bear in mind that reader expectation has nevertheless been set up by the great writers who came before us. The modern reader expects juxtaposition. Unless the cover looks something like this, we know that happiness in the Wild West will be short-lived:
For more on juxtaposition see Making Use of Juxtaposition In Writing.
The Subplot Character As Contrast To The Hero
If Archie is the male star of the story, his subplot counterparts are Tom the retired pirate and Sink Gartrell, the cowpoke with whom he dies. Tom is different from Archie in that he has led a full, action-filled life. Like Tom, he knows many songs, but he is now enjoying the autumn years Archie will never see. Sink Gartrell has chosen a different path for himself, vowing never to get stuck with a woman (though in cruder terms). Despite his wish to remain free, he too dies in a hut. Perhaps if he had gotten married he would have lived longer after all.
If Rose is the female star of the story, her subplot counterparts are Mrs and Queeda Dorgan. In fiction, when female characters are set up in opposition to one another it’s not uncommon for them to differ in beauty or finery. (It goes way back — think of the likes of Cinderella.) Rose can see that despite the difference in hardship and finery, these women are not so different from herself. The reader is given extra information at the end of the story about Mrs Dorgan’s background and about Queeda’s precarious reliance upon her father, underscoring the similarities between the women, who are all in danger of being abandoned by the men in their lives.
Anyone who has delved into The Shipping News knows that Annie Proulx has a certain, unusual sentence structure she deploys for rendering dialogue. At first glance I thought that what she is rendering here is an approximation of American social dialect of the late 1880s. Then I remembered The Shipping News, set not in America but in Canada; not in the 1800s but in the late 20th Century, and I realised that what she does isn’t exactly a regional dialect, or a social one, but something different again.
What does she do, exactly, when rendering dialogue?
There’s a certain amount of phonetic spelling, as well as regional dialect: ‘Twict’ is Southern for ‘twice’. Non-standard syntax, comma-spliced sentence:
“If I can git loose I will. But this is a real good job, good money, fifty-five a month, almost twict what Bunk Peck pays and I’m goin a save ever nickel.”
People repeat themselves. Proulx is not afraid of having characters repeat themselves likewise:
“And that’s not countin what I maybe can pick up in wolf bounties. Possible another hunderd. Enough to git us started. I’m thinkin horses, raise horses. Folks always need horses. I’ll quit this feller’s ranch after a year an git back here.”
Proulx tends to leave out ‘if’:
“I’m ridin to talk with Bunk in a few days, see can I get hired on again.”
Also frequently omitted is the beginning of a sentence, here ‘I’ll’. I wonder if this is to avoid the idea of individualism, and to convey that these stories are universal, not specific to certain characters, but characters standing in for communities.
STORY SPECS OF “THEM OLD COWBOY SONGS”
This is the third story of Proulx’s 2008 collection Fine Just The Way It Is.
The story is divided into 3 sections of uneven length:
Archie and Rose, 1885 – about Archie and Rose getting married, a bit of backstory on them both, and Archie’s decision to go cowboying in order to earn some good money for when the baby comes.
Archie and Sink – A few paragraphs about Archie’s job as a cowhand.
Rose and the Coyotes – Rose gives birth to the baby. She manages to bury the baby beside the river. Coyotes come and eat the carcass outside. Archie catches pneumonia and dies with one of the other cowpunchers in a shack during a 12 day snow blizzard. He never finds out that his wife and baby are already dead.
The narrator is unseen and has his own interesting vocabulary.
COMPARE AND CONTRAST WITH “THEM OLD COWBOY SONGS”
Proulx’s most famous cowboy story is of course “Brokeback Mountain“. “Brokeback Mountain” covers a longer period of time in the life of two men, demonstrating the writer’s ability to cover vast lengths of time and complex emotional landscapes within the confines of a short story.
WRITE YOUR OWN
Annie Proulx really knows the landscape of Wyoming and is able to convey a realistic sense of the era. What is the landscape you know best? Is there a certain regional dialect associated with this area? What aspects of this landscape make it different from others similar? Are you able to write about eras that others can’t, either because you’ve been around longer than most or because of a long-time personal interest? If there are human stories around this region that haven’t been told, what form would they likely take?