When the Going Gets Tough
Besides meeting kindred spirits, one of the nicest things about this column is the access to books of all kinds from publishers and publicists. These perks include genres that don’t usually draw me, and I surprised myself when I signed on to read the novel The Whip. Normally reading “a piece of the “Old West” in a cover blurb would have me passing on the book. But this one had a hook.
Charley Parkhurst, when she was alive, was known far and wide as a brave and highly skilled stagecoach driver. Women didn’t drive stagecoaches, you say? Well, she lived most of her life as a man; it was only after her death that Charley’s gender was discovered, to the incredulous surprise of the “tough guys” who (thought they) knew “him.”
Author Karen Kondazian found a gem when she found Charley’s story, and she’s done a good job polishing and embellishing it. There isn’t a lot of verifiable information about Charley’s life, and Kondazian discloses up front that she’s made up some historical details. It is a novel, after all. But the draw of the story, for me, was that it was based on someone who must have had one heck of an adventure, whether or not the novel gets the particulars exactly right.
Kondazian’s got an acting background and it shows. Her highly visual scenes shift rapidly and dramatically. The book opens on One-Eyed Charley driving his coach hard and fast, a “craggy yellow toothed god”. The drama shifts to a visit with the doctor, who doesn’t have a promising prognosis for Charley, and later to his home with Anna, where he’s come to die. Only when Charley’s finally unraveled his clothes to reveal the nearly forgotten Charlotte beneath do we begin to hear the story of how a pretty young girl evolved to a grizzled, gun-toting man.
The story’s complicated, as I’m guessing the story of the real Charley was. But while there’s the constant knowledge that Charley’s life has a major element of artifice, the author shows us emotions that are real—intense love with an unlikely partner; heart-wrenching, unfathomable loss; and the decision to begin again and keep going. Estrogen or not, Charley is as gritty and tough and admirable for her resolve as any squinting, tobacco-chewing cowboy in any Western you’ve ever read or watched. The book ends with real newspaper clippings from 1880, and the obituary claims her life story as “sufficient of the wonderful.” I’ve got to agree, at least when it comes to the fictionalized Charley of The Whip.
One Western-themed read begat another. I only knew a few of the big names, and Louis L’Amour seemed a good place to start, with more than ninety books to his credit. End of the Drive is a collection of his stories that were discovered by L’Amour’s daughter after he died.
Here I found myself again, an Easterner who is not especially fond of frontier reads (unless you count Little House on the Prairie), reading about the Old West. The Whip showed a woman’s perspective, made even more interesting because her gender is a secret. L’Amour’s voice is very masculine, but the thing that kept me reading was that it wasn’t just cowpokes, cattle drives, and saloons. L’Amour’s shrewd eye for human nature is what makes his stories both colorful and familiar. In this edition, we have a preacher that preys on the gullible and people whose true colors are brought out by money, as well as quiet, good men who retain their decency and fortitude in the midst of chaotic times.
L’Amour’s language is direct, compelling, and pithy—here’s the end of the story after which the book is titled:
“I like the way you straddle a town, and I like a man with judgment and principle. It is a rare thing to find a man who will stand square on what he believes, whether it is making a rule or an exception to it. So if you’ll ride with me it’s a partnership, share and share alike.”
A square, solid, blocky man in a striped white shirt and black sleeve garters, he looked at me carefully from those cool gray eyes and then he said, quite seriously, “I’ve little to pack”, he said, “for a man who has never had anything but a gun travels light.”
The first paragraph has a softer side. But the one that follows is Clint Eastwood flick familiar; it gets down to the business of survival, which was the heart of the matter on the frontier.
It finally clicked for me when I read these Western-centric books that this business of survival is the draw of the story, and those authors who make it appealing do so with a mix of grit and humanity—we see the toughness that had to be cultivated, but we also see the tender human heart under the unflinching mask of invincibility. The frontier was a hard place, the struggle to tackle and tame it is part of our collective American heritage. Both L’Amour and Kondazian show us people in the dusty whirlwind of change and how they travel through it, headlong into the dust with hope for something better on the other side.
Books mentioned in this column: