Tuesday, January 17, 2017

Exploring the American Western Genre: "Fighting Caravans" by Zane Grey

Restoration Village in Abilene Kansas
A decade or so back, I came upon a copy of Larry McMurtry's "Lonesome Dove" and loved it; it left my mind open to reading other American Western-based fiction. Raised in the 1950's, I acquired a poor opinion of Westerns, since so many lower quality films and TV shows featured such plots.

Then I read the American Classic Western, "The Virginian", followed by a wonderful gem called "Jubal Sackett" by Louis L'Amour (part of a family saga series of novels).

Last summer, we traveled to Maple Falls, WA to rescue family documents and photos from the derelict property of my late Uncle; among the large collection of volumes in his (damp, rodent infested) storage shed was his boyhood copy of "Fighting Caravans"from 1929 (and a new paperback version of "Riders of the Purple Sage".) For sentiment, I chose to read the "Caravans" novel first.

It is what I call a "fly on the wall"-historical fiction novel. Fictional Clint "Buff" Belmet, a boy of 12, goes West with his parents in 1854. Through his eyes and experiences, we meet many actual historic figures of the West, such as Kit Carson, Lucien Maxwell, Charley Bent and many others. Clint can't walk across the street in a western town without having some hero "take a shine" to him, or else he gets crosswise with a villain. Typical Western.

It's a bit of a melodrama: first thing that happens, he meets a little 10 year old pioneer girl, May Bell, who attaches herself to him as the two are the only children in the group. Clint learns to drive a wagon loaded with goods, he can already fish, he soon learns to hunt. The two families part ways, but the kids promise to marry someday. As the author deals with the "children" as characters, the plot is a little sappy. As the characters mature, so does the action.

We see the Native Tribes both sympathetically, for their plight and through the eyes of the encroaching multitudes of new settlers and wagon drivers. There is constant conflict. The American Civil War makes that worse. And worse still in the decade after the war, when "riff-raff" from both armies go west to seek their fortune.

A couple of films were produced based on this story, but do not seem to follow the plot line of the novel.

The main benefit of the novel was that I used it as an opportunity to "google-research" the era, the historic characters, the Santa Fe Trail, the history of the mid-19th Century supply wagon era, which preceded the rail road by only a few years. Part of "Continued Education...."

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