Wednesday, June 06, 2012

Scalp Mountain - Julia Robb

The Western has long been criticized unfairly as being morally black and white, a simplistic, heavy-handed genre full of clearly defined good guys and bad guys trying to kill each other. And to be honest, there have been plenty of Western stories and novels just like that, and the ones that are done well can be pretty doggoned entertaining, at least to me.

But you can go all the way back to the days of Zane Grey and Max Brand and find plenty of other Westerns that don't fit that description at all. Frederick Faust, who wrote as Brand and a dozen other pseudonyms, loved to put his characters through all sorts of emotional torment as they tried to decide what was right and what was wrong. Many of the protagonists found in the work of Luke Short (Frederick Glidden) and T.T. Flynn were just as morally complex, and then you have stories like Robert E. Howard's "The Vultures of Wahpeton", which is about as different as you can get from the simplistic "gun-dummy" stories that editors such as Rogers Terrill tried to get away from in the pulps during the Thirties. You can't really call it a trend since it was always there in the Western (the Virginian's dilemma of how to deal with his friends Steve and Trampas, anyone?), but that realism and complexity became the dominant force in the Western field with authors such as H.A. DeRosso, Lewis B. Patten, and Dudley Dean McGaughey, and continues in many of today's Westerns.

Which is my long-winded way of saying that Julia Robb's excellent new novel SCALP MOUNTAIN fits perfectly into this area of Western realism. It's the story of former army scout Colum McNeal, who is haunted by the accidental death of his younger brother at his hands. It's not just emotional torment, either. Colum's own father has sent a hired killer after him, a former friend who has an agenda of his own, and this stubborn refusal of the sins of the past to go away complicates Colum's efforts to establish a horse ranch in New Mexico Territory.

Throw in an Apache war chief with a grudge of his own against Colum, a Texas Ranger dogged by the past as well, a beautiful young woman who adopts an Indian baby and faces all the prejudices that come with that, and you can see that the tagline of this book is very fitting: "Everybody was right. Everybody was wrong. Everybody got hurt."

In less skilled hands, this story could have become a soap opera (not that there's anything wrong with that), but Robb writes very well, really capturing the landscape and the people in a style that reminds me a little of James Lee Burke. As confident and well-executed as SCALP MOUNTAIN is, it's quite impressive to think that this is a debut novel. I don't know if there's going to be a sequel, but if there is, I'll gladly read it.


pattinase (abbott) said...

Sounds great.

Ron Scheer said...

Thanks, James, for the overview of western writers who stepped outside the confines of the generic western. And I'm glad you found Julia's book. I was taken by it, too.

If you go back far enough, there was no black-and-white genre at all, just writers setting interesting stories in the frontier West to tell of complex characters with challenging ethical and moral problems.