Reimagining the Old West

The Return of Kid Cooper is the latest novel by Brad Smith, who has been called "a writer to watch, a comet on the horizon" by the likes of Dennis Lehane. It's the story of old-school cowboy Nate Cooper who has just been released after thirty years in a Montana prison serving for a false murder conviction. It's 1910 and the world has changed—but Nate Cooper hasn't. He returns to his Northern Montana ranching town a free man and stirs up controversy immediately—seeking justice, evading hired guns, brawling in saloons, righting past wrongs, and ferreting out—with the help of a young newspaper reporter and the woman he used to love—a fraudulent boundary adjustment robbing the Blackfoot (again) of their territory. Along the way, he ruffles feathers all the way to the State House, and before the storm he brings is over, he and the friends of his youth will all pay a shockingly high price for justice.

In this list, Smith shares some titles that have helped inspire his own. 

***** 

Roughing It in the Bush, by Susannah Moodie

Maybe the book that started it all in terms of rural Canada’s literary stature in the world. First published in 1852, it is part travel guide, part memoir with perhaps a little fiction thrown in for good measure. Moodie does a good job of deflating the so-called upper class of the times, while vividly describing, well…roughing it in the bush. The book became a bit of a cultural touchstone – social media before social media existed.

The Englishman’s Boy, by Guy Vanderhaeghe

Vanderhaeghe expertly straddles the nineteenth and twentieth centuries in this telling—and retelling—of a massacre by a band of degenerate wolf hunters of two dozen Assiniboine in what is modern day Saskatchewan. The story fades but then comes alive again, fifty years later, when Hollywood comes calling, accompanied by one Shorty McAdoo, who might have first-hand knowledge of the incident. The book is a terrific blend of fact and fiction and a nuanced examination of the tenuous relationship Hollywood has with the truth. 

*

Lightning, by Fred Stenson

Lightning is Stenson’s highly original take on the old western saw—the cattle drive. The cast includes seven thousand cattle heading for the Alberta plains and one Texas cowboy, Doc Windham—who is simultaneously running away from some aspects of his past (the sadistic mustache-twirler Overcross) while chasing down another—namely, a woman named Pearly. With a portraitist’s eye and a storyteller’s deft touch, Stenson deconstructs the myths of the old west and builds a brand new version, all his own.

The Boys in the Trees, by Mary Swan

Swan channels Truman Capote (In Cold Blood) with her “non-fiction novelization” of a triple murder in rural Ontario in the 1880’s and of the aftermath of the crime. The condemned murderer William Heath is a can of worms. As is the case with modern (and all too frequent) mass killers, the reader would like nothing more than to get inside his head. Be careful what you wish for. This book is beautifully written and thoroughly researched; period fiction doesn’t get any better than this.  

*

Jake and the Kid, by W.O. Mitchell

In this short story collection, the Jake in the title is a Canadian (the setting is Saskatchewan) version of the hired hand Billy Buck in Steinbeck’s classic novella The Red Pony. Set in the 1940’s, Mitchell’s book is more richly peopled than the Steinbeck story, with a cast of eccentrics from the fictional town of Crocus. Some—like the deep-thinking barber Repeat Golightly and the irascible “professor” Noble Winesinger—seem to have arrived fully-formed from a Marx Brothers film. The sagacious Jake holds it all together, as he guides the Kid through the muddled and befuddled years of growing up.

The Outlander, by Gil Adamson

Another turn-of-the-century piece, set in Alberta in the early 1900’s, Adamson’s Outlander is a searing telling of a young woman (just nineteen), guilty of mariticide (one so rarely gets to use that word) and her desperate flight thereafter. One step ahead of her two vengeful brothers-in-law, she arrives in the mountain town of Frank in time to witness the (true life) disastrous mountain slide of 1903. Adamson handles the period and the story with equal aplomb. Her writing is raw and visceral and not for the faint of heart.

*

I Heard the Owl Call My Name, by Margaret Craven

Set on the Kwakiutl Reserve along the British Columbia coast, I Heard The Owl Call My Name is a heart-rending piece. A young preacher, Mark Brian, is sent to live among the Natives in a village called Kingcome where the old ways are fading, the young people drifting away. Suffering from a terminal disease, Brian has been dispatched there to teach the tribe, Of course, in the end it’s the other way around. A poignant, original book.

*

Book Cover The Sitting Bull Affair

The Sitting Bull Affair, by Robert Stewart

Sitting Bull, hounded by the U.S. Army for years, and having participated in the rout of George Custer’s Seventh Army at the battle known as Little Bighorn, arrived in Saskatchewan in 1877, accompanied by roughly 200 Sioux followers. Billed as a documentary novel, Stewart’s book details the relationship between Sitting Bull and Major James Walsh of the Northwest Mounted Police. The friendship was real but the Sioux’s prospects in Canada were no better than in the U.S. A fascinating look at two men of brains and vision—and of the futility of their efforts toward conciliation between their two peoples.

April 5, 2018
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