Monday, April 9, 2012

Conrad Richter's Early Americana

A wagon train wends its way west along the Santa Fe Trail.

In 1928 the American author Conrad Richter and his family pulled up stakes and moved from eastern Pennsylvania to New Mexico in the hopes of improving his wife's health. Transplanted to totally unfamiliar territory, he set about to unearth the stories of the families who had settled there, digested old diaries and letters, and gleaned all he could from the local library on the history of the region and how the lives of its settlers and their descendants had changed over time. The most famous result of this work is his Sea of Grass, published in 1937, which centers on the conflict between cattle ranchers and homesteaders and the characters of both. But his first output from his yarn gathering was his collection of nine short stories, Early Americana.

Many of these stories revolve around the coming together of a young man and woman in marriage carve their place in the vast prairies west of Saint Louis, but the romance is always understated, if made explicit at all. Lives travel tracks that bring them together and the rest is assumed--except that the land and the difficulties of settling it present nearly insurmountable obstacles that are unimaginable today but that come to life under Richter's pen: gunfights on a betrothal night, drought that kills the cattle herd a young man had built up so he could marry, Indian attacks that destroy a young man's family.

Cowboy in 1888. Mutual respect and partnership in hard work were the basis of a marriage, rather than romance.

So in "New Home" we wait with a young wife while her husband goes off to settle the ownership of the land and is gone far longer than either had anticipated. Her waiting is palpable, and we are in pain with our sympathy for her, hoping against hope that he returns. In "Frontier Woman," a Southern belle makes the arduous journey west after the Civil War to lead a new life, where her nearest neighbor will be 80 miles off, and contemplates her future:
Farther, much farther back, she felt the ravaged gardens of the South, the Confederate exodus through the piny woods, the vast watery fissure of the Mississippi, and the black trail across the illimitable prairie. And now in a kind of mirage she saw herself out on the desolate cap rock, birth to Craig Weatherill's children, herself their teacher in a rambling adobe ranch house, nursing them without hope of a doctor, keeping lonely vigils, helping in times of attack to load the guns for the men, trying to teach indifferent hands some of the declicate recipes of the South, inevitably homesick, never entirely forgiving the hard land of her husband--a frontier woman.
In one of the most dramatic stories, "Smoke on the Prairie," Richter explores both the upheaval that came with the railroad and its replacement of the long wagon trains that has first brought people from the east along the Santa Fe Trail.

As always, Richter shows his deep respect for women and their work. Women waiting for their husbands to return from a haul to the market or from a sojourn to find a lost cow kept themselves busy as a way of stopping up their floodtide of anxiety.
Her hands kept eternally busy. She washed and ironed, heating the heavy smoothing iron by setting it upright on the hearth before the coals. She sat daily over winter socks for Pleas and the baby, one foot moving the cradle as she knitted. Morning or afternoon she let the sheep from the high corral and followed on foot over the range, resting with her baby on the grass in cedar shade.

Pleas had set up a hopper for the oak ash. In the big copper kettle brought from Arkansas she boiled wood ashes. When the lye dissolved the end of a feather, she added accumulated greases and tallow and boiled a small batch of soap, cut the cooling mixture into yellow-gray bars and piled them on the mantel to dry. She soaked a flint-dry deerskin in strong suds of lye soap, water, and a spoonful of lard; scraped off the hair with an old corn knife; let it remain by the warm hearth all night; wrung, pulled, and stretched it next day until perfectly dry, when it becomes soft and pliable as cloth and waited only her shears and thread for gloves or clothes.
Richter never lets us forget for a second the land that his characters inhabit. We imbibe it through their eyes and his lyrical voice:
They rode slowly on, while the luminous purple began to appear like violet mist on the hills. It spread to the plains, bathing them in color. The home ranch in the wide mouth of Monica Canyon ahead became an island of buildings, corrals, and windmill swimming in a bright velvet sea. The color seemed to float in the air about them. They breathed it, road through it.

1 comment:

Carport said...

Great post! Nice blog. Thanks a lot for sharing such wonderful post.