No two persons ever read the same book. --Edmund Wilson

Wednesday, September 05, 2007

#50: Territory -- Emma Bull

"A mining engineer. Someone who tells people where to dig mines, and how to do it."
"…And find water, and place for house and grave for good luck … How to use magic in ground."
Not for the first time I'm glad of my habit of setting aside the dustjacket of new hardcovers before reading. If I'd read the blurb on the front cover, I'd have discovered a lot of the plot before the characters admitted it to themselves: Jesse's nature, Mildred's sideline, and the location of the book's climactic event. And the gradual revelation, the magic beneath the mundane, comes on slowly, with admirable pacing.

Territory is a frontier Gothic, a novel of the Old West with sorcerers and hexes and skewed perceptions. Tombstone is not just a convenient setting; the story is grounded in place and people. Here's Wyatt Earp and his three brothers, here's Doc Holliday and his wife-by-courtesy, Kate. Here are all-night poker games (do the hands hold darker meanings?) and cattle rustlers, land claims and muddy streets and the Fourth of July. Here's an episode of American history wrought new, and I feel at once disadvantaged and peculiarly blessed by the fact that it's not my history. I've never been a great fan of Westerns: I don't know much about frontier life or the post-Civil War period. I came to this with fewer preconceptions than an American reader might have done, and I suspect my experience of the novel has been quite different.

The novel focuses on two characters: Mildred Benjamin, recently-widowed but fiercely independent, who earns her living by type-setting for the Tombstone Nugget; and Jesse Fox, a drifter on his way to Mexico, whose sole source of income seems to be training horses but who has two years of college education (studying to be a mining engineer) and a chequered past.

Fox comes to Tombstone in pursuit of the thief who stole his horse, and stays because he finds an old friend, the Chinese physician Chow Lung. A Chinese woman is murdered, and Fox and Chow seek out her killer.

Mrs Benjamin, meanwhile, befriends the Earp wives; finds herself drawn to Fox; discovers a new talent as a reporter; and witnesses events for which her world-view offers no explanation. But that doesn't mean they're inexplicable.
He saw, for an instant, two things … he saw them both at once, as if someone had put the wrong picture in one half of a stereopticon slide. In his memory, too, there were two versions of the last few seconds, and one of them had nothing uncanny in it.
(That's a delightfully congruous similitude, by the way; it's firmly rooted in the period, and it tells us something more of the character's past. I'll bet there isn't a stereopticon within a hundred miles of Tombstone.)

One of the admirable things about Territory is the richness of the characters. There's a whole novel's-worth of backstory between Fox and Chow, told only in allusion and asides; there's more story than meets the eye (and in more than one sense) to Mildred Benjamin. And there's the larger story, told with a light and almost negligent touch, of how Wyatt Earp has made Tombstone his own. And the story of how the Chinese community, 'Hoptown', coexists with the frontier camp that's Tombstone: occupying the same space, and yet almost wholly separate.

I wasn't altogether content with the ending: there are plenty of threads left dangling, though a resolution of sorts has been achieved and the ground's ready for new beginnings. (How mixed are my metaphors?!) In particular, I'd have liked another passage from Jesse's point of view.

[Later: the interweb hints that this is the first in a two-part series. There's nothing in the novel itself, or on the dustjacket, to support this -- and it does make a difference, so perhaps there should have been! -- but in terms of story it makes excellent sense.]
[Still later: Emma Bull's Territory Q&A plus sample chapters.]

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