Gila Monsters Meet You at the Airport (1980) is an American picture book written by Marjorie Weinman Sharmat and illustrated by Byron Barton. This story teaches the young reader to recognise a regional stereotype, and to question its veracity. This story was chosen for the first season of Reading Rainbow.
I had to look up the meaning of gila monster:
A heavy, typically slow-moving lizard, up to 60 cm (2.0 ft) long, the Gila monster is the only venomous lizard native to the United States and one of only two known species of venomous lizards in North America, the other being its close relative, the Mexican beaded lizard (H. horridum).
Every year my daughter and I watch the 2005 Disney miniseries adaptation of Little House On The Prairie by Laura Ingalls Wilder. We usually watch it in winter, on a day with inclement weather. Now that she’s 12, she’s ready for the books. She picked out Little House On The Prairie in the middle of winter. I’m not surprised; these books are peak hygge. They also appeal to the wish fulifilment fantasy of self-sufficiency. I’ve watched a few episodes of Doomsday Preppers and temporarily experienced the same delusion: that there is such a thing as self-sufficiency among small, tight-knit communties, and that I should probably start collecting canned food.
If you like playing Red Dead Redemption, if you enjoyed The Ballad of Buster Scruggs, I recommend “The Outcasts of Poker Flat“, a short story by Bret Harte, published in the late 1800s as the century was coming to a close.
This short story was adapted for film in 1919, 1937 and again in 1952.
But the version with the highest rating on IMDb is the latest one — a TV movie from 1958. Good luck finding it, though.
Then [in 2009-10] the composer Andrew E. Simpson wrote a one-act chamber opera dramatizing the story. It was performed most recently in 2012 (to positive reviews), and from the summary appears to follow the source material much more closely than any of the cinematic adaptations.
This story remains interesting to a contemporary audience for its reminder that we thought quite differently about what it takes to live a good life, just 120 years ago. I really enjoyed most of it, though I want to rewrite the ending.
Content note for suicide, with a large dose of sexism near the end.
STORY WORLD OF “THE OUTCASTS OF POKER FLAT”
The setting is a very specific November 22 1850, in a town called Poker Flat, in Northwestern California.
There are two towns that are known as “Poker Flat” in California: one that is located in Calaveras County and one that is located in the Sierra County near in the Sierra Nevada. While there has been minor dispute over which Poker Flat Harte’s story is set in, it likely depicts the latter town in Sierra County because Harte’s characters are forced to traverse part of the Sierra mountain range.
Here it is on Google Earth, if you’re viewing this in Chrome. There’s not much there now — but I do spy one ambiguous human structure. I hope there’s at least a plaque which mentions the short story.
I’m thinking of a town a bit like Deadwood(South Dakota) — full of men, drinking and gambling, without the moderating influence of ‘Sabbath’. The illegal town of Deadwood popped up 20 years after this story is set, comprising squatters after gold, and the services around them. While Deadwood has remained in our collective memory as a lawless, wild Western town, there must have been many more like it.
THE SEASONS OF “THE OUTCASTS OF POKER FLAT”
At first it washes over me that the month is November, probably because I live in the Southern Hemisphere, when the end of November is warm, perfect for camping outdoors. Stranded outside in Australia at the end of November? You’d be fine — though covered in mozzie bites, probably. I don’t tend to associate California with snow, partly because I’ve watched Thelma and Louise and Animal Kingdom — no snow.
But I am reminded later in the story that, for Americans, November 22 marks the onset of winter, a month before winter solstice. Of course it snows in the mountainous parts of California, ie. The Sierras, the Cascade mountains.
There’s something curious about Harte having chosen to include “poker” in the name of the California town from which a poker player is banished and where the game is associated with other activities (thievery, prostitution) deemed “improper.” It almost seems like the people of Poker Flat are denying something essential about themselves when trying to rid the town of the game — or at least the town’s best player.
Never heard of him myself, but Millard Fillmore was sworn in as America’s 13th president. The guy before him died.
America had 31 states and 4 organised territories at this time. California had been an American state only since September 9 of that year.
In September the Fugitive Slave Act was passed by congress. This was a terrible law which required that all escaped slaves, upon capture, be returned to their masters and that officials and citizens of free states had to cooperate.
While this particular story is not about slavery and not about California’s new statehood, all of this provides an important cultural ambience which affords the contemporary reader an insight into how harshly humans could treat other humans back then. (And still do, in certain contexts.) For Bret Harte, writing this story almost 50 years later, America had undergone huge changes, most notably industrialisation, civil war and the abolishment of slavery. To Harte and his contemporary readers, 1850 would have felt like an entire lifetime ago, harking back to an almost mythic past. This marked the beginning of the age of the Western Story, actually. The Western was really popular with a male audience in particular, right up until the 20th century world wars, after which readers no longer really believed in expansionism and violence as an ideal, and since then we’ve only had ‘anti Westerns‘ (which we shorten to ‘Western’, forgetting how ridiculously racist and optimistic those early ones were).
HARTE’S OWN LIFE
As I already mentioned, Harte lived through an era of huge change. The America he was born into was absolutely not the America he saw as an old man.
For a time he worked as a reporter and was left in charge of a newspaper called the Northern Californian for a time. During that time he covered the 1860 massacre of 80-200 Wiyot Indians. He condemned the slayings, citing Christianity. He said no civilised peoples should be doing that to other peoples.
Not everyone agreed with that. After he published his editorial Harte’s life was threatened. He was forced to flee a month later. He quit his job as a reporter and moved to San Francisco.
In short, Harte knew what it was like to be shooed out of town. He’d also seen great brutality at close range. By the time he wrote “The Outcasts of Poker Flat” he had also seen great riches and also poverty as his writing income waned. He may have even contemplated suicide himself. From a letter he wrote to his wife, referring to the winter of 1877-1878:
I don’t know—looking back—what ever kept me from going down, in every way, during that awful December and January.
Harte had also fallen out with Mark Twain, previously a friend. Twain called him ‘a liar, a thief, a swindler, a snob, a sot, a sponge, a coward, a Jeremy Diddler, he is brim full of treachery’. So it’s likely Harte felt some sympathy towards people who are thusly besmirched. Though the character of Mother Shipton is a crass woman, Harte eventually leads his reader to empathise with her and respect her.
By the time Harte wrote this story, he’d moved to England, where he stayed until he died. He left his wife and children in America and regularly sent them money from his writing income, though he maintained he couldn’t afford to travel back to America to see them himself.
WHAT HAPPENS IN “THE OUTCASTS OF POKER FLAT”
In the story, John Oakhurst, an outsider from a place known as Roaring Camp, has enjoyed gambling success the previous night. Now it’s morning and the locals are regarding him differently. He’s calm, handsome — your archetypal Western hero. He probably keeps himself cleaner and tidier than typical cowboy types of the era. He is introduced to us wiping the red dust off his boots with his handkerchief. I’m thinking of Jake Spoon from Larry McMurtry’s Lonesome Dove.
The narrator offers the town’s recent backstory. There’s been a crime spree, including loss of life. A secret committee has formed to get rid of anyone suspicious, or ‘improper persons’. We infer that Oakhurst is this morning’s target, since he’s described as a ‘gambler’. If that’s his profession, he’s hardly respectable. There are two men hanging from a sycamore tree. Sex workers have been shooed out.
Somehow Oakhurst knows all this, and supposes that he’s ‘included in this category’. He’s especially targeted because he’s won large sums of money from the executioners, and if they could justify killing him, they’d raid his pockets and get their money back. A man named Jim Wheeler is named as the personification of all those who have lost money. They consider it against (‘agin’) justice to let a man carry away all of their money. Between themselves, they can justify killing him. However, some had also won money from Oakhurst, and Jim Wheeler’s suggestion is overruled.
The narrator skips the part where Oakhurst is apprehended and led to court. Instead we get the outcome — he’s banished from town.
Like a true antihero, Oakhurst receives this verdict with calmness, understanding the nature of fate. In this he reminds me of much more recent wild West heroes (if not ‘Western’ in the traditional sense), such as Cohle from True Detective.
Mr. Oakhurst received his sentence with philosophic calmness, none the less coolly that he was aware of the hesitation of his judges. He was too much of a gambler not to accept Fate. With him life was at best an uncertain game, and he recognized the usual percentage in favour of the dealer.
Damaged heroes who embrace fate and live pessimistically are a favourite in crime stories set in desolate, flat places where ‘nothing can grow, nothing can become’, etc. (These characters are almost always men.) https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=tliWDMrOjoQ
Annie Proulx also likes to write fatalistic characters, eking out their miserable lives in harsh Wyoming environments. See “Stone City“, “Electric Arrows“, “Dump Junk” etc. Proulx’s fatalistic characters also tend to be men. There is something highly gendered about a fatalistic outlook in fiction. Accepting death as a natural outcome of life is a sign of strength and therefore of ideal masculinity, as idealised by the communities themselves.
Do we still idealise a fatalistic outlook, or do we poke fun at it? True Detective does both. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=A8x73UW8Hjk
Back to Harte’s story. After sentencing, a body of armed men escorts a small group of individuals to the edge of town. Then the four of them are forced to make their own way to the next camp. The ‘criminals’ comprise:
A young sex worker known as “The Duchess”. She cries ‘hysterically’.
A woman known as “Mother Shipton” (a moniker also used by Alice Munro in her short story “Silence“). The name comes from English woman Ursula Southeil, born in the late 1400s. She was better known as Mother Shipton, and was thought to have been a soothsayer and prophetess. The moniker is therefore applied to women who are savvy enough to see what’s coming. She uses ‘bad language’.
“Uncle Billy”, a suspected ‘sluice-robber’. A sluice is a slanted channel used to filter gold out from dirt or sand. In gold digging eras, diggers would claim their own spot. If they found gold they’d leave it in the sluice for short periods on the understanding that they’d found it, so it belonged to them. But a “sluice-robber” didn’t respect this rule, and would steal gold from other people’s sluices when they weren’t looking. This particular sluice-robber is also a ‘confirmed drunkard’. (I’m guessing he tried to rob the sluices while drunk, hence was easily caught. Either that or the townsfolk used this excuse to get rid of him for his heavy drinking.)
Each of the other three escorted out of town are therefore presented as upset and emotional about their expulsion, in contrast to the calm and collected, fatalistic Western antihero of Oakhurst.
Oakhurst does a chivalrous thing and swaps his own excellent riding horse for “The Duchess’s” sorry mule (note that he has done this great favour for the young woman, not for the older one). For some strange reason she’s not all that grateful to him (and as an erstwhile young woman myself, I’d worry he might want to be repaid in kind, later. Don’t forget, they’re liquored up and have no food.
They’re on their way to a place called Sandy Bar. It’s a full day away, of harsh riding up a steep mountain range. (This really does feel like a sequence straight out of Red Dead Redemption.)
But at noon the young sex worker decides she can’t go any further. She’s not stupid — she’s picked a really picturesque place to stop:
The spot was singularly wild and impressive. A wooded amphitheatre, surrounded on three sides by precipitous cliffs of naked granite, sloped gently toward the crest of another precipice that overlooked the valley. It was, undoubtedly, the most suitable spot for a camp, had camping been advisable.
The even more sensible Oakhurst points out that they can’t stop there because they have no provisions. And they’re still half a day away from Sandy Bar. The other outcasts have succumbed variously to the liquor and only Oakhurst remains fully sentient as he does not drink. It ‘interfered with his profession which required coolness’. This tells us that he probably has so much success at gambling not through any special trickery, but only because he’s the most sober person at the table. In this era, resisting drink is its own superpower.
Oakhurst is freshening himself up at a nearby stream or something when an acquaintance of his just happens to ride by at that very moment — a young man, called Tom Simson, who has been on the receiving end of Oakhurst’s fatherly kindness. Simson is known as “The Innocent” of Sandy Bar. He’s on his way to Poker Flat to seek his fortune, against Oakhurst’s earlier advice — Simson is terrible at gambling and shouldn’t try it again. He’s with his fiance, Piney Woods. They’re having to elope since Piney’s father doesn’t approve of the match. Piney is a ‘stout, comely damsel of fifteen’, who shyly comes out from behind a tree.
Oakhurst gives the old drunkard a kick (I guess to stop him telling Simson what they’re all doing there) and then tries to tell Simson he shouldn’t delay. But Simson is very friendly and points out this is bad place to camp. As it happens, Simson has an extra mule of provisions and knows where there’s a ‘crude attempt’ at a log-house near the trail, where Piney can stay with “Mrs Oakhurst”. (He’s assuming the Duchess is Oakhurst’s wife.)
Now the story pans out to offer the reader a wide angle shot of the party, from Uncle Billy’s point of view as he removes himself to the trees in order to stop himself laughing. From here he sees the expanded party has started a fire and that the weather has changed. ‘The air had grown strangely chill and the sky overcast’. This change in weather juxtaposes against the fact that the arrival of Simson and his young fiancée have cheered the others right up.
Notice how Uncle Billy has been separated from the group. Harte did this by a switch in point of view, like the opponent viewing his prey from a distance, through the trees. This is a very cinematic short story.
Harte continues to create a creepy atmosphere for us:
As the shadows crept slowly up the mountain, a slight breeze rocked the tops of the pine-trees, and moaned through their long and gloomy aisles. The ruined cabin, patched and covered with pine-boughs, was set apart for the ladies.
The women sleep in the hut. The men stoke the fire, lie down outside the door and soon fall asleep. Oakhurst is a light sleeper, and wakes up cold. It’s started to snow. He has to wake the other men before they freeze to death, but he finds Uncle Billy has gone. All the mules have gone, too. The tracks are disappearing in the snow. Level-headed Oakhurst knows there’s no point waking the others up at this hour, so he goes back to sleep, endures the rest of the cold night and tells them what happened in the morning.
Fortunately the provisions were in the log cabin with the women, so the thieving old drunkard hasn’t managed to get away with those. They calculate they can last in this camp for 10 days if they’re very careful.
‘For some occult reason’ (which feels a bit like a hack on the part of the writer), Oakhurst can’t bring himself to tell Simson that Uncle Billy deliberately stole the horses. He cracks on it was a drunken accident, wandering off like that, and accidentally setting free the mules. Perhaps, I deduce, if he explains Uncle Billy’s a thief, Simson will work out that the party have all been ousted for various crimes. “It’s no good frightening them now,” he tells the ousted sex workers.
Simson is happy to share his supplies with the rest of the party.
Now Bret Harte decides to remove Oakhurst from the happy party, dancing and singing around a fire, all against the backdrop of a blizzard. Oakhurst has gone off in search of the path, but doesn’t find it. He witnesses this ‘altar’ from a distance. Even if the reader hasn’t noticed that Harte has used this exact trick before, with the drunkard thief, we probably sense that Oakhurst is now set in opposition to the rest of the party. There’s also foreshadowing, with authorial intrusion reminding us that this is a story of mythic proportions:
Whether Mr. Oakhurst had cachéd his cards with the whiskey as something debarred the free access of the community, I cannot say.
The prophetic nature of ‘Mother Shipton’ also provides foreshadowing of doom:
Through the marvellously clear air the smoke of the pastoral village of Poker Flat rose miles away. Mother Shipton saw it, and from a remote pinnacle of her rocky fastness, hurled in that direction a final malediction.
They’re running out of supplies and snow keeps falling. Although Mother Shipton deals with it by yelling expletives into the void, the others amuse themselves with music, then they start to tell stories. Piney proposes this, not realising that Oakhurst and the women are keeping big secrets and probably don’t want to be telling any stories, lest they reveal their true identities.
So The Innocent starts recounting The Iliad in his own words. He read a translation some months ago. This goes on for another week. A mythic amount of snow has fallen around them. They have little food. They’re now having trouble keeping the fire going because they’re running low on firewood.
Mother Shipton decides to die. She’s been starving herself, saving her supplies. She calls Oakhurst to her bedside before she dies and tells him to give her supplies to ‘the child’ (Piney).
Oakhurst suggests he and The Innocent set off out of there, despite the conditions. Oakhurst leaves extra wood for the next few days of fire and the women realise he’s not coming back, despite promising to accompany The Innocent only as far as the canyon.
The women die after the roof of their hut caves in under snow. The narrator tells us that, when dead, it’s impossible to tell the difference between the pure girl and the dirty one. The image of dead women as ‘art’ reminds me of a film I couldn’t stand, but which met with much critical acclaim — Nocturnal Animals — which well and truly glorifies the murder of women. A murdered mother and daughter are posed in an ‘innocent’ but also in a sexualised way. The sexual past of a woman who is a mother juxtaposes against the implied virgin state of the daughter in a a scene very reminiscent of this one, albeit written with the morality of a full century earlier.
Then we have the fact that suicide was considered a grave sin. When it is revealed that Oakhurst has killed himself rather than fulfil his promise of returning to the young women, the narrator tells us that the strongest man has turned out to be the weakest. Even Mother Shipton did something good before she died by sacrificing her food for the virtuous younger woman. But Oakhurst has done nothing (did he keep those rations for himself?) and now he has ‘committed’ suicide, akin to committing murder in those days.
The Judeo-Christian idea that suicide is a sin does not come from the Bible, in fact, but rather from a macho culture in which it is mistakenly seen as ‘the coward’s way out’. By giving us this ending, Harte has built up a man who conforms to every masculine ideal of the time — the ultimate Western hero — then attempts to subvert that message by revealing that actually he is a coward. Harte is very explicit about this in his narration:
…beneath the snow lay he who was at once the strongest and yet the weakest of the outcasts of Poker Flat.
THE MESSAGE THAT SUICIDE IS A FORM OF WEAKNESS
But this message doesn’t work for a contemporary audience, or even for a non Judeo-Christian audience. In Japan, for instance, suicide is traditionally seen as the most noble way out of an impossible circumstance, and supremely courageous.
We now have a much better understanding of the neurobiology of suicide, an understanding which has continued to evolve through the 20th century. We’re still not fully there:
Suicide was traditionally regarded very much as a kind of consequence of social factors. Émile Durkheim in France, in fact many others before him, had noticed the relationship of suicide to social changes involving people having been alienated from society and isolated and so on. But relatively recently it became more apparent that suicide was in fact related to major psychiatric disorders. This was done through psychological autopsies: that is, interviewing the families of people who had been unfortunate enough to die by suicide. It turned out that over 90 per cent of all suicides had a psychiatric disorder.
There was a spate of youth suicide that began in the United States in the 1980s and a little later began to appear in other countries, including Australia, where it became the leading cause of death amongst young people. And, at first, one had the impression that these were well adjusted, popular young individuals who had everything to look forward to in life and their suicide was a complete mystery. One had a sense that this was a shock to everybody. But in fact a careful interview by a professional revealed that in fact over 90 per cent of these young people had a psychiatric illness that antedated the suicide. It was almost certainly the principle cause of their suicide, and most of them are not treated at the time when they’re committing suicide.
Most people who have these mood disorders never attempt suicide, let alone commit suicide. Low serotonin in the wrong place is a factor.
…a compounding factor for struggling teenagers could well be that this prefrontal cortex, so key in impulse control. …we know that mood disorders are transmitted familially and that suicidal behaviour, its predisposition, is transmitted familially.
This is a classic case of a character whose strength is also his shortcoming:
That said, poker has prepared Oakhurst well for the present trial. Long sessions have meant he’s “often been a week without sleep,” thus preparing him to handle the test of physical endurance the trip has presented. Poker has also helped equip Oakhurst with a kind of mental fortitude to withstand the sudden misfortune that has befallen the travelers.
“Luck… is a mighty queer thing,” he tells Simson. “All you know about it for certain is that it’s bound to change. And it’s finding out when it’s going to change that makes you.”
Though his shortcoming is kept as a reveal, Oakhurst’s shortcoming is that his fatalistic attitude leaves him susceptible to suicide. The reveal forms a bit of a ‘reversal’ when it comes to understanding his psychology — the reason he seemed so calm and collected, even while cast out of town with other ruffians, is because this didn’t stand in the way of his wish to move on anyway, to a completely different town….
Because the Anagnorisis has been kept off the page, we’re given a didactic bit of narration in the final sentence, told that a man who appears strong is actually weak.
The entire party is dead, though they all died with varying degrees of culpability and innocence. The women — one a dirty whore, the other a pure and kind country virgin — are now ‘equal’ (in the eyes of the Lord) because they both tried their hardest to survive. But because Oakhurst ‘gave up’ prematurely, shooting himself with his gun rather than letting hypothermia take him more gradually, in death he has lost any respect.
The author never tells us what happened to The Innocent, which I first think is a narrative mistake. That said, there’s a possible alternative reading: Is this dead body really the body of John Oakhurst, or is it the body of The Innocent, shot by John Oakhurst, who’s made off with the rest of the rations to start a new life, unpursued by the law of Poker’s Flat?
Maybe the final sentence is sufficiently ambiguous to support this reading, as is Simson’s moniker of “The Innocent”.
“The Blue Hotel” is a short story by Stephen Crane, published serially in Collier’s Weekly (1898) and then in the collection The Monster and Other Stories (1899). The story was inspired by Crane’s travels to the American Southwest in 1895.
Both stories have been criticised — Crane’s for being didactic and Mansfield’s for feeling contrived.
“The Blue Hotel” is interesting from a storytelling point of view:
Should Crane have left off the final part? Would readers have been able to piece everything together had he left the ‘Three months later’ epilogue out?
What is Crane saying about the nature of fate? Another American short story great, Annie Proulx, is known for her fatalistic worldview. Crane seems the direct inverse — if the characters in this story had chosen to act just a little differently, in a kind of butterfly effect, the horrible events that pan out could have been averted. Perhaps. We all have our part to play in avoiding evil, and should act accordingly. Proulx offers no such life advice.
The fight scenes in “The Blue Hotel” read to me as excessively long. In the 1880s, before cinema, a blow-by-blow description of fights might have thrilled its audience. But now, reading detailed accounts of a fight feels to me, at least, like skimming over technical stage notes.
Crane chose not to name most of these characters — rather, he deliberately keeps them as archetypes. Even when a character is named e.g. “Johnnie”, he has the generic name of a white American boy. When writers choose not to name their characters, it’s sometimes because they don’t think a certain group is important enough to warrant naming. There are important political implications here. But sometimes it’s not because the writer is oblivious to the politics of no-name characters. As Donika DeShawn Ross explains:
“The Blue Hotel” provides us with an imperfect but useful schema for how not to read white manhood. The Swede repeatedly misreads the men at Scully’s hotel because he cannot see past his own assumptions about the West and the type of men who inhabit its forlorn spaces. He is fluent in myth rather than lived experience, and his expectations persist despite mounds of contradictory evidence.
Crane initially encourages readers to enact the same kind of misreading by refusing to name his characters beyond ethnicity, work, and region, which keeps the tone of the story at the register of a joke until the moment the Swede is murdered.
This Western story was written in the late 1800s, in the heyday of the Western plot. People of this era would have been very familiar with the symbolism. Westerns were all about world building. This all changed after the second world war, and almost every Western made since then has technically been ‘anti-Western‘, meaning it’s no longer about the glory of world building, but highlights the miseries of life as a pioneer, and of displaced peoples. What is this story, though? “The Blue Hotel” is Western genre only about as much as Hud is a Western — not at all. These are domestic stories which happen to include a cowboy. The action takes place mostly indoors. The stove, mentioned again and again, reminds us that these guys are sitting indoors in a cosy environment, safe from the threatening elements outdoors. That’s not very cowboy at all, really. “The Blue Hotel” is therefore its own kind of anti-Western, but not because it highlights the miseries of cowboy life — because it nevertheless punishes (with death) a character who subscribes uncritically to the myth of the dangerous West.
“The Blue Hotel” is the story of a character who has been negatively, melodramatically influenced by the media he reads — dime novel Westerns, to the point where he can’t see the reality of the situation. This gives “The Blue Hotel” a metafictive quality.
No Country For Old Men is a 2007 Coen Brothers film which hews pretty closely to Cormac McCarthy’s 2005 novel of the same name. This is a transcendent example of a crime story, with a pessimistic view on the greed of humans, and on the nihilistic worldview police officers can fall into after a lifetime of crime fighting. In conservative crime stories the baddies get their comeuppance. In reality, bad people don’t always get what’s coming to them.
Business Insider ranked the Coen Brothers’ movies from 1 to 17 and No Country For Old Men comes in at number three. (Did you know the Coens had written quite this many movies? I didn’t.)
HUMOUR AND IRONY
It is said in that same article that No Country For Old Men is without irony:
Many say “No Country for Old Men” is objectively the best film the Coen brothers ever made. They have a point. “No Country” earned them their first Oscars for best director and best picture. The awards were well-deserved. At first, this doesn’t feel like any Coen brothers film ever made. It is dead serious and unironic. The lively soundtrack has been replaced with dead silence, creating an absolutely brilliant sense of dread.
But is that really true? I go by the idea that all stories are inherently ironic. To use Matt Bird’s definition of irony, in every story there’s a gap between story outcome and audience expectation. It’s certainly true that this Coen Brothers movie is significantly different in tone. But there is indeed irony:
There is dramatic irony running throughout the entire plot. The audience knows exactly what Chigurh is up to because we’re there with him on his serial killing rampage before Llewellyn even discovers the box of cash. So the audience is in constant audience superior position. This is necessary in the creation of suspense, because we know just what’s at stake and we must watch Llewellyn come to that same, slow realisation for himself.
Even at a line level, I can see exactly how the novel No Country For Old Men would have appealed to the dark humour of the Coen Brothers. When Llewellyn arrives home with a satchel full of cash his wife asks him what’s inside. Llewellyn tells her it’s full of cash. “Yeah, that’ll be the day,” she scoffs, obviously used to her husband’s ironic sense of humour. Again we have dramatic irony — this is funny to the audience because we know that this time Llewellyn is telling the truth. Though we haven’t seen Lewellyn’s entire backstory we just know he’s got a history of ironic comebacks. We know this from Carla Jean’s response. “That’s just like Llewellyn,” we think to ourselves, along with his wife.
The name Chigurh was coined by McCarthy because he didn’t want Anton to be of any nationality in particular. But it’s also ironically funny, sounding very much like Sugar.
Both Lewellyn and Chigurh wear white socks — ironically symbolic, since white is heavily associated with purity and innocence. Carson Wells wears a white hat. In this film Carson Wells is indeed set up as the good guy from your unironic Western film, yet take away all the other evil and Carson Wells himself is a pretty terrible individual. The point of this irony? Evil is all relative. A bad person can be the good person depending on the story. Another crime show, this time British, gives us the full spectrum of evil men: Happy Valley.
Nor is this story without humour. It is the dark humour which makes this film watchable.
A lot of the humour derives from the juxtaposition between out-and-out evil walking around on a murdering spree in an environment where the ‘regular’ counterparts of friendly, guileless, open, helpful and ultimately confused when confronted with imminent death. This should not really be funny, but because it happens again and again, with Anton meeting basically the same characters in different bodies, it becomes almost ridiculous, and therefore, is. The predictability makes it so. A lot of gags in No Country For Old Menrely on the audience already knowing what’s going to happen. Any sort of comedic character relies on that, actually. We know Catherine Tate’s Nan character is going to turn sour as soon as a visitor leaves the room. We know that at some point in every episode of Kath and Kim, Kath will say, “Look at me, look at me Kimmy,” and we know that Magda Szubanski’s character Lynne is going to say, “I said pet, I said love…” and take a long draw on her cigarette.
So when Anton Chigurh grimly carries out his plans, sighing at the same responses, “You don’t have to do this,” or “I don’t understand”, I guess we can either laugh or cry. And I don’t believe the point is to make the audience cry over the murders of Anton’s victims. The point is for us to be further and further intrigued and baffled by his mindset.
This juxtaposition between Everyday People and Anton Chigurh hangs on expression of detail.
James Wood writes of the influence of Flaubert on modern crime writing (as well as on war reportage):
Flaubert manages to suggest that…details are somehow at once important and unimportant: important because they have been noticed by him and put down on paper, and unimportant because they are all jumbled together, seen as if out of the corner of the eye; they seem to come at us “like life”. From this flows a great deal of modern storytelling, such as war reportage. The crime writer and war reporter merely increase the extremity of this contrast between important and unimportant detail, converting it into a tension between the awful and the regular: a soldier dies while nearby a little boy goes to school. […] All detail is somewhat numbing, and strikes the traumatised voyeur in the same way.
How Fiction Works
When we see Anton take off both socks and fling them into the bathroom, this focus on detail sits in opposition to the out-and-out recklessness of the shooting spree — here’s a man who has killed three people because he had the wrong room. (Or had the right room and simply didn’t care.) Juxtaposition is one of the eleven elements of comedy, as described by the founder of The Onion.
GENRE BLEND OF NO COUNTRY FOR OLD MEN
This is a crime story utilising thriller elements, combined with drama to provide subtle characterisation. The addition of ‘drama’ elevates the story and allows it to resonate with the audience while saying something deeper about human nature.
What makes this a ‘crime’ drama and not a ‘detective’ story? After all, the sheriff is doing detective work. Compared to detective stories, crime stories place less emphasis on detecting the criminal and more on the cat-and-mouse beats of catching them. In a crime story there is seldom any “mystery” as to who the criminal is. Typically the story starts with a brilliant or daring crime, and then a cat-and-mouse game of wits and will ensues, with the tension created by the increasing intensity of the big struggle between the opponents. The underlying question is: Will the cops prevail before the opponent stages their next crime?
No Country For Old Men is also an anti-western. Set on the frontier of USA and Mexico, this story is about the life and death big struggle that happens when you’re in the wilderness, with no one to rely upon but your own wits. It’s an anti-western because it does not glamorise the life and death big struggle, ending in a win. The point of an anti-western is to highlight the futility of expansion, not to glorify it. Llewellyn has struck his own jackpot in the form of two million dollars, in the same way that early white settlers thought they’d struck jackpot by finding a nice piece of land on the frontier, only to die of illness or injury, be challenged by Native Americans who were there first, or big struggled by the train company who wanted to take their land and use it for railroad.
No Country For Old Men is also an example of a neo-Western. This is a like a traditional western but set in the modern era. The setting isn’t necessarily The West, but somewhere reminiscent of that. It might even be set in space — typically it’s somewhere ‘godforsaken’, where you’re on your own.
SETTING OF NO COUNTRY FOR OLD MEN
When depicted in a single image, the film colours of No Country for Old Men don’t surprise me — a lot of yellowy ochre. I’m pretty sure the defective Kodak film issued in the 1970s has something to do with our link between ‘yellowed’ and ‘the 1970s’. (I’m a 1970s baby myself — all of my baby photos are yellowed.)
The title clues is into the fact that this is a story about masculinity. No Country For Old Men. Significantly, the main story is set in the year 1980, when feminism had not touched the trailer park subcultures of the USA/Mexico border in the Texas desert. This idea of hunter-and-protector backfires, but Llewellyn has soaked in it his whole life.
Place In History
In 1980 the Vietnam War was not long over. This wartime experience most definitely would have played a part in shaping Llewellyn’s sense of right and wrong, and because he came back with all his limbs intact, it would have also given him a false sense of his own infallibility.
In 1980 the USA was really starting to have trouble with drugs. Take for example the Miami drug cartelwhich lead to a series of massive shoot outs, one major incident the year before this story was set, in 1979. Incidents such as the fictionalised drug war in this story ultimately lead to the drug panic of the late 1980s, and mass incarceration for anyone involved in the most peripheral way with illegal drugs.
The storyteller is looking back from the mid 2000s (the book was published in 2005), and the reader knows where this fictional drug war fits within the wider drug war. The shoot out on the plains is itself a given — it is not the shootout itself that is story-worthy in this case. It is the cat-and-mouse chase.
Interestingly, the term ‘serial killer’ (not used in this film) was only coined in the 1970s, by a FBI criminal profiler called Robert Ressler. Until the 1970s, people didn’t realise serial killers existed. And if they did, they understood nothing of their psyche, because the research had not been done. Imagine that. Sheriff Ed is of that generation, let’s not forget. Even as a police officer and detective, this character would not have encountered serial killing as a concept until he encountered the character of Anton Chigurh.
1980 is a great year to set a story like this because it’s before GPS and mobile phones. Technology is limited to the transponder — a piece of equipment a layperson such as Llewellyn would not have thought to look for. Lack of police technology is also what allows Anton to continue on a murder spree without being hunted down quickly.
Desert vs Trailer
The vastness of the Texas desert makes for a strong opposition against Llewellyn’s cramped trailer home. Anton is part of the desert — a personification of abject wilderness — whereas Llewellyn is your stereotypical ‘trailer park white trash’, so he is symbolically linked to that. He has no freedom at all.
Symbolically, deserts are associated with death. (So are icy environments, which the Coen Brothers utilised to full effect in Fargo.)
Note that Anton is injured in an opulent leafy suburb. We see an opposition between rich and poor when Carson visits the leader of the drug cartel in that high rise office block (the one ‘missing’ a floor). We see it again with those middle-class boys on their BMXs, responding as only well-off boys can without personal sacrifice, “Hell Mister, I’ll give you my shirt!” Ironically, Anton is almost killed in a kind of paradise. Why should such an evil character die in paradise? Is that where he’ll end up? Who’s to say he wouldn’t? Maybe the rest of us have it all wrong about morality.
STORY STRUCTURE OF NO COUNTRY FOR OLD MEN
Who should we consider ‘the main character’ of No Country For Old Men?
Sheriff Ed is a storyteller narrator and the main character in the metadiegetic levelof this story. Because Sheriff Ed was a part of the story himself, he is a homodiegetic narrator. But because he’s looking back on the story after some decades of reflection, he is also an extradiegetic narrator — no longer a part of the level zero story. Sheriff Ed is the main character of this level. It is the Sheriff storyteller who has the anagnorisis. Part of this revelation comes from the events themselves at the time, further revelations come in the decades following, and yet more come in the telling of it, to us.
That said, the ‘anagnorisis’ of Sheriff Ed is completely ironic. Why? Because he has no meaningful anagnorisis at all. The Sheriff has reached retirement and still cannot make head nor tail of how some people do the terrible things they do. When he tells us (his partner) at the breakfast table that he’s already lived twenty years longer than his own father ever did, we know that he’s as wise as he’s ever going to get, and the case of Anton Chigurh will never make any sense. The ‘revelation’ therefore, is that there will never be any revelation. Sometimes we can’t put a motivation behind evil.
The ‘level zero‘ story is, of course, the crime story in which Anton kills a lot of people in Sheriff Ed’s jurisdiction. In this level of story, who is ‘the main character’? We see about equal parts of Anton and Llewellyn. But because we do not identify with Chigurh at all — Chigurh is a wholly unsympathetic opponent — Llewellyn is more of a viewpoint character. But he’s not that either, because as I mentioned above, the audience constantly knows more about what’s going on than Llewellyn himself does. Instead, Llewellyn is the character we are encouraged to empathise with, and this is what makes him the star of the level zero story.
Llewellyn is a heavily flawed character. We first see him shooting a deer. A lot of non-hunters will already be against him for that. Hunters on the other hand will see him look chagrined that he’s injured the deer but not killed it, and now he’s obliged to hunt it down and put it out of its misery. But then we see how he reacts to a human being in the same state as the deer — a Mexican about to die only asks for water. Driven by greed, Llewellyn is unmoved by his pleas. Like Chigurh, Llewellyn has his own moralistic world view. Since these guys were drug runners, they had what was coming to them. (The police later articulate the same view “Did of natural causes” as in “Natural to the line of work they was in”.) This asks the audience to draw our own moral line. To what extent are we sympathising with the victims when they were drug runners? What would we do in the same position? Ah, but what if we were dirt poor, like Llewellyn? Would we be more money motivated then? (We soon see him go back to his home. This is not a rich guy.)
However, there is soon a Save The Cat moment for Llewellyn. This was Blake Snyder’s term to describe a characterisation trick writers employ to engender empathy for a hero. Show them ‘saving a cat’. Whatever other evil they get up to, that’ll put the audience on side. “Ah, this character isn’t all bad,” we will say. And we are amazingly forgiving. Llewellyn’s Save The Cat moment is failing to sleep out of guilt for abandoning the dying Mexican who asked for agua. He gets up in the small hours and we see him filling a big bottle from the tap. We are further back on Llewellyn’s side when his act of kindness ironically ends up almost costing him his life.
Llewellyn’s psychological shortcoming is that he can’t back down. We see that for ourselves, but this trait is underscored via dialogue between Norma Jean and Sherrif Ed. Norma Jean knows people well, is highly attune to her husband and is able to tell us that her husband thinks he’s some big shot and that he’ll never ask for help even if his life depended on it. Sure enough, this is what costs him his life, as well as many others’ lives along the way.
This particular psychological shortcoming has a definite Christian vibe to it. Christians are encouraged to submit to the healing powers of the Lord, to have faith and be constantly mindful of the fact that we are only human. We must consistently repent, try our best, fail then ask for forgiveness and do better. This is what gives this story a Christian feel, despite being atheistic and nihilistic in its message.
The nice thing about heavily flawed main characters: There are a few pitfalls writers aren’t going to fall into by accident. Here’s one of them, described by Dean Koontz:
If you choose to use a protagonist who is an admirable crook, do not fall into the moralistic trap of using the cliché ending in which, after all his trials and tribulations, the lead loses the stolen loot either through a quirk of fate, the machinations of an even more crooked partner, or the cunning of the police. If you have established your crook as a sympathetic character and have gotten your reader to root for him throughout the bank robbery (or whatever), your audience will only be frustrated when he loses everything simply because you feel that you must prove “crime doesn’t pay’.
Dean Koontz, from Writing Popular Fiction
When Llewellyn loses the loot, he kind of deserved it. We felt that from the start. Or perhaps we don’t feel the loss of the loot is significant because Llewellyn loses so much more than that.
The surface level desire is “I want two million dollars.” In this regard, the plot is similar to Hitchcock’s Psycho, because we never do find out for sure who ended up with this money. It is one of the most frequently-asked questions about this film on IMDb. The answer is that Chigurh probably ended up with it, not because we’re shown, but because we’ve been given enough about his character to know that’s what would have happened. (This in itself is a masterful case study in trusting the audience to ‘get’ a character — writers don’t have to keep beating us over the head with characterisation — audiences make assumptions pretty quickly when it comes to archetypes. A short story which achieves the same is “Je ne parle pas francais” by Katherine Mansfield.) As in the money stolen by Marion Crane in Psycho, the two million dollars therefore functions as what Hitchcock referred to as a McGuffin. This is the thing that starts the action, but by the end of the story we don’t care that much about what happened to the money — we care about who gets out alive.
What about Llewellyn’s deep down desire? The money functions only as a surface level desire. When Llewellyn tells Norma Jean that she is no longer employed by Walmart, that she is now a lady of leisure, this is a clue into his deeper psyche — he needs to be seen as the hunter and provider. It makes complete sense that we saw him first as a hunter. His sense of masculinity is so extreme that it is toxic. He needs to prove himself the big man, to himself, to his wife, and probably even to his mother-in-law, who has always said he is no good.
He also wants freedom. As we all do — this is a very easy desire for an audience to identify with. Here’s a guy who slaves away as a welder — a very versatile welder, by his description to Carson Wells — yet he lives with his wife in a trailer park. Between them they don’t seem to have enough money to bring kids into the world. (Not that this is mentioned.) I can imagine a man in that position feels he is owed this money. He fought for America, after all. Yet this is what he has when he gets back.
Anton Chigurh is the Big Bad Monster of the story. We see quite a lot of him, but only in the same way Twister gives us shots of the tornado. Anton is a fascinating character, because humans have the need to watch sociopathic behaviours carefully. As an opponent he is interesting because he has his own morality. Carson Wells makes sure to remind the audience of that (talking to Llewellyn in the hospital bed) in case we missed it. Anton is an extreme version of a nihilistic fatalist. He justifies his actions, however heinous, with the belief that they had it coming to them, and that he, too, is part of an evil machination and can’t get out of it, because there’s no such thing as free will. Anton is a complete loner, so it’s very difficult to get such a character to have an ‘attack by ally’ moment in the way writers can do for their heroes.
But McCarthy masterfully wrote one in anyhow. Right before she’s killed, Carla Jean tells him that his decisions have nothing to do with a coin — that his decision to kill is completely up to him. Carla Jean can hardly be called an ‘ally’, but for that scene she is functioning as a friend/mentor, calling him on his bullshit. Of all the characters in this story, Norma Jean is the most brave. She pays the ultimate sacrifice for challenging Anton’s worldview. (We know she does because Anton checks his shoes — for blood — on the verandah outside. Anton has already been shown twice avoiding blood on his feet, first by taking off his white socks and flinging them into the bathroom of the Mexicans at the motel, and next by lifting his feet as the blood of Carson Wells pools below him.)
Anton Chigurh is set up as both similar and completely different to Llewellyn. The similarity is only superficial, as pointed out to Llewellyn by Sheriff Ed Tom Bell. Llewellyn thinks he’s Anton’s match. At first the audience probably wonders if Llewellyn will win out in the end. We’ve watched many, many stories in which the smaller guy —the underdog— ends up winning against evil. When Llewellyn walks into the hunting and camping store and tells the shopkeeper that white socks are the only kind he wears, the audience is shown that Chigurh, too, only wears white socks.
What motivates Anton? It’s exactly the same thing that motivates Llewellyn.
Really, how many different ways are there to kill someone? And how many different ways are there to kill someone? And how many different motives can there be? In the end it all comes down to money and sex. At most a writer can create an original variation on a tried-and-true theme.
But it’s not even money and sex — it’s what these two things symbolise — power. Violent people have one thing in common — they need to be in control.
Until he finds himself pursued by Anton Chigurh and co., Llewellyn’s plans are pretty simple. He and his wife are going to live off the proceeds forever, quitting their unpleasant jobs and probably buying a nice place of their own somewhere. But when the plot turns into a cat-and-mouse chase Llewellyn has to constantly modify his plans in order to evade death. Unfortunately, he’s not as smart as Anton and doesn’t have all the information. It takes too long to look for the transponder, and when he’s told about it he’s angry in response, saying yes yes, he knows all about that.
As mentioned above, we’re shown so many big struggles that when it comes to the ultimate big struggle — the one where Llewellyn gets killed — we don’t get a scene, we get narrative summary. This is the opposite of what we’ve been led to expect from storytelling. Most stories ask us to revel in the big showdown after the big struggles get more and more intense. But we don’t even get to see Llewellyn die.
This is asking the audience to believe in fate. The story is training us to expect the worst, then it gives it to us, literally teaching us to become the pessimist that Sheriff Ed has himself become. In this way, even the big struggle scene is ironic — at a narrative level. We expect a big big struggle scene but don’t get one, defying story expectations.
This is why I reject the idea that this story is not ironic. It is ironic at every level, from dialogue down to plot structure.
The crime genre’s ur-story is explanation. Real life is arbitrary; bad things happen for no reason. Not so in the crime novel. There, justice may not be found but an answer is. Evil may not be controllable but there’s the solace of understanding.
Crime and Thriller Writing: A Writers’ and Artists’ Companion by Michelle Spring, Laurie R. King, which describes most crime stories, but not this one.
For another example of a big big struggle scene that takes place off screen, see Sicario, an action, crime, drama blend from 2015, which takes quite a bit from No Country For Old Men.
Sheriff Ed doesn’t understand these people and these events, and that’s the point.
Llewellyn never has any revelation either. He’s cavalier right to the end, showing interest in a woman beside the pool even though his life hangs in the balance.
Carla Jean is around a little longer, loses both her husband and her mother (to cancer) and everything she ever had, including her job, so at the end she is able to philosophise a little. She tries to help Anton Chigurh have a anagnorisis about self-determination but ultimately fails.
Everyone in the level zero story is dead (probably even Chigurh himself, by the mid 2000s), leaving Sheriff Ed to try and enjoy his retirement, putting aside the misanthropy he has tried to run from in his own cat-and-mouse, purely psychological, failed escape from nihilism.
When iconic Australian film critics Margaret and David reviewed the 2010 film True Grit they did enjoy it, but couldn’t see the point of a remake. The 1969 original stood the test of time, so they said. That’s what made me watch the original. Turns out the 1969 film is benign enough to watch with my cowboy-loving primary school aged daughter, who loves it to bits.
The two versions are very similar in plot. Any difference is mainly in tone.
The Coen Brothers also modernised Charles Portis’ novel by turning it into a mumblecore, which I understand better with subtitles, but the 1969 actors were stage trained, and speak with clear enunciation. Again, better for kids.
The novel is a first-person narrative recounted by a one-armed old maid. The Coen Brothers adaptation is more faithful to this dark detail, depicting Mattie at the end with no arm. The 1969 film ends with Mattie’s arm in a sling. For all we know, she’s going to fully recover, limbs intact.
What can storytellers learn from True Grit?
Genre Blend of True Grit
Listed on IMDb as Adventure, Drama, Western.
The Western is itself a blend of genres, using the American West of the 1800s as a setting.
The Coen Brothers remake is not a western at all. It is simply set in the West. At best, True Grit is an anti-western. In 1969, True Grit was widely thought to be a parody of a western. It depends on your definition. Are you talking about the setting, the plot or the themes? Setting-wise, it’s a western. Thematically, it’s not a western but a crime story.
If there are 7 basic plots of all Western stories, True Grit can be considered a Revenge Western. Revenge is a form of wish fulfilment. We see it in stories for all audiences, including in stories for children, in which they tend to be super popular. Matilda by Roald Dahl is the ultimate revenge fantasy.
Like almost all stories from the Revenge Western subgenre, the plot involves an elaborate chase and pursuit by a wronged individual. In other words, this is the Western equivalent of a cat-and-mouse story. Some of these Revenge Westerns also include elements from a classic mystery story, though not True Grit. Mattie is so capable that she solves any technical difficulties off-screen. She knows exactly what she wants and exactly who she must see in order to get it.
Revenge stories grip us because of their mythic excess. Another example of a Revenge Western is The Searchers (A John Wayne film from 1956) in which An American Civil War veteran embarks on a journey to rescue his niece from the Comanches. Ethan and Martin wander over the Southwestern landscape. As we watch them, the audience becomes aware of the depth of the vengeful main character’s alienation from the ‘sivilisation’ once equated with anything feminine. Consider this a kind of gender inverse of Thelma & Louise, in which two women are similarly alienated, then escape from all things masculine.
Linda Williams has said that when a female character (or female duo) lights out to seek vengeance, the audience expects her motivations to be stronger than it might be if she were a man. There’s something alienating about a woman with a gun and a chip on her shoulder. This may have changed in recent decades (for better or for worse) but male viewers were initially alienated by Thelma & Louise while women found it empowering (as a cohort). When writers create stories about women seeking vengeance, they tend to make them true underdogs, whereas we accept men who set out to avenge a villain like a superhero, asking “Well, who needs saving today?”
This can be easily explained, and is beautifully explained by Kate Manne in The Logic of Misogyny. According to Manne’s definition of misogyny (the ‘police force’ which works below the fabric of society to uphold the patriarchal status quo):
women are obligated to give to him, not to ask, and expected to feel indebted and grateful, rather than entitled. This is especially the case with respect to characteristically moral goods: attention, care, sympathy, respect, admiration and nurturing.
Down Girl by Kate Manne, “Eating Her Words”
Since women are expected to feel indebted rather than entitled, revenge is coded unfeminine, and writers (as well as women themselves) must work harder to win approval for stepping outside the norms.
How did the writers achieve sympathy when it comes to Mattie Ross? They basically have her step in as a proxy man. She’s acting on behalf of her dead father. The fact that she’s so young — a girl, really — is a bit ‘man bites dog‘. “Wow, a girl, and so young, out there on the prairie,” we think. I’m reminded of those films from the 1980s with highly precocious talking toddlers—aiming to be interesting as an exhibition in its own right.
WESTERNS AND WAR STORIES
Westerns have a similar structure to a subcategory of war story. As in a war story, the first half deals not with the chase itself but with the preparation for it. The social unit is central to war films, and the social unit is central to True Grit, too, with this odd combo of characters functioning as found family. It takes time to establish these people as a coherent fighting force, which is why so many time is dedicated to it before we see them on the road. When I watched this film again after a few years I had forgotten how much time was dedicated to the preparation.
The Difference Between War Films and Westerns
Westerns are set in frontiers and war films are set at the front. Both are places where colliding forces clash against one another. At the front in war films, large numbers of people follow rigid rules that come from military organisations. At the frontier of the western, there are usually few people, and because they are far away from any organisation’s power, the rules are weak or nonexistent. The emphasis in war films is thus on courage and tests of strength, while in westerns it is on morality and tests of will.
For writing purposes — if you’re in the business of studying plot — True Grit is a crime drama utilising mythic structure, set in the old west.
A drunken, hard-nosed U.S. Marshal and a Texas Ranger help a stubborn teenager track down her father’s murderer in Indian territory.
A premise is a combination of CHARACTER and PLOT.
A drunken, hard-nosed U.S. Marshal and a Texas Ranger help a stubborn teenager [SOME SENSE OF THE MAIN CHARACTERS] track down [SOME SENSE OF AN OUTCOME] her father’s murderer [EVENT THAT STARTS THE ACTION] in Indian territory.
The promise in the logline: There will be a chase. The murderer will be confronted face-to-face (we know this because it’s a ‘western’). We have to find out who wins the struggle by watching the film.
Also in the logline: the shortcomings that are ruining the characters’ lives. Rooster Cogburn is drunken and hard-nosed. Mattie Ross is stubborn. The Texas Ranger is not otherwise described. He is a bit-character after all, and sacrificed as sidekick to the main characters.
We’re also given the setting ‘in Indian territory’.
SETTING OF TRUE GRIT
True Grit is set across Arkansas and Oregon in the Old West, or rather the popular imagining of how Arkansas was back in 1878 (which by the way, is the same decade Lonesome Dove is set). Mattie’s father is killed in Fort Smith on the Oklahoma border. The murderer has fled into ‘the federal territories’ to escape the law. The book is set in the middle of winter, which makes the environment super harsh. However, the 1969 movie was filmed in autumn, with beautifully coloured trees. According to An analysis of True Grit from the True Grit Roundtable Podcast these forests don’t exist in that part of America. There may have been practical reasons why the film crew couldn’t/wouldn’t film in a wintry rockies, perhaps to do with John Wayne’s advanced age. In any case, the autumn vistas in the film make the setting a lot more accommodating than they would have actually been.
Perhaps more apparent in the novel, Mattie the old maid extradiegetic narrator is Calvinist — representative of the people who settled in the Ozark hills in the 19th century.
Unlike other major Protestant churches, Jean Calvin stressed equality before God in the sense that people had the right to choose their own priests and by extension their own rulers. This didn’t go down well with a lot of the kings and princes that embraced protestantism as a means to expand their own power base. There’s no pope. Calvinism was about austerity and predestination.
Contrast with Anglicans (the Church of England), who in the beginning were not that different from Catholics apart from their unwillingness to accept the Pope.
Lutherans are followers of Martin Luther. Lutherans are pretty similar to Calvinists, except Luther didn’t reject the Catholic notion of transubstantiation outright, simply modified it. Also, Luther said salvation is independent of merit and worthiness. Anyone can attain salvation through faith. Calvinsalvation is about predestination (a chosen few).
Baptists and Methodists came along later — these are more mystic forms of Christianity. Mormons are different again — more elaborate, strict and centralized.
Mattie’s Presbyterian upbringing (heavily influenced by her Calvinist environs) means she disapproves of Rooster’s drinking, not to mention his lack of religion. She probably has a pretty strong sense of religious entitlement. If she thinks she’s one of the chosen few who deserves salvation, maybe she’s interpreting this scripture to her advantage as she goes about avenging a murder by murdering in her own right.
Mattie was brought up to hate the Republicans of the Reconstruction. This was a new kind of Republican party which came about during the Civil War. They wanted to free slaves and give them the right to vote.
Old Mattie doesn’t know what to think of Al Smith, who is a Democrat like Mattie, but also a Catholic. In fact, he was the first Catholic nominee for President, and he mobilised a lot of Catholic votes, especially from women, who had only recently achieved emancipation (1920) when he ran in 1928. Prostestants feared a Catholic President. They thought the Pope would have too much say in how American ran its business. Protestants were also fans of prohibition at that time, and Catholics tended to be drinkers. Al Smith was anti-prohibition. He lost the presidential election to Calvin Coolidge because of his Catholicism. Or, that really didn’t help. (Calvin Coolidge was named after Jean Calvin, of course.)
Mattie ends up giving Smith the benefit of the doubt because he’s not a Republican at least. Like Al Smith, she uses weaponry to get her way.
Rooster is a veteran of William Quantill’s crew in the Civil War — at this point in America’s history everyone is still living in the shadow of this war. The Quantrill crew was particularly murderous. Rooster Cogburn is thought to be based on a composite of historical characters, but on one in particular.
None of this political stuff comes out in the film adaptation because there’s no wrapper story told in 1923.
In Wild West days it was far more common to see people walking about with missing eyes and limbs and teeth. In modern stories these losses are also symbolic. Rooster’s missing eye is basically the equivalent of the one-legged Long John Silver Mattie is fascinated by Rooster in the same way that Jim Hawkins is fascinated with Long John. Later, of course, Mattie loses one arm, joining her hero in physical imbalance.
POINT OF VIEW
True Grit was published 50 years ago. It first ran as a serial in the Saturday Evening Post, then Simon and Schuster published a hardback edition.
Because the novel is written in first person from the point of view of Mattie, all of the dialogue is theological and out of date. This is deliberate, of course. Charles Portis did not create Mattie herself to be a novelist. But a lot of the dialogue from the book was brought into the movie, and here it doesn’t sound as natural as it should have. Mattie as storyteller has been lost. So the screenwriters should have modified the dialogue of the villains to suit their character. This is something the Coen Brothers did fix really well. The dialogue is much more distinct from character to character.
In narratological terms, Mattie is a homodiegetic, extradiegetic narrator. She is part of the story she tells, but she is telling it as an old lady, which means she’s distanced from it.
The 1969 is attempts to break free from Mattie’s limited point of view but doesn’t quite go far enough. The 2010 adaptation achieves a more omniscient point of view.
She is severe and unforgiving, the antithesis of the archetypal freewheeling American youth as embodied by Huck Finn or Holden Caulfield. “I would not put a thief in my mouth to steal my brains,” she intones when Cogburn offers her a sip of whiskey as medicine.
The Coen brothers, who remade the film in 2010, likened the character to Alice in Wonderland. Donna Tartt compares her to Dorothy in The Wizard of Oz in an afterword she wrote for the 2011 paperback edition of the book. She has gone through the looking glass, having left the relatively civilized environs of Dardanelle for the Oklahoma Indian Territory.
And it’s true she has a relentlessness similar to Dorothy, but she doesn’t want to go until after she’s had her vengeance. Mattie is a civilizer, a law reader, an organizing principal — as much a symbol of imposed order as a piano in a homestead parlor. An unforgiving moralist, an Old Testament raver like John Brown, an imperial tamer of chaos who’s perpetually suspicious of others’ motives. She lights out for the wilderness not for the freedom that it promises, but to extend her Scots Presbyterian notions of justice. […]
Mattie is a cranky old maid, but we can love her for the creaky humanity that leaks through her Scotchgarded facade — her affection for her game pony, her pal Little Blackie, her affecting (and affected) rhetorical habits which include the seemingly random use of “quotation marks” to preserve the authenticity of the story she is telling us. Mattie’s dryly musical voice is a miracle of vernacular precision and authorial intent — she reveals only and exactly what is necessary.
A key to that voice might be found in Portis’ personal history. After a stint in the U.S. Marine Corps* during the Korean War, Portis enrolled in the University of Arkansas and worked for Fayetteville’s Northwest Arkansas Times. One of his duties was editing the correspondence columns written by little old Mattie-type ladies who lived in the hinterlands. He confessed he edited all the character out of their copy; perhaps he saved it up for Mattie.
Picking out ‘the main character’ is not always easy. True Grit is a prime example of a story with two main characters exhibiting the same character traits but in different outworkings. Mattie’s stubbornness is the same as Rooster’s hard-nosed-ness. But one is an old guy tip-toeing along the wrong side of the law, while the other is a young woman who could easily go the same way, but who has been wronged. For now she is on the right side of the law. It feels inevitable that these two characters find one another. They are two sides of the same coin, in the same way a criminal often has the exact same strengths as the detective in a typical crime drama.
By god, she reminds me of me!
The logline posits Mattie as the main character, ‘helped’ by the two men.
Mattie drives the action.
We see Mattie on screen from the first scene to the last. Mattie is our guide into unfamiliar territory. When Mattie watches the hanging in the town square, the audience sees through Mattie’s eyes. We’re as awed as she is.
But it is Rooster who changes the most, because Mattie is an example of The Female Maturity Formula, starting off as a sensible little mother, ending the same way. Rooster learns to care for another human being.
I’m guessing an audience finds Rooster and Mattie equally interesting.
I identify more with Mattie, myself. But she is almost a superhero archetype. Charles Portis is a writer who lists ‘grit’ as a necessary character attribute, but some of his characters acquire grit; others are born with it. Mattie is born with it. She is preternaturally mature, articulate and self-assured. She achieves the almost impossible, joining two world-wise men in an environment overtly hostile to women on a trek through dangerous territory. Mattie’s humanity only becomes apparent during the last third of the film when she gets into a life/death situation and needs to be rescued by the older men. Mattie is not in fact a superhero.
Mattie’s flaw is that she is single-minded, but this is also her strength. Shortcomings are at their most powerful when those same traits function as strengths.
Rooster is a fairly cliched alcoholic. Unlike other alcoholics crated by Charles Portis, Rooster is unable to do his job properly because of it. Here’s what Matt Bird has to say about alcoholism as character flaw:
Flaws need to have an upside, which is why some just don’t work very well. One of the most overused flaws is alcoholism, but it’s not as compelling as some writers think because ther’es very little upside. It’s hard to overcome, but only because it’s a chemical addiction. There’s never any good reason to be an alcoholic. We’ll never identify with a character’s desire to keep drinking destructively.
The Secrets Of Story, Matt Bird
The thing is, Portis isn’t using alcoholism as a flaw — Rooster has many others — but as a plot device. It’s because Rooster is drunk that he fails to load Mattie’s gun properly and that’s why it backfires. Otherwise she’d have killed her father’s murderer before the story was over. The misfiring gun keeps the big struggle going for as long as it needs to go for. Rooster’s reliance on the drink also contrasts nicely with Mattie’s up-and-go attitude.
Mattie wants to hunt down the man who killed her father. She wants to see him killed in front of her, and hanged in her own town, in respect of her father’s memory. As Rooster points out, this is a lot to ask. He tells her this at one point, in what’s known as ‘attack by ally’ that what she’s asking might be impossible. Isn’t it enough to see the man dead? Dead is dead. Mattie replies that she wouldn’t be happy with just dead. She is ruthless in her desire to see him hanged in her father’s town.
The ‘Big Bad Monster’ opponent is the guy who killed Mattie’s father. He is horrible. Unpredictable, unsympathetic… a monster for storytelling purposes, who wreaks havoc in every town he visits.
But for a story to work this big bad monster isn’t enough. There needs to be conflict within the group. Rooster makes an excellent opponent for Mattie, as well as an ally. This is similar to the progression of a love story, except that kind of creepiness is never on the table — that’s why Rooster calls Mattie ‘baby sister’. He considers her family, and the audience doesn’t have to worry about the gender issues. The book is much less clear about Mattie’s age. She herself obfuscates it in the retelling, and it feels to the reader that there may be some erotics of abstinence going on, precisely because she doesn’t mention any such feelings for Rooster.
Contrast Rooster with the Texas Ranger who initially sees Mattie as a love interest. Mattie isn’t having any of it. Le Boeuf (pronounced La Beef). The three remain opponents until they learn to rely on each other.
We’re not let in on Mattie’s plans — we see her carrying them out. In stories, characters rarely tackle problems head on, but Mattie is an exceptional character in this regard. This is because she is young and naively optimistic that she can do anything. Her plan eventually fails when she comes face to face with her main opponent by complete accident. No amount of excellent planning can account for this kind of coincidence. In the end, Mattie is literally in a massive hole and she must rely upon others to rescue her. She can’t plan her way out of that.
A series of big struggles, accidentally with the murderer when Mattie slips down a bank towards a river, and then with the other outlaws, culminates in a highly symbolic fall into a snake pit. This scene is less harrowing and drawn out than the one in the novel.
Okay, so in the film there’s no hypodiegetic narrator — just a level zero narrative. In the level zero story, it is Rooster and La Boeuf who have the revelations — first La Boeuf, who learns to respect Mattie despite her being a young woman. Presumably he will transfer this respect to others in his life, except then he dies. Then Rooster softens and learns to call Mattie family. By being nice to someone else he finds that he in fact really likes her, in what’s known in psychology as The Ben Franklin effect.
When Mattie is the storyteller, she has her own anagnorisis in the telling of the story. This is lost in the film, and that’s why it becomes an example of the Female Maturity Formula.
In the film, Mattie tells Rooster she’d like to bury him in her family plot and Rooster agrees to this and says a proper goodbye. We are left with the feeling that Mattie will lead a pretty normal family life from here on in, getting married, having her own children.
In the novel, Rooster gets Mattie to a doctor who saves her life after she is bitten by the rattler, but when she comes to, Rooster is gone. She learns later that he is part of a Wild West show and she goes to see him perform in Memphis. But he dies several stops before Memphis in 1903. She retrieves his body and buries it in her own family’s plot. Mattie has not managed to get married and have her own family, possibly because of the events and trauma of this very story, and because of her conflicted feelings for Rooster.
So the book is more of a love tragedy whereas the 1969 film has a tidy, satisfying ending.
For more than fifty years, one third of all films released in the United States were westerns. They could be made cheaply, and a certain proportion of the male population could be predictably counted on to see them.
Howard Suber (who notes the exact same thing about horror films which came later)
Why The Western Needs To Come Back: Arguments For
From its inception, the Western has been key to the communication of America’s national ideals and the mythologizing of its past and present.
A resurgence o f the genre that does best at forcing America to reckon with itself is sorely needed.
Focusing its attentions on what motivates rural-dwellers and keeps them up at night is what the Western was born doing, and so more films in the vein of Hell or High Water could bring us closer to understanding the parts of America we don’t hear much about outside of election season — even if we don’t like what they show us.
The particular vulnerability of Native American communities in the face of the environmental threats posed at Standing Rock has been highlighted elsewhere, but I think it deserves cinematic attention from the Western, too.
The heyday of the Western genre was from about 1880 to 1960. The Western film goes through phases of popularity and has been particularly popular in the 1930s and the 1950s and 1960s. There has been a recent resurgence of the popularity of (neo-)Western novels with the TV series Longmire.
The conflicts in westerns, horror, gangster, and science fiction films must end in a man-to-man, man-to-moment, or man-to-machine climax.
Shane is an example of a film which uses every single Western symbol without irony.
The popularity of the Western for adult readers has been mirrored by the rise then the fall of cowboy stories for children. Jerry Griswold, with fond memories of his cowboy story childhood writes, “My hope is that with pirates making a comeback, cowpokes can’t be far behind. All it really takes is a few parents ready to provide a stick horse, a cowboy hat, and stories like these.”
If cowboys (with extra girls) do come back into fashion, it will be interesting to see how authors and illustrators deal with the invasion aspect behind the glamour. Perhaps these stories are for Native American writers to write.
The 7 Plots Of Classic Westerns
Author and screenwriter Frank Gruber listed seven plots for Westerns:
Union Pacific story. The plot concerns construction of a railroad, a telegraph line, or some other type of modern technology or transportation. Wagon train stories fall into this category. (CLASSICAL WESTERN)
Ranch story. The plot concerns threats to the ranch from rustlers or large landowners attempting to force out the proper owners. (WESTERN DRAMA)
Empire story. The plot involves building a ranch empire or an oil empire from scratch, a classic rags-to-riches plot. (CLASSICAL WESTERN)
Revenge story. The plot often involves an elaborate chase and pursuit by a wronged individual, but it may also include elements of the classic mystery story. (WESTERN CAT-AND-MOUSE)
Cavalry and Indian story. The plot revolves around “taming” the wilderness for white settlers. (CLASSICAL WESTERN)
Outlaw story. The outlaw gangs dominate the action. (WESTERN CRIME)
Marshal story. The lawman and his challenges drive the plot. (WESTERN DETECTIVE)
Setting Of A Western
The setting of a classic Western will be in the latter half of the 19th Century in the American Old West, often entering on the life of a nomadic cowboy or gunfighter. Westerns often stress the harshness of the wilderness and frequently set the action in an arid, desolate landscape of deserts and mountains. Specific settings include ranches, small frontier towns and saloons of the Wild West. Some are set in the American colonial era.
Characters also include Native Americans, bandits, lawmen, outlaws and soldiers.
Throughout most of human history, towns were situated next to dependable rivers. Western towns in films such as High Noon, The Searchers, The Wild Bunch, and Unforgiven, however, are situated in the middle of some of the driest places on earth. Perhaps that’s because deserts, in the Hebrew, Christian, and Islamic Bibles, are places of spiritual conflict.
In a Classic Western You’ll Also Find
A rational grid of clapboard buildings on the flat, dry plain of the Southwest
A bustling community under the benevolent gaze of the marshal
A showdown, which happens in the middle of the main street where everyone can see the hero’s bravery. The cowboy hero waits for the bad man to draw first, still beats him, and reaffirms right action and law and order for the growing community.
The modern Western story is really a mixture of other genres with a setting in the latter half of the 19th Century in the American Old West, or a similarly desolate but modern American setting.
The Following Genres Can All Be Found Mixed With Myth:
Crime/Detective (The Streets of Laredo)
Love (Lonesome Dove) — also an anti-Western (dependent on audience interpretation)
A spaghetti Western was filmed in Italy, where the landscape looked enough like America but was a lot cheaper to use as a location. Red Westerns (a.k.a Osterns) are filmed in Russia. More recently we have the ‘Pavlova Western’ — filmed in Australia or New Zealand e.g. Mike Wallis’ Good for Nothing or John McLean’s Slow West. While these films can still have great storylines, having grown up in New Zealand and emigrated later to Australia, the trees and landscapes look far too familiar to work for me as American stories. Australian locations are also known as Meat-Pie Westerns.
You can probably guess what Curry Westerns and Indo Westerns are.
Westerns set and filmed within America itself are even broken into subcategories. Take Florida Westerns, also known as Cracker Westerns, set in Florida during the Second Seminole War.
Characters Of Westerns
A character in a New York novel might look at the city, the press of diverse humanity, the huge buildings, the hum of activity, and feel that his/her life is insignificant or at the very least, a exceedingly small cog in the greater machine of human endeavors.
A character in a Western novel looks out at a terrifyingly empty prairie, an expanse of jagged mountains, the infinite wash of stars in an unpolluted night sky, and feels not so much that his/her life is insignificant but that humanity as a whole has vastly overestimated its own importance to the universe.
The characters in a Western are fairly regular forced to acknowledge the real scale of the world and their place in the cosmos, and I find that refreshing.
The Wild Bunch — set in the last days of the American Frontier. In both Butch Cassidy and The Wild Bunch (about the same real-life group of outlaws) the characters aren’t keen on new technologies. Butch Cassidy and the townspeople want nothing to do with the bicycle, for instance.
Is Lonesome Dove an anti-Western? Before its publication in 1985, McMurtry was known as a contemporary novelist who made a point of denouncing unrealistic, romantic period novels about the frontier. The old myths were destructive, he argued, and they ignored the complex, urbanized realities of the modern West. Then he wrote “Lonesome Dove,” an 843-page frontier epic that seemed to be exactly the sort of book he had been attacking. […] McMurtry thought he had written an anti-Western, one that critics and readers then perversely took to be the greatest Western ever. “‘Lonesome Dove’ was a critical book,” he still insists, “but that’s not how it was perceived.The romance of the West is so powerful, you can’t really swim against the current. Whatever truth about the West is printed, the legend is always more potent.“
His response to the misreading of “Lonesome Dove” was “Streets of Laredo,” which takes place 20 years later, and “Comanche Moon,” which deals with the same characters as young men. In both books (as well as in “Dead Man’s Walk,” the prologue to the series) he tried everything possible to destroy the romantic aura of the original novel. Where “Lonesome Dove” was heroic and sweeping, the subsequent books are bleak and austere. And “Streets of Laredo,” written during the long siege on that couch in Tucson, is the darkest of them all.
Woodrow Call, who survived “Lonesome Dove” intact, is shot several times in “Streets,” finally losing his arm and leg. “He would have to live, but without himself,” McMurtry wrote of his shattered hero. “He felt he had left himself faraway, back down the weeks, in the spot west of Fort Stockton where he had been wounded. … He could remember the person he had been, but he could not become that person again.“
Hud— McMurtry’s first book, published as Horseman, Pass By is often listed as a Western, or rather the first of the ‘revisionist Westerns’. I’m not sure how Larry McMurtry feels about it, but the screenwriters consider this story a domestic drama.
The Homesman — published a few years after Lonesome Dove in 1988, and made into a film by Tommy Lee Jones in 2014. This is such a harsh story it would be hard for audiences to mistake it for a love-letter to the Old West.
The work of Annie Proulx is unambiguously anti-Western (if we’re calling it Western at all). In her Wyoming Stories she offers a searing critique of cowboy culture and satirises the mindset that Wild West culture is some kind of aspirational ideal. Brokeback Mountain is the most famous of these. However, Annie Proulx would not call this story any kind of Western (or a romance). It is the exposure of a community with rot and hatred at its core.
Richard Ford is another author who, early in his career, released a short story collection set in Wyoming and Montana, frequently described as ‘hardscrabble’. The collection is called Rock Springs.
Housekeeping by Marilynne Robinson — Set in the haunting rain-soaked Northwest, Robinson’s characters are dogged by loss, encroaching transience and the siren call of the cold mountain lake that exists at the center of the narrative.
Cowboys and East Indians by Nina McConigley —McConigley’s stories explore what exactly it means to be the “wrong kind of Indian” in Wyoming. These characters subvert our expectations and give us a new way to look at place, even one as saturated with myth as the American West. Funny, poignant, and incredibly smart.
The Proposition— Australia’s version of an anti-Western
The Englishman’s Boy— a Canadian example
Lonely Are The Brave
Moon Zero Two
The Traveling Executioner
The Resurrection of Broncho Billy
Angels: Hard as They Come
The Day of the Wolves
Longmire— is often marketed as a neo-Western but it is more of an anti-Western. Walt Longmire is the dedicated and unflappable sheriff of Absaroka County, Wyoming. Widowed only a year, he is a man in psychic repair but buries his pain behind his brave face, unassuming grin and dry wit. He is an anti-hero.
Justified— another TV series set in the West
Bury My Heart At Wounded Knee
Meek’s Cutoff— cinema verite, which means it’s like the camera isn’t there. Also means it doesn’t hew closely to dramatic structure, most apparent in the ending of this film.
They Die By Dawn
Hell Or High Water— Before 2016 inflicted itself upon us, screenwriter Taylor Sheridan pre-empted the election results with Hell or High Water, a neo-Western with anti-capitalist undertones. With banks ripping off policemen and robbers alike, and its politically charged juxtapositional images of oil wells towering over foreclosed homes, the film tapped into an Occupy-inspired sense of moral outrage at corporate tyranny shared by both rural and urban Americans alike.
Wind River— Sheridan’s film touches on the intrusion and violation of the reservation land on which it’s set by encroaching oil giants and their employees.
Examples of Neo-Westerns
Kill Bill Vol. 2 directed by Quentin Tarantino — another good versus evil story but with an almost futuristic Japanese setting
Mad Max— sometimes called a ‘road Western’. Australian Westerns like this dystopian franchise can be viewed as cautionary tales on resource greed: when oil (or “guzzolene”) runs out, the films tell us, nuclear war and a kill-to-survive mentality will plague the earth, decimating populations and sharply cleaving society into the exploited many and the soul-sucking, resource-hoarding few.
The Proposition— Australian
The Rover— Another Australian film
Serenity— 2005, based on the Firefly TV series
Star Trek— Famously Gene Roddenberry pitched the concept of the TV show Star Trek as a Wagon Train to the stars
“The Mud Below” was first published in the 1998 summer issue of The New Yorker and is the second short story in Proulx’s Close Range collection, retitled Close Range: Brokeback Mountain And Other Stories after the movie adaptation.
As evidenced by John McLemore’s identification with Proulx’s characters, these stories pack a powerful punch with men. They are written in a specifically masculine voice. Not only that, they’re about male culture. “The Mud Below” is a case in point — our tragic hero Diamond Felts is a rodeo performer. Women exist only peripherally in that scene. We all know a good writer has to be “genderless”. That’s often said. But can you think of any iconic male writers who have so successfully portrayed specifically female arenas, over and over? What Annie Proulx has done here is truly amazing. She is able to cross gender boundaries better than anyone else I can think of, and it’s a skill that’s almost expected of female writers rather than admired as something extra. Historically, men write about men; women write about men and women.
Does Annie Proulx write about women, though? These stories are all about men, with women on the periphery. What Proulx does so well is she manages to write about masculine culture while at the same time setting that against femininity. Here we might read the landscape as ‘feminine’. Animals, too, are associated with femininity. According to these try-hard cowboys, animals, the landscape, and also women themselves are there to be tamed and conquered.
Late 90s, Texas/Oklahoma/Wyoming area of America — what’s known as “The mountain circuit”. Our main character’s hometown is Redsled, Wyoming. (Redsled itself is fictional; everything about Wyoming feels real.) Redsled has ‘the pawnshop, the Safeway, the Broken Arrow bar, Custom Cowboy, the vacuum cleaner shop’.
The rodeo itself is painted as somewhat ridiculous, linked to a ‘clown’. The canon firing coincides with actual thunder drowning out whatever drama the MC is trying to drum up — against nature, this fake-conflict is ultimately futile. Consider the rodeo ride as a metaphor for Diamond’s passage through life.
Like all of Proulx’s stories, the sky gets as much attention as the landscape. Big skies are a feature of sparsely populated areas so that makes sense. But emphasis on big skies also serves another purpose: To underscore the insignificant trials and tribulations of the very-human characters living under it.
Annie Proulx depicts (to this reader, at least) a toxically masculine, misogynistic, homophobic, mock-wartime culture which nevertheless has enough glamour to draw in young beta-males as they come of age.
STORY STRUCTURE OF “THE MUD BELOW”
Rodeo guys spend a lot of time on the road and most road stories have mythic structure. This one is no exception: Go on a journey to find yourself, encounter a mixture of allies and opponents along the way, return home (or find a new home) a changed man. These stories can have either a tragic or a happy ending. But it doesn’t take a keen eye to guess from the first paragraph to predict the tragic demise of Diamond Felts.
Diamond Felts is a caricature of the modern American cowboy. But I recognise the character even though I read this story from Australia. I recognise the struggling, low-income, rural mother who wants more for her children. Through sheer grift and cunning she might lift herself out of poverty and she assumes progress only marches forward. But her children — and perhaps sons in particular, who distance themselves from their mothers — are acculturated mainly by their environs. Mothers really only have their sons until they hit adolescence. If you want to remove your son from Redneck culture (or Bogan culture, as Australians might see it), you really have to shift him right out of his milieu. And that, of course, is not often possible.
He is also the size of a small woman, which leads to a case of what’s commonly known as ‘short man syndrome’. As a young man the nicknames and jibes provoke anger, but as he ‘matures’ he only learns to suppress the anger, pretending to laugh along — not true growth but a mask.
In any story where the character wears a mask, expect the mask to come off during the Battle.
As you can see, Diamond Felts has very strong psychological shortcomings as well as moral shortcomings. He treats others terribly. The most realistic-feeling heroes will have both.
Is it wrong to use the word ‘hero’ when it comes to Diamond Felts. Some people prefer the concept of anti-hero. An antihero is a hero who lacks the attributes society accepts as moral and good. An antihero is a leading character in a story. The story is set up so that the audience cheers him on, though we are probably encouraged to question our own values at some point in the story. On the other hand, film critic Howard Suber argues that there is no such thing as an antihero, only those who act heroically and those who do not. He says that the word ‘antihero’ makes it sound like a character who is ‘anti’ (against) the hero, but this is not the case. Characters called ‘antiheroes’ are generally characters who are ‘not yet heroes’. Perhaps Suber would prefer the term ‘unhero’.
Does Proulx write fully rounded characters? Some argue that she writes caricatures and stereotypes — not in itself a criticism — not if you’re writing about a community, or criticising an idea. The name of Diamond Felts (reminiscent of diamantes and cheap cowboy hats) suggests caricature. Another word for him might be ‘mock hero’. Whatever kind of caricature he is, though, he is fleshed out by his double layered shortcoming, psychological and moral. This prevents the caricature from being boring.
Surface level reading: Diamond wants to join the rodeo circuit.
Deeper reading: Diamond wants to distance himself from everything weak and feminine, appealing to the tallest women by doing the most manly thing he can think of: risking life and limb on a regular basis, and garnering plaudits in a (mock) cowboy culture.
A lot of stories have both a human opponent and an ‘opponent of nature’. While the opponent of nature can kill you, the human stands in the way of you achieving your desires. This story has both, as well as a bunch of others Diamond meets along the ‘road’ in what is basically an Odyssean myth structure.
The main human opponent is his mother, who is vehemently opposed to her son joining the rodeo. She’s worked hard, with her sons at the forefront of her life, to offer them opportunities outside the redneck culture which surrounds them. As ever, the story includes a large dose of irony. It is ironic that Diamond’s mother does not want a cowboy life for her sons but runs a shop selling cowboy trinkets and souvenirs. She obviously understands the value of the Old West nostalgia because she sells it to tourists.
Diamond’s friends are alternately allies and opponents, depending on the situation — much like the superficial, situationally-oriented relationships some people really do have when they’re not good people. There’s Leecil Bewd, an ally until he quits rodeo and encounters bad luck (at which point the fairweather Diamond drops him as a friend).
Myron Sasser stands against everything Diamond lives for, and confronts him about his lifestyle and how he treats other people. Myron points out that Diamond doesn’t make a clear enough distinction between himself and the bull. Remember Diamond’s first bull is called Little Kisses, “big as a boxcar of coal.” Little, big. Both adjectives also apply to Diamond himself — small statured, big plans for himself.
Diamond is hellbent on joining the rodeo and he leaves home to attend bullriding school in California. He will listen to no one, not his mother and not even his much younger brother who looks up to him.
He then starts running the Mountain Circuit.
His mother has a counter-attack. She takes him to see Hondo Gunsch, a rodeo guy who was badly injured and who has been cleaning saddles since the age of 26, now a brain-damaged and physically deformed old man with a scarred face.
This only makes Diamond angry and more determined. That’s generally how stories work — the opponent’s counter plan only serves to fortify his/her plans.
Top level big struggle: predictably, inevitably, Diamond is thrown off a bull badly. Proulx demonstrates what’s often called a ‘deterministic’ world view in her stories. Of course the characters are never going to be a good fit for their harsh environment. Whatever they aspire to, of course they can’t live up to it.
“Jesus CHRIST!” The pain was excruciating and violent. The tears rolled down his hot face and he couldn’t help it.
Lower level big struggle: Between Diamond’s real world situation as bottom of the heap and his desire to live by the cowboy code.
Like a lot of short stories, the story actually ends at the anagnorisis — anything garnered about Diamond’s New Situation has already been deduced.
It was all a hard, fast ride that ended in the mud.
But there is no real anagnorisis. No character arc, just a change in circumstances. In another sort of story the mirror scene would have been the bit where the character realises something about themselves, but Annie Proulx’s worldview is more cynical than that. If Diamond has any sort of realization, it’s just a confirmation of his pessimistic worldview. Reminded of the castration on the farm as a teenager, Diamond realizes that ‘the course of life’s events seemed slower than the knife but not less thorough’. In other words, life emasculates you, slowly.
“Right hand’s all he’s got. Dislocated shoulder, it’s not just a question of pop it back in and away you go. He could need surgery. There’s injured ligaments, internal bleeding, swelling, pain, could be some nerve or blood vessel damange. He’s hunrting. He’s going to be eating aspirin by the handful….”
The doctor’s dialogue also reveals that Diamond is unable to drive; nor does he have any insurance. In America, this means his life is basically over.
He goes back to Redsled for the hot springs, better for his ailing body. (Wyoming is well-known for its hot springs tourist attractions.) Our mythic (mock) hero does return home after all, but a changed — tragic — figure.
Proulx makes use of a mirror scene to show us how Diamond looks now:
Diamond saw himself in the spotted mirror, two black eyes, bloody nostrils, his abraded right cheek, his hair dark with sweat, bull hairs stuck to his dirty, tear-streaked face, a bruise from armpit to buttocks.
Notice that motif about the bull inhabiting Diamond (or vice versa). Even now, he sees parts of the bull on his very own face.
“The Mud Below” is the second story in the Brokeback Mountain anthology, which makes the positioning interesting because in the first (The Half-Skinned Steer), Annie Proulx gives us an entire life — that of Mero Corn — spanning the ages of 12 and 83. Here we last see Diamond when he is still young, but she might as well be writing about an old man. Diamond is covered in scars and wracked with injuries. We are to read this as a ‘lifetime’ saga.
We can extrapolate that nothing much is going to change for Diamond after this.
THE SIGNIFICANCE OF THE TITLE OF “THE MUD BELOW”
Top level reading: Our mock hero is thrown off a bull and ends up in ‘the mud below’. Obviously that’s not all.
What’s with the mud? You may have seen the 2012 film called Mud starring Matthew McConnaughey (as a character called Mud), set in the reasonably nearby arena of Mississippi. So I looked to see what people have said about the symbolism of mud in that. Below is one interpretation, starting first with the top level symbolism, digging deeper and finally considering the intertextuality of the Bible:
The main character’s name is Mud. It functions on the most basic level as a mere descriptor: his hands get dirty in the course of the film as he fends for himself on an isolated island and repairs a storm-wrecked boat that is his temporary shelter. Of course, his hands are already sullied by the blood he has spilled before the story begins. That said, even Mud’s old acquaintances, notably Tom Blankenship (his surrogate father), call him by this name, so the murder doesn’t change his identification; it only reifies it. Mud is, figuratively and morally, dirty, worthless, and possibly even polluting. He will also be returned to the mud if he is caught by the men who are hunting him down—“for you are dust, and to dust you shall return” (Genesis 3:19).
To press this point a little further, it seems that Mud may be an allusion to Adam, the first man. Consider Robert Alter’s explanation of his word choice of human and hummus in his translation of Genesis 2:7: “The Hebrew etymological pun is ’adam, ‘human,’ from the soil, ’adamah.” Is Mud Adam? Or perhaps an Everyman?
Is any of this relevant to Proulx’s quite different story, “The Mud Below”? Well, when it comes to Annie Proulx we should be thinking about the Bible. Christian thought informs her work, and motivates her characters. Almost 20 years later, 71% of the population of Wyoming is Christian. It is possible that by associating Diamond Felts with mud Proulx is linking him to Adam and therefore to the everyman. What do you think? I find this a bit of a reach.
The story itself gives a clue about the meaning of mud.
“I worked like a fool to bring you boys up in town, get you out of the mud, give you a chance to make something out of yourselves.”
Kaylee, Diamond’s mother
The words mud and dirt are used when referring to Diamond’s childhood experiences, associating the word with his poor origins:
manure-caked animals, mud, dirt, lifting, punching the needle, the stink of burning hair
losers who live on dirt road ranches
mud is linked with sex/betrayal
If mud equals ‘the poverty class’, ‘below’ makes perfect sense. Diamond never makes it out of the poverty class.
I also feel ‘the mud below’ is a reference to Diamond’s inner self — his underlying psychology versus the big-man persona he presents to the world. Underneath, he is a selfish, unconfident person, working in a mock-heroic profession with little in the way of real benefits (such as, say, health insurance).
COMPARE AND CONTRAST WITH “THE MUD BELOW”
Larry McMurtry wrote about the rodeo circuit in his so-called Texas novels (the best-known being Terms of Endearment) but “The Mud Below” reminds me the most of Horseman, Pass By (adapted for film as Hud), because of the unsympathetic male character who treats people, especially women, badly. Both Hud and Diamond have much younger (and better) brothers who look up to them. Like Diamond Felts, the audience leaves Hud when he is chronologically in his prime, but ‘crippled’ and isolated as an old man.
Though rodeo, unlike WWE, is a sport in its own right, predetermined, entertainment wrestling is another profession which requires bodily sacrifice then leaves its heroes basically crippled and forgotten. For a story about a similarly tragic hero watch Mickey Rourke in The Wrestler.
Rodeo people call their sport “more a way of life than a way to make a living.” Rodeo is, in fact, a rite that not only expresses a way of life but perpetuates it, reaffirming in a ritual contest between man and animal the values of American ranching society. Elizabeth Atwood Lawrence uses an interpretive approach to analyze rodeo as a symbolic pageant that reenacts the “winning of the West” and as a stylized expression of frontier attitudes toward man and nature. Rodeo contestants are the modern counterparts of the rugged and individualistic cowboys, and the ethos they inherited is marked by ambivalence: they admire the wild and the free yet desire to tame and conquer.
The first chapter of Beyond Power by Marilyn Frenchexplains in great detail about how women are, since the time of agriculture, thought to be part of nature while men struggle to separate themselves from nature in order to become Men.
With similarities to Million Dollar Baby, The Homesman is a film about an old man who has regrets but no character arc after meeting a young woman in desperate circumstances. The 2014 Homesman film is closely based on the novel by Glendon Swarthout, first published 1988. Glendon Swarthout died just four years after this novel was published.
Hilary Swank has a tendency to wind up ‘starring’ in films which are ostensibly about her — the film might even be named after her character — but in which she exists to assist the character arc of the old man who she chooses (sort of) to come into her life due to desperate circumstances. In Million Dollar Baby it was Clint Eastwood (director); in this film it’s Tommy Lee Jones (also director). So if you’re wondering why Tommy Lee Jones stands front and centre in the movie poster looking contrite while Hilary Swank is literally on her knees looking desperate, we can at least say that it’s an honest representation of the character arc within, even though what we see at the beginning indicates these two should switch positions.
I do wonder if these old men of Hollywood even realise that they haven’t made a film about a woman — that it’s still all about them.
PREMISE OF THE HOMESMAN
The premise of a story is a combination of character and plot. (It has to have a double track line in order to work.)
The premise as written on IMDb doesn’t seem self-aware that the film is really about Tommy Lee Jones; it is written as if Mary Bee Cuddy is the main character:
Three women who have been driven mad by pioneer life are to be transported across the country by covered wagon by the pious, independent-minded Mary Bee Cuddy, who in turn employs low-life drifter George Briggs to assist her.
It would be more accurate to rewrite the premise with George Briggs as the main character:
Wild West Wanderer George Briggs is saved from hanging by independent-minded Mary Bee Cuddy, who then employs him to assist in the cross-country transportation of three women who have been driven mad by pioneer life.
I’m thinking the writers didn’t use that particular premise to create the story — what we see on IMDb is often more of a synopsis than a premise. The premise not only needs the double track line of character and plot — it also needs to show some sense of an outcome. How do the characters change?
Wild West Wanderer George Briggs is saved from hanging, and also from his meaningless, bludging existence, by independent-minded Mary Bee Cuddy, who employs him to assist in the cross-country transportation of three women who have been driven made by pioneer life.
Mary Bee Cuddy is a prime example of The Female Maturity Principle in storytelling. Mary Bee starts out strong and determined. She leaves us strong and determined. The other women in the story — the minister’s wife, the daughter who runs the inn, are Mary Bee Cuddy types. Women are divided cleanly in two: mentally ill and totally incapable, or godly and good.
When the camera lingers on a landscape or on a character’s face we know the film is asking the setting and the actors to pull the heavy weight of what would have been, in the novel, interior monologue with a bit of backstory. Sure enough, the novel offers a bit more insight into what the characters are thinking, though it’s written fairly cinematically as far as novels go. I can see how it was ripe for film adaptation.
Although the word ‘Western’ is still used, the nature of Westerns has changed so much that any ‘Western’ story since the 1960s is technically an ‘anti-Western’. The anti-Western trend started before World War II, in fact.
What’s the difference between a Western and an Anti-Western? Essentially, true Westerns were about world building — destroy and conquer, open up, tame the landscape, shoot the baddies. Anti-Westerns have a more cynical but realistic ideology. Anti-Westerns are about highly-flawed individuals trying to eke out an existence in the face of a powerful and unrelenting landscape. No one emerges unscathed. The Homesman is an anti-Western.
Larry McMurtry’s Lonesome Dove was published a few years before The Homesman. Interestingly, Larry McMurtry had every intention of writing an anti-Western and if you’ve read the full series you’ll know there’s nothing romantic about it whatsoever. But he was surprised to see it embraced by readers and critics alike as a great love letter to the West.
The Homesman has much less humour in it — despite some light moments from Tommy Lee Jones — and is such a harsh story it would be hard for audiences to mistake this anti-Western for a love-letter to the Old West.
In both The Homesmanand in Lonesome Dove, we have two characters who set off on a journey together who are such different characters they are each other’s greatest human opponent. (Let’s not count the landscape, or the out-and-out villains.) You could say these are de facto marriages, but there are also similarities to the Buddy genre.
I think of The Homesman as a Road Movie with a Western setting. The Homesman has more in common with Little Miss Sunshine (2006) than with The Great Train Robbery (1903). That said, the themes of this story are definitely Western — the contrast between freedom vs civilisation, the individual against society.
STORYWORLD OF THE HOMESMAN
Following in the footsteps of classics such as East of Eden, the camera opens by lingering on a landscape upon which nothing is happening. This is to give the audience some sense of what it’s like to live here. Days are slow and long. Few things of consequence happen — though when they do, these things are life-changing for the characters. It’s exactly how my father-in-law describes his time in the Vietnam War — 90% boredom, 10% terror.
Glendon Swarthout was born 1918, so as a kid — if he had elderly people in his life — he would’ve been in contact with people who remembered the 1850s. My favourite Western writer, Larry McMurtry, has the same advantage.
Swarthout lived through the Great Depression of the 1930s, and this no doubt influenced his characterisation — he would’ve known women like Hilary Swank — pious and good, knowing how to make the best of tough situations. It’s interesting that Mary Bee doesn’t have to worry about money — it’s only everything else she has to worry about.
The setting of the West inevitably links to the character shortcoming, which is how the best stories work. Set in the 1850s, farm life was nigh on impossible without a family to help run a plot. We are shown Mary Bee struggling to til a field with two mules. She has just enough strength as a young woman to about manage farm life because she’s at the peak of her strength, but as she gets older she’ll lose a lot of that strength. In this era and in this setting, finding a husband is a matter of life and death.
Though she loves music and used to play the piano for several hours daily, Mary Bee has no piano in the Wild West, so practises on an embroidered mat of black and white keys. This mat symbolises the sacrifice of pioneers in general.
Mary Bee inspects the ‘jail’ wagon which is to transport the three mentally ill women East. In fact, each of these characters is living in a world of slavery and each craves freedom. In the novel, much is made of the fact that this is not a typical looking wagon. To everyone they encounter along their journey, it looks like a jail on wheels.
Because this is a story about white characters in the 1850s, the small, local church plays a large role in their lives. The camera angle here shows us how the preacher occupies an elevated position, as leader of the community and decider of what’s right.
You may have noticed in children’s picture books that when the characters turn backwards, facing towards the beginning of the story, something has happened to prevent them achieving their goal. This creates a subconscious mind block for the reader. A Western in which characters travel from West to East feels backwards. It is the opposite of progress, same as a picture book with a backwards looking character.
By the time the journey East begins autumn has become winter. This makes the journey even more perilous. (I’m guessing they travel in winter in order to cross frozen rivers, as was the case in Little House On The Prairie.) Near the end, on his own, George Briggs must ford a dangerous river. See also: The Symbolism of Rivers.
Another thing to know about the milieu — cattle hustlers and cowboys like George looked down on farmers back then. (I saw this spelled out in the Lonesome Dove series.) When Mary Bee offers George marriage, trying to persuade him by telling her all about the spoils of her farm, George isn’t going to be impressed with her plans to plant pumpkins.
In this world (as in ours) there is a stark divide between the haves and the have-nots. The have-nots really do have nothing. The rich are super wealthy, having found opportunities in road-building, shipping and so on. So the sky-blue hotel for rich people which George stumbles upon seems to tower up into the sky, becoming part of it, much like a symbol of heaven.
Trees are symbolic of life. Mary Bee tells one of the women at some point that she really misses trees — there are none on the plains but out East, towns are full of them. When the audience sees a beautiful wooded landscape we know George has arrived at his destination. This is the 1850 equivalent of a suburban utopia.
‘George Briggs’ (we know this isn’t his real name) has no home and family so in order to survive he has taken residence in someone else’s cob cottage while the original owner travels East to find himself a bride. He is forced to leave by Bob Giffen’s friends and neighbours, who leave him strung up, ready to be hanged by his horse.
“I deserted from the Dragoons! I ain’t attached to nothing! Just me!”
His ghost is revealed eventually as he opens up, in a rare moment, to Mary Bee. He is a deserter. He cannot stick around in any one place because if they find him they’ll surely kill him. He has also been settled down with a woman before. We don’t know the details of this failed relationship but we learn he simply up and left her when he got sick of that life. We are therefore shown that he is fully capable of doing that same thing again. He is a deserter, or a rolling stone to be generous. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Ik_ciMowBq0
This is a man who wants to be left alone to eat other people’s sheep and drink gin. He doesn’t want to do the work of survival.
In a story where the main character wants nothing more than to be left alone, other characters around him will be given the strong desires. Mary Bee’s strong desire is to do good by delivering mentally ill women back to their homes back East. Briggs gets caught up in it.
George’s first opponents smoke him out of Bob Giffen’s house, but that’s an ‘oppositional McGuffin’. After a comical second meeting he won’t have to worry about those guys again. It does also tell us about George’s modus operandi.
His enduring opponent is Mary Bee Cuddy, who requires him to undertake an unpleasant journey he’d rather not.
There are of course times when George and Mary Bee are companions. Here in the cave, George manologues about his time on the plains, then follows with a drunken dance, which all the women are obliged to sit and watch. Caves are of course womblike, and a good setting for sharing personal information.
George won’t be bossed around by a woman even if she did save his life, so he’ll help her just enough to assuage his own conscience. He’ll bolt at the first opportunity. He even tells her as much. The audience doesn’t have to guess at his plan.
Later in the film Mary Bee even says to George, “You’re not much of a one for making plans.” It is Mary Bee driving the larger plan, but if you look closely at the scene level you’ll see that in fact George does make plans. He makes them on the spur of the moment rather than planning ahead. He is a world-weary cowboy hustler, and he has learnt that there’s no point in planning ahead. Far more successful to live on your wits.
So when the Indians turn up he has a plan ready. He knows there’s a chance they’ll kill him, so he’ll offer them one of the horses and hope that does them. His plan works.
BIG STRUGGLE IN THE HOMESMAN
This story follows mythic structure. A character leaves home (however temporary in George’s case), embarks upon a lengthy journey, fights various characters and in the end returns ‘home’ (which may or may not be his actual home). (Mythic journeys almost always feature male characters.) He’s a changed man, but has he had a character arc that’ll help him lead a better life? Well, no. In this regard, The Homesman is very much like The Wrestler, Hud and Lonesome Dove. These men fail to learn from their lived experiences and that is their tragedy.
In a mythic journey the main character will face a number of big struggles. In this story we have:
The argument in Mary Bee’s house after she puts him to work and then makes him sleep in the stable for cursing god at her dinner table and refusing to hold up his end of the bargain. (We don’t know where he actually sleeps but Mary Bee gets the last word.)
The gun big struggle in which he accidentally comes face to face with one of the men who meant to hang him. (With Mary Bee’s help he gets away.)
The argument about whether he’s allowed a bottle of gin or not. (He wins that one.)
The weather — it is very cold and snows.
The women themselves, who fight among themselves if not tied up.
The Pawnee Indians who might kill them.
The actual fisticuffs with the horrible man who has claimed the woman who ran off.
The argument that ensues after Mary Bee accuses George of not lighting a fire when she fails to catch them up after stopping to repair a child’s grave
At the fancy hotel George is given opportunity to utilise his trickster side as he sets fire to the joint and takes the feast set up for posh people. This big struggle is a good example of putting the rich and the poor directly up against each other, which always leads to good drama in fiction. We root for the poor man. He is punishing one of the 7 Deadly Sins, greed.
While George almost loses his life being strangled by the kidnapper, Mary Bee takes a moment to contemplate death, and how close they all are to it, when she picks up the bone of the 11-year-old girl whose grave his first been robbed, her body mauled by wolves.
This foreshadows Mary Bee’s literal brush with death when out of sheer stubbornness (and sense of right) she separates herself from the wagon.
George starts out not only lonely, but alone by choice. He doesn’t need people. He accompanies these women reluctantly.
We see the first inkling of another side of his established character when he hands Mary Bee the gun and instructs her to save herself if the negotiations with the Indians go wrong. We see it again when he saves the woman from the man who wants to keep her as his mute sex slave.
When the camera lingers on George looking on as Mary Bee sets about her tasks, or when she plays the piano mat by the river, we see him having a bit of a anagnorisis. But he has no such thing. He is learning a little about Mary Bee in this moment, and nothing about himself.
So, Mary Bee hangs herself. When even George won’t have her she feels she might as well be dead and done with it. The novel tells us that the guilt at having sex outside marriage, and the feeling that the women and God is watching, is what drive her to it.
This is looking more and more like the Million Dollar Babyarc, right? A woman must die in order to give opportunity to a male character to undergo a character arc. There is a long, problematic history with this trope, precisely because it is used so often. So frequently in story, a woman has sex and then has to die for it. This is a criticism of Thelma & Louise, which I also love as a stand-alone story.
Now we know that George has a moral decision to make, and because we’ve seen what he is capable of, we wait and watch as he deserts these helpless women once again.
First he directs his anger at the women, lecturing them on how crazy they are as he digs Mary Bee’s grave. This indicates that he will be going through the seven stages of grief.
“I’m going home by myself. You’re on your own. Somebody’ll come along and tend to you. Not a damn one of you can understand a word I’m saying.”
He trots off on his horse leaving the mentally ill passengers to fend for themselves. He crosses a river and realises he’s being followed by puppies who have bonded with him. He is forced to save them as they almost drown. Now that he’s saved them he realises he does care for them a bit after all. The Ben Franklin Effect is quite often used in stories to precipitate a character arc. Now he must tend to them himself rather than just looking on as Mary Bee did it.
George’s character arc is underscored when he pulls up at the fancy hotel and deals with a snobby, uncaring man who refuses service because he doesn’t like the cut of his gib. Now George Briggs starts to look like a decent character.
When George feeds the women he is shown to have taken over the nurturing role.
The reverend’s wife: “She must have been a truly fine human being.”
George: “She truly was.”
NEW SITUATION IN THE HOMESMAN
The women are in the safe hands of the reverend’s wife.
George to the maid at the hotel: “Mary Bee Cuddy was as fine a woman as there ever was.”
George’s regret is apparent to the audience when he asks the 16 year old who looks like Mary Bee to marry him. She looks like Mary Bee.
We’ve had this foreshadowed before, when she was framed by the bathroom mirror. (This is also the reason he notices she’s not wearing shoes — she creeps in on him in the bathroom and he felt exposed.)
But he is still alone in the world. The scene with him at the gamblers’ table, in which it is revealed that the Bank of Loup has gone bust and he has not a penny to his name, shows him ostracised, as only players are allowed to play at the table.
This isn’t just the table rejecting him. This is civilised society rejecting him.
The next morning we see him sitting alone outside the hotel.
He buys a gravestone for Mary Bee and holds an impromptu, drunken wake for him on the barge. Along with the shoes for the girl, this is a Save the Catmoment which helps the audience to feel more kindly towards him. Save the Cat moments are generally utilised at the beginning of a story because the writer needs the audience to empathise with the character and care what becomes of them, but here it is used at the bum end of the story, with the message that George’s gestures are too little, too late.
George says he’s going to return West. We know this anyway — there’s no way a ruffian like George would be accepted in Fairfield. There is some suggestion, however, that he will at least try to fit in here.
Also, he needs to go somewhere with no trees. Trees equal death if they also equal life. He’s going back West to die.
We extrapolate that George will continue as before, getting drunk and essentially alone. The camera zooms out and we are left with a tiny image of George dancing in front of the flame.
But we also know that George has one more person’s memory to bury in his memory — that of Mary Bee Cuddy, who had to kill herself before he took her seriously.
Like Randy the Ram in The Wrestler, George goes to a dangerous place after losing the women in his life and everything important to him. The great tragedy of this film is that George comes so close to turning himself into what passes for a good person. If only, we think. If only the Bank of Loup hadn’t gone bust.
When a heavily flawed main character comes very close to leading a good life the audience really feels the tragedy.
Here’s the premise of Larry McMurtry’s Lonesome Dove: Two Texas Rangers decide to move cattle from the south to Montana running into many problems along the way.
Detail a legendary journey while including the harsh realities of Wild-Western life to show that the ‘legends’ of the Wild West were ordinary men working in unglamorous conditions.
Pulitzer Prize winners may have a reputation for being dense and requiring much work, but if that’s the case, Lonesome Dove is an exception. This is what you’d call ‘super readable’. A page-turner. Which is just as well, because you could build a house with these bricks.
If you would like to know what it feels like to be a cattle man in the Wild West in the mid 1870s, and you don’t like the idea of getting kilt or drinking black coffee for breakfast or hoiking up black phlegm from all the dust or using your saddle for a pillow while sleeping on the hard, cold ground; if you aren’t the owner of an actual time machine, then this is the book for you. McMurtry does an excellent job of detailing the day-to-day realities of being a cowboy in the Wild West.
And few authors would be more qualified. Larry McMurtry’s own father was a cattleman, along with every one of his eight uncles. McMurtry himself obviously absorbed a lot of the dialect, grammar and vocabulary of cattlemen, putting it to good use in his Western novels.
I wouldn’t have called myself a fan of Wild West stories beforehand. The West was a misogynistic setting, not to mention all the atrocities involved in almost wiping out the Native Americans. Cowboy stories can sometimes glamorise and glorify the white man’s domination. Indeed, McMurtry can’t rewrite history, but nor does he glamorise these men. “Would you want to know them?” he said once in an interview, acknowledging that the main characters are emotionally stunted, unreasonable people. Yet they are also rounded. Gus and Call feel like real people. Newt, the ‘Lonesome Dove’ of the title, is the teenage newcomer, and the reader’s introduction to this foreign world.
There is violence in this book, as there was in the Wild West. But there is no attendant glory. Rape scenes are referred to but not described in gory detail. Even the big struggle scenes which have been extended for dramatic purposes in the mini-series adaptation comprise just a page or two in the book. The vast majority of text describes day-to-day practicalities and conversations and emotional landscapes. Gus drops many funny and quotable one-liners.
The female characters are constrained by the gender rules of their time. Despite this, they are as strong and stoic as the men. As it says on the cover, ‘If you only read one Western novel in your life, read this one.’
LONESOME DOVE GLOSSARY
Brush-busting – riding through scrub
Duds – clothes
Carrot, bean, dingus, pod, a poke etc – well, you can guess from context.
Cowpie – a dropping of cow dung. McMurtry spells it as a single word, but pronounce it as two.
Crack one’s noggin – to go a bit crazy
Chili-bellies – derogatory term for Mexicans
Chunking varmints – killing animals to eat by throwing rocks at them
Cut out a beef for the cook – to choose a cow from the herd in order to eat
Draw rein – to rein in a horse and make it stop
Harry – to harry an area is to cause trouble; to persistently carry out attacks on (an enemy or an enemy’s territory)
In chunking distance of – near
Lope – the cowboys use this word to mean ‘ride a horse’ somewhere as in ‘lope on over to X’
Lunkhead – a slow-witted person
Nuzzling the jug – having a drink
On the prod – riled up and stirring others up for a fight
Plays out – when a horse ‘plays out’ she has had it, with no energy left, and can die.
Soap bones – a disparaging term for someone’s horse. (They used to make soap from horse fat and glue from the hooves.)
Sour as a clabber – describes Jake’s look. Clabber is a food produced by allowing unpasteurized milk to turn sour at a specific humidity and temperature. Over time, the milk thickens or curdles into a yogurt-like substance with a strong, sour flavour.
Talk guff – guff is ridiculous or insolent talk
Sporting life – sex work
Wet as a muskrat – a large semiaquatic North American rodent with a musky smell, valued for its fur
PLACES AND HOUSES
Adobe – a building made of clay bricks (or the clay, or the bricks). Adobe buildings are common in countries with low rainfall. The clay is basically silt deposited by rivers. The bricks are dried under the sun.
Army trail – these were well-marked, making it possible for even someone with as few trekking skills as Roscoe to make his way between towns.
Barroom – a room where alcoholic drinks are served over a counter. July and Roscoe are warned that in the Wild West they’ll be facing ‘more than a barroom scrape in Arkansas’.
Bluff – a high, steep bank, as by a river or the sea, or beside a ravine or plain; a cliff with a broad face. The men see limestone bluffs to the west as they travel north.
Breastwork – a low temporary defence or parapet. A little fort made by Gus and Pea to protect themselves from Indian arrows
Cistern – When I think of a cistern I think of the toilet, but the cistern is the tank used to store rainwater in Lonesome Dove. Unlike wells, cisterns have waterproof linings. In Lonesome Dove, the well is still being dug, and no one particularly wants to dig it in the heat.
Corral – a pen for livestock, especially cattle or horses, on a farm or ranch. We might just say a paddock, here. Or an enclosure.
Cow trail – What the cowboys call the cattle trail, the path used to transport cows from place to place. You can find old maps with major cattle trails marked on them. The cow trail of this story is the Goodnight-Loving Trail, which is highly significant because this trail is named after the two men who inspired the characters of Gus and Call.
Cutbank – A cut bank, also known as a river cliff or river-cut cliff, is the outside bank of a water channel (stream), which is continually undergoing erosion. So, not quite a ‘cliff’ but just as hazardous to your cattle and horses if you fail to see it coming.
Freshet – the flood of a river from heavy rain or melted snow. Gus and Pea met with this after being surrounded by Indians in Montana.
Gully – A gully is a landform created by running water, eroding sharply into soil, typically on a hillside. Gullies resemble large ditches or small valleys, but are metres to tens of metres in depth and width. Blue Duck is in the habit of retreating to a particular gully when tailed.
Llano – (in South America) a treeless grassy plai. “The llano is a big place.”
Red River – The Red River, or sometimes the Red River of the South, is a major tributary of the Mississippi and Atchafalaya rivers in the southern United States of America. Legendary for drowning cowboys.
The Canadian – shorthand for The Canadian River. The Canadian River is the longest tributary of the Arkansas River. It is about 906 miles (1,458 km) long, starting in Colorado and traveling through New Mexico, the Texas Panhandle, and Oklahoma. Blue Duck tells Gus that he’d better watch out if he sees him north of The Canadian River.
Two-bit town – Jake Spoon returns to Lonesome Dove and is disappointed to find it’s still a ‘two-bit town’ (‘missing 15 cents’). ‘Two-bit’ means cheap/worthless and comes from “the value of a quarter of a dollar.” There is no such thing as a single bit, at least not anymore. The now obsolete Spanish dollar comprised eight reals, or eight bits, so a quarter of the dollar equaled two bits. The phrase “two bits” carried over into U.S. usage, though there’s no bit coin in U.S. currency. “Two bits” first appeared in print in English in 1730 (and later developed the figurative sense of “something of small worth or importance”), followed in 1802 by its adjectival relative. These days, the adjective has far surpassed the noun in popularity. (Merriam-Webster)
Windlass – apparatus for moving heavy weights, like the thing over a well which is used to pull up dirt (and presumably water, when it’s dug).
Apache – refers to a number of Native American groups with little political unity.Apachean people formerly ranged over parts of Arizona, Mexico, New Mexico, Texas, and Colorado. In Lonesome Dove the Apache don’t get much of a mention, except to say Call and Gus once thought they’d head ‘out west of the Pesos’, but only the rare settler has challenged the Apache, so there was ‘no need for Rangers’. I wonder why the white men left the Apache alone, even while fighting the Comanche? The Apachean peoples had already been fighting with the Spanish and Mexican peoples for centuries. By the time the American Army thought of fighting them, they were very good fighters and strategists.
Blackfeet – not to be confused with the ‘Blackfoot Confederacy’, of which about 6,000 live today. The Blackfeet Nation are called Pikáni and are mainly in Montana. Both Blackfoot and Blackfeet peoples speak Blackfoot language. Much of their history is similar. They were named ‘blackfeet’ by white settlers, because they did something to the bottom of their moccasins to make them more durable. (Maybe using pine tar or charcoal or something like that.) Or it may have been a reference to the bottoms of their actual feet, which turned black from running barefoot.
Braves – refers to Native American warriors. Today there’s the ‘Atlanta Braves’ baseball team, which is weird because otherwise the term is an insult due to its troubling history as outlined in this novel. (Ditto ‘redskins’.)
Card sharp – a person who uses skill and deception to win at poker or other card games. So, not quite a cheat. A card counter.
Cornshuck mattress – Lorena’s bed in Lonesome Dove is a mattress stuffed with the husks of Indian corn. None too comfortable.
Cowpoke – another word for a cowboy, but used disparagingly. A cowboy has prestige and credibility. A cowpoke tends to be lazy. Shortened also to ‘poke’.
Cowpuncher – yet another word for a cowboy
Comanche – a Plains Indian who inhabited what used to be called ‘Comancheria’. This part of the world is now New Mexico and parts of Colorado, Kansas, Oklahoma and Texas. The Comanche were hunter gatherers with a strong horse culture. Gus has killed as many Comanche as any other Ranger in his time. Despite this, he feels some affinity for them, being ‘people of the horse, not of the town’.
Desperado – a desperate or reckless person, especially a criminal.
Farmers – are at the bottom of the pecking order. Cattlemen are a step up from farmers, according to cattlemen. Yet the cattlemen, along with Roscoe and July and Joe stay at farms along their travels, with interesting encounters along the way. I guess the farmers along the Army trail and other established cattle trails were used to overnight guests.
Horse thieves – were a threat to horse traders and rustlers and wranglers, though I can’t personally work out where one begins and the other ends. I suppose a horse thief steals horses that have already been rounded up by the likes of Gus and Call’s team, though it seems Gus refers to himself as a kind of ‘rustler’ (horse thief).
Horse trader – Clara’s husband Bob is a horse trader, and has made a lot of money by providing horses for the army. Gus considers this a dangerous job. “I’ve known horse traders who didn’t last a year.” Jake points out that Gus himself is a horse trader, though technically Gus round up the cattle and sell them on to horse traders. The comment about the danger of horse trading foreshadows the condition in which they will find Bob, who has been kicked in the head by a horse and rendered brain dead. Presumably the job is also dangerous because of the threat of being captured and scalped by Indians.
Horse wrangler – A wrangler is someone employed to handle animals professionally. So he breaks the horses in. A cowboy herds the horses up while himself on horseback.
Kiowa – another Native American tribe. They migrated from western Montana southward into the Rocky Mountains in Colorado in the 17th and 18th centuries, and finally into the Southern Plains by the early 19th century. In 1867, the Kiowa moved to a reservation in southwestern Oklahoma.There are about 12,000 left today. Call gets bitten in the back by a ‘Kiowa horse’ and Gus says he should’ve known better than to turn his back on one. This made me wonder if Kiowa horses were especially vicious. But Gus’s comment may have been a comment on the Kiowa people themselves: ‘Typical of all plains Indian peoples the Kiowa were a warrior people that fought frequently with enemies both neighbouring and far beyond their territory. The Kiowa were notable even among plains Indians for their long distance raids, including raids far south into Mexico and north onto the northern plains. Almost all warfare took place while mounted on horses after the introduction of horses into Kiowa society.’ (Wikipedia)
Nester – a squatter who settled on government land, usually to farm
Peon – a Spanish-American day labourer or unskilled farm worker (whose boss is a ‘jefe’). This is how the cowboys refer to the underling Native Americans. (For example the men who work under Blue Duck.)
Pistolero – Thrown around as an insulting term by these American cowboys, a pistolero is a member of an armed band of roving mounted bandits. Comes from Spanish ‘pistola’, of course. (Pistol.)
Posse – originally a body of men summoned by a sheriff to enforce the law. More widely, a group of people with a common occupation. ‘A posse of cowboys’ etc.
Sharpshooter – someone who can shoot a gun very accurately. Gus is the best sharpshooter in the group.
Sioux – Jake says the Sioux and the Cheyenne have got the grass of Montana all to themselves. He wants to go up there, kill them off and reap the financial rewards of claiming Montana for men like him. The Sioux comprise three major divisions based on Siouan dialect and subculture (Santee, Yankton-Yanktonai, and Lakota). Today, the Sioux govern across several reservations, communities, and reserves in North Dakota, South Dakota, Nebraska, Minnesota, and Montana.
Sodbuster – a farmer or farm worker who ploughs the land. As mentioned throughout Lonesome Dove, cowboys and outlaws pay little respect to farmers.
Stage robbers – people who rob stagecoaches, a type of four-wheeled covered wagon pulled by horses/mules. Stagecoaches were frequent targets for robbers, and it didn’t help that they ran on established routes at predictable times. (The Jarbidge Stage Robbery was the last stage robbery in the Old West. In 1916 a small two horse-driven mail wagon was ambushed on its way to Nevada.)
Vaquero – a horse mounted livestock herder. Basically a cowboy, before American cowboys existed. In fact, the American cowboys learnt much of their craft from the vaqueros, who developed their skills on the Iberian Peninsula, took them to South America and then moved up into America eventually.
Waddie – another slang term for a cowboy, though perhaps McMurtry is using an anachronism with this one. It maybe didn’t come about until the late 1800s. The word is used to describe skinny Jasper Fant. It is generally used affectionately to describe each other.
Wrangler – The person in charge of the remuda (group of horses) is generally known as a wrangler.
CLOTHING, FOOD, GEAR & LIFE
Arrows – while the white men used guns, the Indians used both guns (usually old and poorly maintained) and arrows. Sometimes the arrows were poisoned. Native American tribes used venomous reptiles to provide the poisons required. In the Southwest United States, the Gila Monster, being one of the only two venomous lizards.
Beaver hat – impossible to guess what a beaver hat would look like since, apart from being made of beaver, could be a variety of shapes and textures, from fluffy to shiny and smooth.
Bed-ground – the cowboy equivalent of a bedroom for the night. Good cowboys didn’t need much sleep, and had to remain awake on a horse for very long hours. Neither Gus nor Call need much in the way of sleep. The men whose circadian rhythms require more sleep soon get a reputation for being lazy.
Bowie knife – a fixed-blade fighting knife first popularized by James Bowie in the early 19th century.
Brogans – lace up shoes, worn by Louisa. There are both men’s and women’s styles. Louisa wears men’s ones.
Buckboard – a four-wheeled wagon of simple construction meant to be drawn by a horse or other large animal.
Buckshot – coarse lead shot used in shotgun shells
Buffalo chips – dried buffalo dung used as fuel, sometimes even for cooking (which Gus hates)
Buttermilk – both Gus and Call love to drink buttermilk. Originally, buttermilk was a byproduct: the liquid left behind after churning butter out of cream. These days it’s made by culturing milk.
Cap and ball gun – The cap and ball loading method is one of the first and earliest methods of loading a revolver. Samuel Colt created the first revolver in 1836 which relied on loose powder and ball, although this meant that the gun would be slow to load, usually requiring around four minutes, the method was practical and dependable. In the 1870s when the men met Indians using such a gun, this meant the gun was old-fashioned.
Cavalry cap – What Deets wears on his head. Apparently he found it lying around sometime in the 1850s. It’s like a baseball cap that’s kind of squashed down at the front.
Chaps – Leather pants that go over normal trousers to protect the legs when riding through bushy terrain. Chaps look like leather trousers minus the bum and crotch area. Sometimes fringed for decorative purposes.
Cobbler – refers to a variety of dishes, consisting of a fruit or savoury filling poured into a large baking dish and covered with a batter, biscuit, or pie crust before being baked. Po Campo makes the men ‘a sugary cobbler made with dewberries’. (It’s thought that sugary food is good for hangovers.)
Derringer – a small pistol with a large bore, which is very effective at close range
Dewberry – any of a number of trailing brambles (in N. America) with soft prickles and edible fruit resembling the blackberry, which have a dewy white bloom on the skin
Dogie – motherless or neglected calf, easy to round up for even the most hapless cowboy.
Double eagle – a gold coin worth 20 dollars
Dust – it’s hard to imagine how much of it there would have been and how you would be affected in the days before even sunglasses. The men wore bandannas across their mouths to get less mud in their mouths, but the men new to the job found themselves wanting to throw up, there was so much white dust kicked up by the cattle. Men and horses looked white with it.
Fatback – as in ‘biscuits and fatback’. Fat from the upper part of a side of pork, especially when dried and salted in strips. (Apart from the biscuits – scones – these men pretty much at a paleo diet.)
Frock coat – worn by the eccentric entomologist, A frock coat is a man’s coat characterised by a knee-length skirt (often cut just above the knee) all around the base, popular during the Victorian and Edwardian periods.
Fryback – another food. Eaten with cornbread. I can’t find exactly what it is, though perhaps it’s leftover lard?
Goat-gun – Bolivar holds his goat-gun close when he’s feeling unsure. Gus is worried he’s going to blow up the whole house and everyone with it. I suppose it’s called his ‘goat gun’ because he uses it when he goes rustling goats, but underscores the way these men felt about their weapons — different weapons for different, specific purposes.Jake Spoon is said to have killed the dentist with his ‘buffalo gun’. Same with knives and horses.
Gunplay – the word to describe shoot ups. Gunplay is what the men fear when they go rustling.
Hackamore – Call instructs the boys to make hackamores after they’ve caught a large herd of horses. A hackamore is headgear which does not have a bit. Instead, it has a special type of noseband that works on pressure points on the face, nose, and chin.
Hats – liable to blow off more than one might think.
Henry – a rifle patented in 1860 by a man with the last name of Henry, funnily enough. Cal carries a Henry. Gus favours the Colt Revolver.
Hobble – horses need to be hobbled so they don’t run off. When one of the Irish brothers is startled and drunk he tries to ride off on a hobbled mule. A horse can be hobbled by tying two of its adjacent legs together, or by tying up one leg. I wonder how unpleasant this is for a horse.
Horehound candy – a dark brown hard candy with a distinctly bittersweet taste. It is commonly sold in 5 inch long sticks or lozenges, which are often sugar coated. It’s a folk remedy for helping sore throats and other cold symptoms.
Lariat – a rope used as a lasso or for tethering. Bolivar takes one with him to have a shit among the chaparral. Gus and Call, looking on, can’t work out why he needs a lariat to take a dump.
Lunch – there is none. Call doesn’t like to stop for a midday meal. This makes a hearty breakfast important.
Malaria – Gus called his horse Malaria which makes me wonder the extent of its threat in that area at that time. Malaria was eradicated in America in the 1950s but had been prevalent in earlier eras, particularly before the 1880s. Malaria was a leading cause of death. When it didn’t cause death it seriously undermined public health. (In the southern states, including Kentucky, Tennessee, Alabama, Mississippi, Arkansas, Louisiana, and Texas, 7.8% of deaths in 1850 resulted from malarial fevers.)
Mash – home-distilled alcohol. Probably made with cornmeal, sugar and yeast in boiling water. You can even use sourdough as starter. This ‘mash’ was probably fermented by covering the pot in cheesecloth and storing in a dark place. After a while the top turns brown and foamy. When the sugar has been metabolised by the yeast it turns sour. Sounds disgusting. Prohibition didn’t take place in the US until 1920. The men also drink a lot of whiskey, often sharing a jug on the veranda.
Pallet – a straw mattress, or a crude or makeshift bed
Patching – needed to be done regularly, both on the wagon and on Deets’ quilt pants. I guess this means the men were good with needle and thread.
Plains Indian Sign Language – The Kiowa and other nations picked up sign language from the Mexicans. It’s no longer used much. It originated because each tribe spoke a different language, and they needed to trade to each other and so on. There is mention of sign language in the book. In the TV series, Gus seems to make the Plains Indian sign for ‘good’ as Blue Duck approaches.
Pommel – the highest part of the back of the saddle
Point – referred to positions, like sporting positions, alongside the herd. (Left point, right point etc.) The worst place to be was at the rear, catching all the dust. (The ‘drags’.) This spot was reserved for the lowest ranked in the crew, and in this case, the youngest. Dish is an excellent ‘point man’, keeping point all day, never letting the cattle get out of sight.
Reins – ideally made of plaited horse hair, which is stronger than leather reins.
Root-the-peg – a pocketknife game. Players flip knives to make them stick in the dirt. Another pocketknife game is mumblypeg, also called ‘mumbletypeg’, which is mentioned later in the book. The men use a ‘case knife’ which is term used in the south simply meaning a table knife.
Quirt – Lorena uses a quirt to cut a man’s face. I thought it was a kind of knife but actually it’s a whip. A quirt is a forked type of stock whip which usually has two falls at the end. The falls on a quirt are made of leather, buffalo, or cow hide. The core of the quirt is usually a leather bag filled with lead shot, the main part including the handle is often made from braided rawhide, leather or kangaroo hide and is usually somewhat stiff but flexible.
Rawhide – animal skin that has not been tanned. It’s therefore a much lighter colour than leather, more like parchment. (Think of a dog’s chew toy shaped like a bone like you can buy at the vet. That’s rawhide.) Cowboys used it to make whips because it’s more durable than leather. It’s also used to make drums and lampshades and sometimes shoes.
Rivermen – cause the sheriff in San Antonio grief. These are men who are ‘always drinking, fighting and cutting one another up’. I’m imagining men such as those in Huckleberry Finn, who live on boats, making lives of crime and odd jobs. Others would have made honest careers out of transporting fur and liquor and many other goods of the time by water. And it would have been a physically demanding job.
Rowel – Gus sits on Lorena’s bed and likes to ‘twirl the rowel of his spur’. It seems the ‘spur’ refers to the entire thing that straps to the boot. The ‘rowel’ is the little round thing with spikes that hurts the horses. Gus plays with his spur as if it’s a musical instrument. Some cowboys used to add small metal earring-looking things near their rowels which jangled when they walked. You’ll recognise the sound from cowboy movies or spoofs. These jangly pieces were called ‘jingo bobs’ or ‘jingle bobs’. I suppose those jingo bobs were the cowboy equivalent of no-muffler in the age of the rev-head.
Serape – Bolivar’s garment — a long, blanket-like shawl. Generally brightly coloured and fringed, worn by Mexican men. Bolivar gives one to Newt to use as an actual blanket.
Singing – the only skill those Irish brothers brought was their ability to sing. As Gus said, if there’d been two more of them, they’d have made a fine barbershop quartet. In fact the skill of singing wasn’t entirely useless. Cowboys used to sing overnight to keep the cattle calm. The songs would mask other sounds of the night, which were inclined to put the wind up the cows, in which case they were liable to take off in a panic. As long as the singing continued, the cattle remained calm. They would sing songs such as ‘Bury Me Not On The Lone Prairie‘ and probably got mighty sick of the songs they knew, though Irishmen are famous for knowing many, many songs as they come from a strong tradition of singing.
Singletree – These days called simply a ‘tree’ – the top part of a saddle. Made of wood, hence ‘tree’. In the old days saddle trees comprised different parts of wood. Then they were made of a single piece of wood, but for a while the term ‘single tree’ distinguished the two kinds. Peaches gives July’s stepson an old singletree before the two set off after Jake Spoon. I had to ask what the ‘single’ refers to on Quora and here are the answers.
Saddle – the saddle was possibly a cowboy’s most important piece of equipment. He used it not only to ride in but as a pillow at night. He used its horns to tie the end of a lasso. His other equipment hung off it. A saddle was like a pair of boots in that it needed breaking in, and would have moulded itself under specific pairs of buttocks.
Saddle scabbard – where the men keep their rifles. Looks like a scabbard a cowboy would wear on his belt, but this is bigger and hangs off his saddle.
Saddle soap – still used today for keeping leather supple. Comes in a tin like shoe polish and apparently has a distinctive smell.
Sidearm – a weapon worn at a person’s side, such as a pistol or formerly a sword
Six-shooter – a revolver with six chambers
Slicker – a long overcoat. A cowboy slicker would ideally have had three buttons above a split at the back, with the buttons doing up over the man’s backside, making it more practical for sitting astride a horse. Gus wore a yellow slicker.
Trail-broken – once the cattle are trail-broken it’s easier for the cowboys to keep them going where they want them to go.
Walker Colt – The Colt Walker was a single action revolver with a revolving cylinder holding six charges of black powder behind six bullets. It was designed in 1846. Deet carries one of these.
Winchester rifle – Winchester rifles were among the earliest repeating rifles; the Winchester repeater was incredibly popular and is colloquially known as “The Gun that Won the West” for its predominant role in the hands of Western settlers. But Call always uses a Henry, even when his men are all using Winchesters due to their being lighter. Perhaps Call considers a lighter gun a kind of laziness.
FLORA AND FAUNA
Bay horse – Bay is a horse colour. Brown with black hairs in it. (Unlike ‘sorrel’, in which there are no black hairs in the mix.)
Beeves – plural of beef (cows raised to be beef)
Bison – The systematic commercial bison hunting by white hunters in the 19th century nearly ended the bison herds and permanently changed Native American life on the Great Plains. Early American settlers called bison “bufello” due to the similar appearance between bison and buffalo, and the name “buffalo” stuck for the American variety. But buffalo and bison are different animals.You find actual buffalo in Africa and Asia. The American bison has a large shoulder hump and massive head. Buffalo have all but gone from the South but are still plentiful in Yellowstone, according to Jake, at the time of the story. It’s commonly thought that bison were plentiful on the American plains before white men arrived, but in fact the Native Americans themselves kept the populations down. For a while there was a population explosion of bisons, between the events of white men killing a lot of Native Americans, and white men killing a lot of bison.
Bronc – short for bronco, a wild or half-tamed horse of the western US.
Bulls – unlike grizzlies, unbranded bulls were a genuine threat, wandering into camp and mating with the cows, charging at the cattlemen, threatening their horses.
Bullbat – not a bat but a common nighthawk. Comes out at sundown. It is sometimes called a “bull-bat”, due to its “bat-like” flight, and the “bull-like” boom made by its wings as it pulls from a dive.
Buzzards – if cowboys see buzzards in the distance circling around something on the prairie it’s a good sign they’re eating something dead. No wonder buzzards have an ominous undertone in film.
Chaparral – a shrubland/heathland plant community found mainly in California and the North Baja California Peninsula. Shaped by mild, wet winters and hot dry summers with wildfire. Comes from Spanish ‘chaparro’, meaning the Kermes Oak.
Crawdad – dialect for a kind of crayfish. In Australia they’re called ‘yabbies’.
Cottonmouth – a large, dangerous semiaquatic pit viper which inhabits lowland swamps and waterways of the south-eastern US. When threatening it opens its mouth wide to display the white interior. Another danger when crossing rivers and stopping to let horses drink.
Dun horse – a dun horse comes in a variety of colours but its body is lighter than its mane and its legs.
Gant horse – ‘gant’ is also used as a verb as in ‘to gant a horse’. Seems to be a regional variation on ‘gaunt’, and means to make a horse thin by insufficient feeding and a lot of riding/work. Also ‘to gant up’. Seems to be Scottish. (The character of Call was born in Scotland, which causes Gus to accuse him of not being American over breakfast.)
Gelding – a castrated animal, especially a male horse. ‘To geld a horse’ is the verb.
Grizzly bears – the men are scared of bears, perhaps in a pleasantly threatening kind of way, because they’ve never actually seen one down south. There would have been a few back then, sure, but grizzly bears were pretty much wiped out from the plains of America (by men such as these) between 1850 and 1920. Today grizzlies are not found in America outside Alaska and the very top of the Canadian border. The cowboys in LD did eventually meet a grizzly when they got high enough. It proved about an even match for the bull.
Grulla – a type of horse coloration. (Pronounce as if it’s still only Spanish.) The body colour will be smoky or mouse coloured (not a mixture of black and white hairs, but each individual hair is mouse colored). A grulla usually has a dorsal stripe, shoulder striping or shadowing and black leg barring on lower legs. Grullo is used equally.
Horse nickering – Lorena can hear horses nickering from her room, but I had no idea what that actually sounded like. Here’s a YouTube video of someone’s horse nickering. It’s basically an excited grunty sound. People who know horses divide nickers further: There’s the greeting nicker, the courtship nicker and the maternal nicker.
Jackrabbit – a hare found on the prairies and steppes of North America
Lobo wolf – lobo is Spanish and Portugese for wolf, so I guess the men mean wolves from across the border.
Locoweed – (also crazyweed and loco) is a common name in North America for any plant that produces swainsonine, a phytotoxin harmful to livestock. (It looks quite a lot like Paterson’s Curse, which is the equivalent around these parts.)
Mosquitoes – It’s hard to imagine how much of an annoyance these would have been. The mosquitoes are so thick at one stage that if one of the cowboys touched his face he’d end up with a red smear across it. There wasn’t even the benefit of DIMP. I guess a successful cowboy would have had to build up somewhat of a resistance to the bites over time, or else end up covered in huge welts. It’s mentioned that the Irish brothers suffered most, and I’m thinking it’s because they had yet to build some resistance to the local mosquitoes.
Mesquite – the coals of mesquite are used for fires to cook over. Mesquite are trees which grow in hot, dry areas of southern America, as far north as Southern Kansas. The cattle herders do not like mesquite because it’s hard to drive cattle through. They much prefer the prairies.
Mouse snake – the boys are scared even of mouse snakes after one of the crew is killed by a nest of cottonmouths. I wonder if they mean a ‘rat snake’ which is not venomous, changing it to ‘mouse snake’ to make it seem even less harmful.
Nag – an old/worthless horse
Pacing horse – Jake Spoon is known for riding a pacing horse. What is that, exactly? Jake says he prefers pacing horses because they’re ‘easier on the seat’. It’s to do with a horse’s gait: ‘a pacing horse is less stable on uneven ground, which would make it less practical as a cowboy’s horse. A pacing horse lifts the front and back leg on the same side, and rocks side to side as it moves forward. A trotting horse lifts right front/left rear (left front/right rear) together, and it’s a much more even gait for the horse (and the rider). … For some horses, pacing is a fairly natural gait because it’s been bred into them. It is possible that in the Lonesome Dove example, they are not referring to an actual pacing horse, but just any horse with a fancy gait that wasn’t necessary, such as a Tenneesee Walking Horse… they’re giving [Jake] crap because he’s got a fancy-pants horse when any regular horse would have been a more practical choice.’ (MetaFilter) When Gus sees an Indian (Blue Duck) riding a pacing horse he is immediately suspicious. Indians didn’t traditionally ride them, so Blue Duck may have shot a Mexican and taken his pacing horse.
Possum – are mostly eaten by negroes, who catch them. (Negroes also eat turtles, according to the girl who tags along with Roscoe.)
Prickly pear – an annoyance to cowboys who are often getting spiked by it. I wondered if the bush grew pears, at least. Turns out it’s a cactus — the archetypal kind that you would’ve seen on Road Runner etc. Its hairlike prickles easily penetrate the skin. They’re native only to America but have been introduced to other parts of the world, including Australia. The fruit of prickly pears is edible, although it must be peeled carefully to remove the small spines on the outer skin.
Rat Snake – a medium to large constrictor. They eat mainly rodents and birds and are nonvenomous.
Rattlesnakes – are a plenty in Lonesome Dove. Jake Spoon says it’s a pity there’s not a good trade in snake meat, in which case Lonesome Dove would be a lot better off. Unlike rat snakes, rattlesnakes are venomous. Poison gets into you when the snakes bites with its fangs. There was no antivenom when this story was set. Antivenom was originally called ‘antivenin’, and the first published use was in 1895. At first it was just for the Indian cobra. These days, if you got bitten by a rattlesnake you’d need a product called CroFab, the only official treatment in America since the year 2000. Before that there was Crotaline, which had only been around since 1953 anyhow. If you’re bitten by a rattlesnake there’s a chance it’s a ‘dry bite’ — one without venom. But you can also lose a limb or your life, especially if you have an anaphylactic reaction, or are stuck out in the wilderness.
Remuda – a herd of horses from which ranch hands select their mounts. The word is of Spanish derivation, for “change of horses” and is commonly used in the American West.
Shoat – a young pig, especially newly weaned. The shoats (often called pigs by the characters) hang around Lonesome Dove, killing snakes etc. The shoats in Lonesome Dove are often described as having a ‘blue’ coat. This is a black/grey colour which looks bluish under the light.
Snub a horse – an unbroken horse is sometimes tied (snubbed) to a snubbing post so it can’t run around of its own accord. Also called a ‘patience pole’.
Sorrel – Sorrel is a herb, and the flower on its spike is a brown colour, which is used to describe one of the main colours of horse. Brown, for the uninitiated. You’ll have seen plenty of brown horses. Technically that shade is called ‘sorrel’. A sorrel horse has no black hairs.
Steer – a castrated male bull. Steerhide is leather made out of a steer’s skin. The saddler uses strips of it to make rope.
Turtles – can be seen in the rivers. Janey calls them ‘snappers’ and is more afraid of them than of rattle snakes. Roscoe assures her that they may be deadly but they’re slow.
Varmint – an animal considered a pest; specifically : one classed as vermin and unprotected by game law.
Water moccasins – the snake that killed the Irish boy when crossing the first river. Another name for cottonmouth.
Withers – the highest part of a horse’s back, lying at the base of the neck above the shoulders. The height of a horse is measured to the withers.
This story happens 1876-1879 or thereabouts. What was going on in America at this time? According to Call, the big towns have things like ‘oprys and streetcars’, though he personally does not hanker after such things, preferring a comfortable life in the wilderness. For these men, the border is the safest place for them to be, because the local Native Americans have been killed, chased off or mainly subdued. For them, travelling through the Wild West will present a hazard, as this is not the case yet for all of North America.
Of the men in Lonesome Dove, only a few can read at all, and Gus is the best educated of them, misplaced apostrophe notwithstanding. He has a primitive introduction to Greek and Latin, though never finished his education. While much of America is illiterate, the best lettered know not only how to write in English but in Greek and Latin as well.
Deets being black has never had a scrap of education and won’t believe Gus when Gus tells him the world is flat. His view on the world is of the superstitious kind. Others in the group don’t know where Canada is exactly. Even the worldly Gus doesn’t know if the Northern Lights are visible from Montana. Newt thinks ‘the north’ is a place rather than a direction, and has never ridden further than San Antonio.
Although Deets is Call’s most reliable man, Call can’t put a black man in charge of anything. It goes without saying that women of the Wild West have no rights and no say whatsoever, and if they achieve anything in life it’s by persuading a white man to help them out. Gus regularly refers to the men as ‘girls’ in a mildly insulting way, pointing out the gender hierarchy each time.
America is still in its Puritan era. Lorena’s clients don’t even like to take their clothes off most of the time, which is what makes Gus and Jake different. Many are scared away when she undresses herself, which is why she does it.
A lot of men are suffering PTSD after the Civil War. Bill Spettle for example ‘died of drink’. There’s a hole in the male demographic. These lands are missing middle aged men. In fact, the male death rate is still so high that if a man sees a married woman he likes the look of he’s inclined to wait until her husband dies rather than give up hope of romance altogether. Gus is especially prone to this way of thinking.
Big Indian Raid of ’56 – Clara’s parents were killed in this raid in Austin. The Texas–Indian wars were a series of conflicts between settlers in Texas and the Southern Plains Indians. The Comanche fought hard against the settlers. The years 1856–1858 were particularly vicious and bloody. I can’t work out if the ‘big Indian raid of ’56’ refers to a particular actual big struggle during that time, but the main thing is that the last big big struggle happened in 1858, with the Battle Of Little Robe Creek. This marked the end of Comancheria.
How much did Gus pay to have a poke at Lorena that time Jake Spoon was out branding dogies?
So when Lorena charged $2 per session it would cost the modern man $50. Roscoe as Deputy Sheriff was earning about $750/month and I guess that’s how he figured he was poorly paid.
Scalping – Gus lives with the fear of being ‘scalped’. His hair turned white age 30, but he still has a head full of it, which makes him nervous because he guesses it’s attractive to Indians. He doesn’t really want to ride up to Montana in case he’s scalped. What is scalping, and was this really a thing? Indeed, ‘Scalping is the act of cutting or tearing a part of the human scalp, with hair attached, from the head of an enemy.’ Some Native American tribes practised scalping from way back (while others never did). The practice lasted until the end of the 19th century in some cases, and was still going on during the Civil War, which I suppose legitimised Gus’s concern for his head. As usually happens, something as gory as this has a lot of mythology around it, and it would seem the white man took up this practice with creepy gusto. There was already a European tradition of using heads as trophies and proof of bounty hunting; scalps were only a small modification on that.
Summary justice – refers to the trial and punishment of suspected offenders without recourse to a more formal and protracted trial (for example a jury trial) under the legal system. It is also a term sometimes used to describe or justify vigilantism. Call and Gus prefer this kind of ‘justice’ since the only jailers available in the wild west are ‘circuit jailers’, who may or may not turn up to a trail if a criminal is found.
General Lee – Bolivar is under the impression that ‘General Lee freed the slaves.’ Gus points out that it was actually Abe Lincoln who freed the slaves. Robert E. Lee (1807-70) served as a military officer in the U.S. Army, a West Point commandant and the legendary general of the Confederate Army during the American Civil War (1861-65). He’s famous for being bloody-minded, sacrificing lives in big struggle even while knowing the big struggle was hopeless. These days Lee is generally considered a hero in the south and a traitor in the north, but mostly as a soldier who fought for a cause he believed in. After he seceded in the war, he did spend the rest of his life fostering relations between the north and the south. (This makes me think he’d have fought just as hard for the opposite side had his birthplace been slightly to the north.)
Goodnight-Loving Cattle Trail – Charles Goodnight and Oliver Loving were real men. They are ficionalized in Lonesome Dove by Call and Gus respectively. (Gus = Loving and Call = Goodnight.) The fictional characters are very different in personality and circumstance from the real life men, though the main plot points line up approximately. Also, Gus mentions Charlie Goodnight in his conversation with Blue Duck, so even if these two characters are based on real men, the real men also exist within the story.
Rangers – Gus and Call used to be rangers before they started the Hat Creek Cattle Company and Livery Emporium. But what exactly did rangers do? ‘The Texas Rangers were unofficially created in a call-to-arms written in 1823. Ten years later, on August 10, 1835 Daniel Parker introduced a resolution to the Permanent Council creating a body of rangers to protect the border. The unit was dissolved by the federal authorities during the post–Civil War Reconstruction Era, but was quickly reformed upon the reinstitution of home government. Since 1935, the organisation has been a division of the Texas Department of Public Safety; it fulfills the role of Texas’ state bureau of investigation.’ (Wikipedia) The Texas Rangers is the oldest law enforcement in America. Here’s a description of a ranger’s camp life. (Spoiler alert: Not all that romantic.) Gus and Call also shot their fair share of Indians. But the job ‘wore out’. ‘In the south it became mainly a matter of protecting the cattle herds of rich men like Captain King or Shanghai Pierce, both of whome had more cattle than any one man needed. In thenorth, the Army had finally taken the fight against the Comanches away from the Rangers, and had nearly finished it. He and Call, who had no military rank or standing, weren’t welcomed by the Army; with forts all across the northwestern frontier the free-roving Rangers found that they were always interfering with the Army, or else being interfered with. When the Civil War came, the Governor himself called them in and asked them not to go—with so many men gone they needed at least one reliable troop of Rangers to keep the peace on the border.’
Header illustration: The Brave Cowboy, by Joan Walsh Anglund