Perhaps (Francis) Bret Harte (1836-1902) is my way back into my 'Western Lit' reading that I set out to do so enthusiastically earlier this year. Bret Harte this weekend and Laura Ingalls Wilder next weekend and maybe a little Larry McMurtry along the way, too. I thought I had read "The Outcasts of Poker Flat" before, but if I did it has faded so far from memory that on reading the story I had no recollection of it. Harte is apparently best known for his accounts of pioneering life in California. Gaging by the number of schools named after him he certainly made an impression in American cultural life. The story has been filmed a number of times--in the 1930s and early 1950s, though neither adaptation seems currently available. I read a little about Harte and whatever his literary legacy, it sounds as though he is known for creating a certain "type" when it comes to stock Western characters.
I don't think I feel the draw of reading more of Harte's work, but "The Outcasts of Poker Flat" was an interesting read--a study in irony perhaps, a morality tale of sorts with the twist being that it's the characters of questionable or low morals who end up the heroes and those who are the town's upstanding citizens revealed to be the hypocrites.
Maybe it's thanks to Mr. John Oakhurst's success at cards and the fact that he lightened the wallets of several prominent citizens by a hefty amount of coin that he was shown the way out of town (never to be allowed to return and lucky he didn't end up at the end of a noose hanging from one of the town's taller trees).
"A secret committee had determined to rid the town of all improper persons. This was done permanently in regard of two men who were then hanging from the boughs of a sycamore in the gulch, and temporarily in the banishment of certain other objectionable characters. I regret to say that some of these were ladies. It is but due to the sex, however, to state that their impropriety was professional, and it was only in such easily established standards of evil that Poker Flat ventured to sit in judgment."
Whatever their own sins, these prominent men have no qualms about throwing stones, or in this case throwing people out of town. Along with the gambler Oakhurst the expatriated party consists of a young woman familiarly known as "The Duchess", another with the infelicitous title of "Mother Shipton" (infelicitous since she is the mother of a band of prostitutes) and a drunkard and general ne'er do well called "Uncle Billy". The group is escorted out of town and told never to return.
Maybe had they continued directly to their destination (only a day or so's journey away) and not taken a break on the road, only to get caught in a snowstorm, their ending might have not been so tragic. Do you want to know what happens? Read on (and if not, skip the next two paragraphs please).
The group is joined by a young man named Tom Simson but known as "the Innocent" and his even younger fiancé, Piney. Oakhurst and Simson had a run in before. The boy lost all his money in a card game, but being the man Oakhurst is, he took the boy aside, told him never to gamble again and gave his losses back. And forever after Tom looks on Oakhurst as the most admirable man he's ever met. The group finds temporary shelter in a small cabin with enough provisions to last a little over a week. But luck is not on their side, as Uncle Billy absconds in the night with their horses and mules. Limited supplies, a ferocious snowstorm and no animals to help them to their destination. You can probably imagine what is going to happen.
The group spends days in the cabin before Tom decides he will set out for help and fashions a set of snow shoes to wade through the snow. Oakhurst decides to accompany him part of the way. Mother Shipton, after hiding away her portion of the food to give to young Piney has slipped away peacefully in the night having starved herself. As the days merge together and no one comes for them The Duchess and Piney know they are all alone and have only each other to pass away their final hours. When finally a party of townspeople finds the outcasts, The Duchess and Piney are in a final embrace--impossible to tell which is the virgin and which the fallen woman. And Oakhurst? I had imagined a better end for him. He has left the two of clubs (not being a card player . . . significance of this one, anyone?) tacked to a tree noting the streak of bad luck that has struck the gambler. Has his luck truly run out or as another reader has interpreted his action--decided that he can no longer live by Fate?
I wonder what the movie version of the story is like. And I wonder what the Law of Poker Flat made of all this? All rather sparingly and quickly described, but I never quite felt as though I connected with anyone in the story. I can certainly see, however, how nicely this would start a discussion in a classroom setting.
Next week a story by Ambrose Bierce.
* * * * *
Didn't I just read a 'dog story' in the New Yorker? It says something about the author and the story that the Q&A about Maile Meloy's "Madame Lazarus" garnered not just one but (at the moment I am reading it) six comments. Most often there is not a single comment or maybe just one. If the dogs in the last story I read were threatening, Cordelia is something else entirely. It is probably because so many people can sympathize with the owners of Cordelia that the story seemed to resonate so. This is an intriguing story for a number of reasons, not least as it is an interesting way into a character's personality by how they act and react to a pet that comes into their life unplanned and unasked for.
While (and I hate to admit this) I felt sort of 'meh' about the Harte story, I have to say I loved Maile Meloy's "Madame Lazarus". I loved how she used the gift of a small dog by an Englishman to his older French lover as an "in" to the Frenchman's life--his past and his present, his emotions--all without sentimentality, so matter-of-factly presented yet offering the reader a chance to empathize. It's a beautifully told story (one of my favorites of the New Yorker this year, I think) and she does it in so few pages. With short stories every word, every paragraph must count and they do in Meloy's story.
Meloy is not only a short story writer but she has also written novels, her first was shortlisted for the Orange Prize in 2005. Yet another, 'how did I miss this author' find for me. Yes, I'm going to look for more of her work.