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I suppose I'm like most readers in that there are a few settings and time periods that always attract my attention. Books set in the far West, especially in the late 1800s, seem to call me, and Anna Keesey's affecting debut novel, Little Century, is no exception.
As always, let me start with with publisher's summary:
Orphaned after the death of her mother, eighteen-year-old Esther Chambers heads west in search of her only living relative. In the lawless town of Century, Oregon, she’s met by her distant cousin—a cattle rancher named Ferris Pickett. There, she begins a new life as a homesteader, in the hope that her land will one day join Pick’s impressive spread.Although the summary makes Little Century sound like a historical romance, the novel is really about life on the Oregon high desert during the waning days of the old frontier. Two aspects of Keesey's writing stood out sharply for me: her characters and her ability to capture the environment.
But Century is in the midst of an escalating and violent war over water and rangeland. As incidents between the sheep and cattle ranchers turn to bloodshed, Esther’s sympathies are divided between her cousin and a sheepherder named Ben Cruff, sworn enemy of the cattlemen. Torn between her growing passion for Ben and her love of the austere land, she begins to realize that she can’t be loyal to both.
So often authors fall back on the stereotypes of the Old West: the prostitute with the good heart, the gruff wrangler who is really gentle, the principled sheriff, and the black-hatted outlaw. Keesey, however, has mostly avoided that pitfall. Her characters are complex and full of realistic contradictions. For example, Pick likes to think that he has lofty goals, but in the end, he really acts in his own best interest.
Of all the people in Century, I was particularly taken with Esther. Raised in the city and now alone without options, she is not a martyr or a whiner. She's accepted the realities of her life and is determined to make a go it, learning to ride a horse, sleeping alone in her cabin, and trying hard to understand the local grazing rights conflict.
She, who "for most of her life [had] known mostly women and girls," is suddenly thrown into the world of men in a country that isn't exactly lawless but is far from the predictable streets of Chicago. Within hours of her arrival, she finds herself lying about her age with her hand upon the Bible, foreshadowing the moral conflicts of living in the West. Her transformation from a lonely, naive schoolgirl to a mature, capable woman drives the plot, although there is plenty of action, especially in the later chapters.
Keesey's evocative and flowing prose bring forth the sights and sounds of the Oregon desert, from the gray winter days to the awaking of spring and from the hot sun to the deepest hour of the night. As other reviewers have mentioned, the landscape plays a strong role in Little Century, shaping the characters, the town, and the events that unfold.
Anna Keesey's Little Century opens up a piece of the real frontier: the bleakness, the infighting, and the broken dreams are solidly juxtaposed with the fight for survival and the ever-present promise of making one's own luck.
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Published by Farrar, Straus & Giroux / Picador 2013
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