Haunting Books: Three Historical Novels About the West

Each October I’ve devoted one or more posts to the “haunting books” I’ve read during the past year—books that stay with me long after I’ve read them. This year, I’ve been diligent about keeping a list, so I have more than enough books to discuss. In this post, I’ve decided to focus on three historical novels that take place during the Civil War and its aftermath.

WARNING: THERE ARE SOME SPOILERS IN THIS POST

The first novel is Days Without End, by Sebastian Barry, which is probably the most haunting of the three featured in this post. I hadn’t heard of the book until one of the members of my book club suggested we read it. On one level, it is a typical Western, featuring the settling of the West and battles between whites and Native Americans. On another level, it is a love story between two men who save each other from loneliness and poverty. On yet another level, it is about how far parents will go to save a beloved child.

The story is told in the first person by protagonist Thomas McNulty, an Irish immigrant who becomes a female impersonator in a saloon, then with his friend and lover John Cole joins the Army to fight in the Indian Wars and the Civil War. The two men adopt a Sioux girl named Winona when the Army leaves her orphaned. After the Civil War, Thomas and John seek a peaceful life, but rejoin the Army to find Winona, who is being returned to the Sioux in exchange for white captives.

Barry is true to most of the tropes in Western novels—gunfights, war scenes, and chases on horseback (both slow and fast). Barry tells a rollicking tale, but unfortunately some of his plot twists seem forced, such as when friends and witnesses show up suddenly when Thomas is trapped.

What makes this novel is Barry’s prose. The language in Days Without End is gorgeous, if sometimes inaccessible. Barry doesn’t use quotation marks to denote dialogue, which I dislike, and which makes it difficult to interpret sometimes. Thomas’s grammar is uneducated, but his words are lyrical, and the character makes surprisingly insightful comments. I often wanted Barry to be more straight-forward in recounting the story and helping his readers along, even while I appreciated his mastery of language.

This novel “haunts” me because of its gruesome descriptions of war, and also because of the uniqueness of the narrator’s voice. I recommend the novel, if you are prepared for a violent depiction of 19th century battles ranging from Indian skirmishes to the relentlessness of the Civil War. But of the three books I’m featuring today, this was my least favorite.

Enemy Women, by Paulette Jiles is another violent story of the Civil War, though not quite as gruesome as Days Without End.  The Colley family in the Missouri Ozarks has tried to avoid involvement with either side in the Civil War. Nevertheless, after their mother dies, a band of Union militia (not the regular Army) attacks their home and arrests the father (a judge) and hauls him off to prison. When the only son leaves home, the three daughters are left alone. They head for St. Louis to try to locate their father. The oldest girl, Adair Colley, is imprisoned in a Union women’s prison in St. Louis, after she is falsely accused of being a Southern sympathizer, and her younger sisters seek relatives in Tennessee.

Through most of the first half of book, Adair is in prison and is mistreated by the matron and other prisoners. Major Neumann, the Union officer in charge of the prison orders her to write a confession so he can release her. She writes truth and fantasy (which together create a compelling explanation of how she got where she is), but she refuses to confess. Adair and Major Neumann fall in love through their discussions over her “confessions.” He helps her to escape, and although their plans go awry, she does get away and sets off for home. The second half of book describes Adair’s adventures on her way back home. Meanwhile, Major Neumann has problems of his own, but is finally discharged from the Army and tries to find Adair.

I live in Missouri and know something of the Ozark country where most of the novel takes place. But I knew nothing of the women’s prisons during the Civil War, nor very much about the violent and undisciplined militia units that supported the Union Army. The novel makes clear that there were atrocities committed by both Northern and Southern participants of that era.

Although some of what happens to the Adair family and Major Neumann was not very believable, it was a good story. Also, it was generally true to the history of the region, based on primary source material Jiles included for her readers.

What haunts me about this book is the realization of what war does to civilians caught in regions where battles rage. (I’m seeing the same theme in the Vietnam War series now available on PBS.) In addition, Enemy Women depicts the savagery of men (and women) caught up war, particularly when they are not subject to any kind of military order or discipline.

And I’ve loved the Paulette Jiles’s prose in every book of hers I’ve read.

Which brings me to News of the World, another book by Paulette Jiles that also has haunted me this year. In this novel, Captain Jefferson Kyle Kidd, an aging Civil War veteran, makes his living by reading newspapers to residents of small towns across Texas. He is dragooned into taking Johanna, an orphaned white girl who was kidnapped by Kiowas at age six (she is now ten), back to her white aunt and uncle. She has lived with the Kiowa since she was a small child and has been so acculturated to their way of life that she believes she is Kiowa. She objects strongly to being returned to white society and fights the Captain at every step.

But along their trek across Texas in the Reconstruction Era, which is full of typical Western adventures and perils, the Captain and Johanna develop a respect and affection that is both sweet and sad. It is sweet, because it is very real, and because they are two very sympathetic characters. It is sad, because it seems there is no way their bond can continue past the current journey.

Finally, the Captain delivers Johanna to her relatives, which does not go well. It would spoil too much to reveal what the good captain does next. I will only say that the book shows the power of love, even when love is not quite enough to rid the world of its troubles. I loved the novel for its spare prose and for the wonderful characters Jiles created. I wish we all had people like Captain Kidd and Johanna in our lives.

* * *

There are parallels in these three novels. They all have Western themes. They all have beautiful prose that is the envy of any writer. They all depict love found in unexpected places and families built from circumstances rather than from genetics. Days Without End may haunt me the most, because of its gory battles. But of the three, News of the World was my favorite, followed by Enemy Women.

What is your favorite historical novel?

The Luck of the Early California Gold Miners

Most of my historical posts this year have been about the Oregon Trail, because I’m working on another novel about an emigrant wagon train to Oregon. But this post is about the Gold Rush, the subject of my last novel, Now I’m Found.

Gold prospector, 1850, photograph from Wikimedia Commons

In April 2016, I wrote a post entitled “How Much Gold Was Enough in the California Gold Rush Years?” in which I wrote about what it took for the early prospectors to be successful in California.  Most of the early miners did not gain fortunes by picking nuggets off the ground, but a few did. And others made money by slowly panning flakes from streams or by digging ore out of the ground. Many of the most successful men (and women) were merchants and others who made their money off the prospectors, rather than those who mined the gold themselves.

My recent visit to the Black Hills Mining Museum in Lead, South Dakota, showed me how lucky the few early Gold Rush prospectors who earned their fortunes from panning for gold were. The town of Lead (pronounced LEED) is in the gold mining region of the Black Hills. Gold was discovered there in 1876, and the Homestake Mining Company ran a mining operation there for over a century until it closed its operations in 2002.

The early Dakota prospectors engaged in placer mining, using pans and rockers and sluices, like the California Gold Rush prospectors. However, larger mining companies soon moved into the Black Hills, and the industry became mechanized.

The Black Hills Mining Museum has a few displays of the early mining techniques, but focuses primarily on the underground machinery of large-scale gold and silver mines. The tour guide at the museum did an excellent job of explaining how mining was done through the 20th Century. The Homestake Mining Company operated its mine for 125 years, then closed when the price of gold could no longer cover the increasing cost of extracting the ore from the earth.

That yellow metal bin holds one ton of rock. On average, it took four of those bins for the Homestake Mining Company to obtain 1 ounce of gold.

One statistic impressed me the most: Throughout the Homestake Mining Company’s 125-year operating history, on average it took four tons of ore to produce one ounce of gold. That’s 8,000 pounds of rock to yield one ounce of gold.

My earlier post on “How Much Gold Was Enough in the California Gold Rush Years?” was written in terms of dollars. So after my visit to the Black Hills Mining Museum, I translated the dollars of those early miners’ success into ounces. The price of gold in 1850 was $20.67 per ounce. In the early Gold Rush years, $10,000 was a decent fortune. Therefore, at 1850 prices it took a little less than 500 ounces of gold to have $10,000.

Five hundred ounces doesn’t sound like a lot. That’s less than 32 pounds. There are many stories of miners toting around 100-pound bags of gold dust.

But at the average yield of the Homestake Mining Company (8000 pounds of ore to find one ounce of gold), that’s 4 million pounds of ore (or 2000 tons)!

And some of the early California miners made more than $50,000, equivalent to 2500 ounces of gold . . . or 20 million pounds of ore at the Homestake rate of production.

It’s a good thing that in the early Gold Rush years in California, some lucky prospectors could simply pick nearly pure gold nuggets off the ground or out of the streams. They didn’t have to move anywhere near 4 million pounds of ore to find their fortunes. They were in the right place at the right time, and California—and the United States—changed as a result.

What odd facts of history impress you?

Jesse James—Robin Hood or Rogue Criminal?

The History Channel recently reported the anniversary of Jesse James’s birth in Clay County, Missouri, where I now live. Jesse was born on September 5, 1847. I’ve done a lot of research about 1847 for my novels, examining locations from Missouri to Oregon, but I hadn’t encountered any reference to Jesse’s birth before.

Of course, as an infant Jesse James didn’t have any impact on the Oregon Trail emigrants. But as an adult, he had a huge impact on history in Missouri and Kansas, and indeed throughout the United States.

I’d heard of Jesse James growing up, but I thought of him as an outlaw. I had no idea he had a cult following until I moved to Missouri. About thirty years ago, not too long after my husband and I moved to Clay County, we toured the Jesse James farm. It was like touring Mount Vernon or Monticello—the tour guides raved about how wonderful Jesse was.

Come on! This guy robbed banks. He killed people. He was the 19th Century equivalent of a Mafia gangster.

Modern day psychologists and social workers might excuse Jesse because his father abandoned the family when he was two. Or because his stepfather abused him. Or because while still a teenager, he joined the Missouri guerrillas during the early years of the Civil War, becoming one of the pro-Confederate bushwhackers in the Little Dixie region of Missouri.

But in my opinion, his difficult upbringing does not excuse Jesse’s adult history. In the years after the Civil War, Jesse and his gang robbed many banks and also held up stagecoaches and trains. These crimes not only deprived honest citizens of their hard-earned cash but also maimed and killed many innocent bystanders.

Jesse died as violently as he lived. In April 1882, when he was only 34, Jesse was shot in the back of the head by Robert Ford, another member of his gang, while Jesse was living in St. Joseph, Missouri. After his death, his mother put a tombstone marking Jesse’s grave that read: “In Loving Memory of my Beloved Son, Murdered by a Traitor and Coward Whose Name is not Worthy to Appear Here.”

Jesse may have been murdered by a traitor and coward, but his life did not merit the exalted praise I heard during my tour of his farm many years ago. He was no Robin Hood, as many Hollywood screenwriters and dime novelists depicted him. This hero worship began while he was still alive and continues to this day.

Jesse’s family’s farm has been owned by Clay County, Missouri, since 1974, and the County now operates it as a historical site. The farm is still open for tours, much as it was when my husband and I went there about thirty years ago. A non-profit organization called Friends of the James Farm raises funds to preserve the farm and to promote the study of the Border War in the Civil War era. There is also an annual Jesse James Festival in Kearney, Missouri.

In addition, the house where Jesse was killed in St. Joseph, Missouri, is open for tours. I’ve been there also, and the tour guides recount the details of Jesse’s death, to the point of showing the picture he was straightening at the moment he was shot.

But people opposed to the hero worship of Jesse James have their own festival also. Each September since 1948, the town of Northfield, Minnesota, has sponsored “Defeat of Jesse James Days” to honor their citizens who overcame the James-Younger gang in September 1876.

What heroes or anti-heroes of history surprise you?

I Have Another Guest Post on “A Writer of History”

M.K. Tod offered me another opportunity last week to have a guest post on her blog, A Writer of History. I wrote about the lessons I’ve learned in the last ten years on writing a novel. These were the lessons I presented during my session at the Arrow Rock Writing Workshop in Arrow Rock, Missouri, last month.

Please take a moment to check out A Writer of History. It’s a great blog with interesting information for writers and lovers of history. If you browse through her posts, you’ll find lots of intriguing reading suggestions in the historical fiction genre.

My post can be found here.

Hope you are having some fun as you celebrate Labor Day this year.

The Logistics of Supplying Emigrants Along the Oregon Trail

In the modern world, we are dependent on logistics and supply chains that most people rarely think about—how goods get from where they are produced to warehouses where online orders are filled or to retail shelves where we purchase them. I imagine logistics were critical in 1847 also, and I wondered often as I was writing my novels about the late 1840s how distant outposts received their supplies.

Most schoolbook and museum accounts of the migration west describe the provisions the settlers needed to take with them in their wagons when they left the United States. But the initial supplies the emigrants took usually did not last them all the way to Oregon. While there are accounts of the pioneers buying more provisions at forts along the way, there aren’t many sources that tell us about how these forts were stocked and restocked with the merchandise the settlers needed.

In 1847, the year of the Oregon Trail journey in my novels, there weren’t many forts along the route yet. It was still early in the western migration. And only a few of these forts were owned by the U.S. Army. In the 1840s, most so-called “forts” in the West were owned and operated by trading companies, such as the American Fur Company or the British Hudson Bay Company.

Narcissa and Marcus Whitman

Before these forts existed, and in between their rare stops at these outposts, the travelers had to live off the land. When describing her journey in 1836, Narcissa Whitman wrote of the digestive problems caused by eating buffalo meat for every meal for weeks on end.

In 1847, the following were the major stopping points between the Missouri River and Oregon:

  • Fort Leavenworth—a U.S. Army fort established in 1827, but too far north for emigrants trying to avoid crossing the Missouri River, who began their journey in Independence or Westport
  • Fort Kearny—another U.S. Army fort, located in 1847 on the west bank of the Missouri near the Platte River, and later moved up the Platte to near Grand Island
  • Fort Laramie—originally called Fort William, it was a private trading post until the Army bought it in 1849
  • Fort Bridger—privately operated after its establishment in 1842, and too far south for many Oregon emigrants to bother with
  • Fort Hall—originally operated by an American, then sold to Hudson Bay Company
  • Fort Boise—a Hudson Bay Company establishment
  • Whitman Mission—not far east of Fort Walla Walla
  • Fort Walla Walla—known at the time as Fort Nez Perce and operated by the North West Company
  • Fort Vancouver— owned by Hudson Bay Company in 1847

The emigrants of 1847 relied on these outposts to purchase food, ammunition, and other necessities along the route. But I still wondered how these forts got their supplies.

In his book United States Army Logistics: From the American Revolution to 9/11 (2010), Steve R. Waddell (p. 53) wrote about the Army’s role,

“In 1845, the quartermaster supplied fewer than a dozen posts along a relatively limited western frontier that could be supplied by steamboat or off the surrounding economy.”

Fort Leavenworth had large-scale farming on its grounds that produced crops to supply other locations in the West. But most of the locations listed above were not located on navigable rivers and were not the Army’s problem in any event.

The owners of the civilian-owned forts did undertake some farming in their environs, but the amount of food they produced was limited. Much of the land was not suitable for farming, and they didn’t have reliable laborers. The Native American tribes in the region were largely hunter/gatherers and nomads. The Whitman Mission developed extensive farms, though Marcus Whitman also had difficulty hiring Indian labor. So farms at most of the trading outposts produced little more than large gardens and were not sufficient to handle all the wagon travelers.

Freight wagons

Based on my research, it appears most supplies had to be hauled in from either Missouri and Iowa in the East or from Oregon or Santa Fe in the West. Private outfitters contracted to supply the forts and hired teamsters to drive wagons on the same trails the emigrants traveled. Needless to say, these supply treks were lengthy and expensive.

No wonder the settlers thought goods available at the forts were overpriced, compared to the States. Almost every emigrant diary contains entries complaining about the high prices they found at their few opportunities to reprovision.

And no wonder so many emigrants to Oregon arrived at their destination near starvation and in poor health. Their diet for six months had been mostly meat shot along the route or dried and salted provisions they’d started with, supplemented by whatever they could find and afford to buy at the forts.

Are there issues you’ve wondered about when thinking about how our ancestors traveled west?

Great-Grandma Lillie: A Midwestern Pioneer

I was thinking recently about my great-grandmothers. It dawned on me that they all probably had very interesting lives—or at least interesting from the perspective of the 21st Century.

I never met any of the four women, and only one was alive during my childhood. That great-grandmother was Lillie Evelena Smith Claudson. She’s the great-grandmother I heard the most stories about, and yet I don’t feel I know much about her.

Lillie was born in Assumption, Illinois, on January 22, 1884. Her parents were Andrew Jackson Smith (an Ohio-born man who was the son of German immigrants, Jacob and Mary Schmidt) and Elizabeth Gertrude Ernst Smith (whose parents were George Jacob & Eva Elizabeth Ernst, probably also of German extraction).

This might be a picture of Lillie’s family when she was a child. But I have no idea which child might be her.

When Lillie was very young, her family moved to Nebraska. Other family obituaries state that the Smiths moved in June 1884, when Lillie would have been just a few months old. That’s consistent with the family stories I was told. The Smiths were one of the first families to settle on the Garfield Table in Nebraska. They farmed there for many years.

On October 3, 1901, Lillie married Luther Monroe Claudson, the son of a Danish immigrant Charles N. Claudson and his wife Elvira Sophronia Vaught Claudson (I know nothing about her background). My father always told me that Lillie and Luther were married in 1900 when Lillie was fifteen, but if the dates I found online are correct, the marriage was in 1901, and she was seventeen at the time.

Family lore also has it that Lillie and Luther moved into a sod hut when they started their married life on their farm and that the first two of her four children were born in that hut. (My grandfather Laverne Ernst Claudson was her second child.) But I can’t substantiate how long she lived in the sod hut, so I can’t verify where they lived when my grandfather was born.

As a child, when I read the Laura Ingalls Wilder’s Little House books, I thought of Grandma Claudson’s life story. Wilder wrote about covered wagon trips from one Midwestern locale to another, and I pictured Lillie and her family traveling from Illinois to Nebraska. When I read Wilder’s accounts of moving into a sod hut on the banks of Plum Creek in Minnesota, I imagined Lillie as a new bride moving into a similar soddie on the Garfield Plain.

Lille and Luther moved into “town”—the tiny community of Arnold, Nebraska—in 1923. She would have been thirty-nine at the time—still young.

My father talked about his childhood trips to visit his grandparents in Arnold. He played with cousins and helped Grandma Claudson—as Lillie was known by then—in the kitchen, including watching her wring a chicken’s neck for Sunday supper. I got the clear sense from him that she took no nonsense from anyone—including a young grandson—but that he loved her and knew she loved him. I think he needed some discipline in his early life, and she provided it in healthy doses.

Luther died in 1947, and Grandma Claudson lived alone in her little house in Arnold until her death on November 21, 1973, at age 89. I’m told she mowed her own lawn until she died.

My father rarely visited Arnold after my parents were married, and my mother never met Grandma Claudson. Not meeting my dad’s grandmother was one of my mother’s regrets, since she hadn’t known her own grandmothers. Some of my father’s cousins told me that Grandma Claudson always appreciated my mother’s letters. My mother did write numerous newsy letters to relatives and friends. I was glad to learn Grandma Claudson was one of her correspondents.

My father and several of his cousins were Grandma Claudson’s pallbearers at her funeral in 1973. I remember my father going to her funeral, though no one else in our family went with him. At the time, I had just started college, and I didn’t think twice about missing the funeral of a great-grandmother I had never met. But now, like my mother, I wish I’d had the opportunity to meet her at some point while she was alive.

Lillie and Luther Claudson’s tombstone, Arnold, Nebraska

I couldn’t even find a picture of Lille to post, though I bet there’s one somewhere in my father’s papers. My siblings and I kept some older photos with no identification of who is depicted—perhaps one of them is of Lillie.

The reason I find Lillie’s story so compelling now is that she was a pioneer. She connects me to settlers in the Midwest. I consider myself a Westerner, though I have now lived in the Midwest for two-thirds of my life. Remembering Lillie—Grandma Claudson, as I think of her, even if I never knew her—reminds me that I have roots in this part of the country as well.

And I can picture her as I write about pioneers to the West in my novels about the settlement of Oregon almost forty years before Lillie and her family moved to Nebraska. It’s still a surprise that the West Coast was settled before some of the Midwest.

What connections does your family have to pioneer days?

ADDENDUM: I found Lillie and Luther Claudson’s wedding picture in some files I took after my father died:

Luther & Lillie Claudson on their wedding day

And here’s a close-up of Lillie:

Lillie Evelena Smith Claudson on her wedding day, October 3, 1901. I don’t see much resemblance to my grandfather, but I do to Lillie’s daughter Effie Claudson Coleman, my great-aunt.

Seeking My Roots in Copenhagen

Ten years ago, in the summer of 2007, my daughter and I went to Copenhagen to visit my niece who was studying there. I can trace one branch of my ancestry back to Denmark, so the prospect of visiting that nation appealed to me. I wondered if I would feel a connection there, as I did when I visited Ireland a few years earlier.

My niece and her roommate were busy most of the time, so my daughter and I toured Copenhagen on our own. We took a boat tour of the city. I loved the brightly colored buildings that lined the canals. They reminded me of the row house doors in Dublin.

From the boat tour

We saw The Little Mermaid statue, which was beautiful albeit underwhelming (I’d been warned it was quite small). I remembered reading Hans Christian Andersen’s famous story as a child. I’d never liked Hans Christian Andersen’s fairy tales, which seemed dark and horrific to me. I preferred the Grimms Brothers—as if those were a whole lot merrier.

The Little Mermaid

We climbed a church steeple for a panoramic view of the city. Gorgeous, though we then faced a long walk back to the apartment on tired legs. The view reminded me of Florence, Italy.

Copenhagen from the steeple

We went to museums, where all the signs were in English and German as well as Danish. I learned Danish history, including the very early Viking Danes who were the first Europeans to reach North America (unless the Irish Saint Brendan beat them by a few centuries).

And on one cloudy day, my niece took us to tour Kronberg Castle, supposedly the model for Shakespeare’s Elsinore in Hamlet. I’ve always had a thing for castles—probably because I grew up in a decidedly unromantic town built in the 1940s, which contained nothing remotely resembling a castle.

Kronberg Castle

We ate well. The Scandinavian penchant for fish at breakfast did not appeal to me, but everything else tasted great.

It was a wonderful trip. I loved Copenhagen and felt very comfortable there. What I saw brought to mind many memories, though none of them ancestral. I guess my Danish genes are too diluted (it was my great-great-grandfather who immigrated from Denmark to the United States). My other ancestors were mostly English, Irish, and Scotch, with a little German thrown in.

Still, I’m glad I went to Copenhagen, and I would happily go back. I may not have found my roots, but I enjoyed the trip.

Where are your roots, and when have you sought them out?