War Journey

Despite its implausibility, 'Territorial Rough Rider' succeeds because of good writing and extensive research

There's a passel of "just happened to's" in this latest historical Western by Tim Champlin. A character who just happens to remember where the combination is written so he can rob a safe just happens to fall in with some quasi-legitimate wranglers who, when being chased by a group of outright illegitimate rustlers, just happen to jump on a passing train that just happens to be transporting volunteers toward San Juan Hill, to be led by none other than Lt. Col. Theodore Roosevelt.

The implausibility of events and shaky motivation for actions would be blood in the water for a hungry fiction-writing workshop. But there's enough other goings-on in this book to make you want to run shark interference for it.

Champlin began writing Westerns in 1982. That he's published 13 in the past eight years speaks to some writin' roll he's on ... or to some fascination with exploring history by letting fictional characters muck about in it. Which--to this one-time lit major who used to sleep though history lectures--is the appeal of historical fiction.

As Territorial Rough Rider opens, central character Peter Ormond is fumbling to break into his own wealthy father's wall safe. Drunk on sherry (Amontillado, actually, in a little Poe revenge allusion), frustrated with his own impotence in the face of his father's ridicule, reacting with all the maturity of a sulky kid, he manages to get the safe open and pocket his father's prized gold coin collection. Ormond never intends to keep or sell the collection; he just wants to make his father sweat its loss for a while. With the coins thrust into his jacket and trousers pockets, Ormond catches a train west. It's a long trip from New York to Prescott, Arizona Territory, though. Ormond gets comfortable, falls asleep and wakes up pick-pocketed: Two-thirds of the $50,000 collection are missing.

Ormond vows to somehow repay his father--on a temporary postal worker's salary--and when he's offered quick money to help drive a herd of wild mustangs to Ash Fork, he quits his job and jumps on. Not a cowboy but a crack shot, Ormond gets into a shoot-out with a gang that steals their horses. Then he--along with ranch foreman Gunderson and Millard Johnson, Ormond's father's manservant sent to retrieve the coins--escape the gang by jumping aboard a military train carrying the Arizona Volunteer Regiment heading east. Their prospects considerably diminished, the three of them all muster in to follow Teddy Roosevelt to Cuba to fight the Spanish.

Having shown himself craven and aimless, Ormond would hardly seem man enough to go into battle. It'll become a venue for a test of character.

The time Tim Champlin didn't spend on writer's craft--focusing point of view, fleshing out secondary characters, building motivation, avoiding improbable coincidence (a private overhearing a conversation between Roosevelt and Colonel Wood, for example)--he clearly did spend on research. His setting descriptions and historic details can be vivid. The stolen gold coins, for example, are minutely described. Uncirculated and minted privately before the United States produced its own, they also represent their own little bit of silver/gold standard American history. The reaction of crowds in the towns the military train passes through reflects a war hunger. Memorable are descriptions of artillery, uniforms (the image of Roosevelt's own tailor-made khakis--always wrinkled, sometimes sweat-soaked, comes to mind) and food (including profiteers' recycled China-Japanese tinned rations).

Ormond's character gives Champlin the opportunity to examine the nature of cowardice and courage. It wouldn't give away the story to observe that it gives off a whiff of Red Badge of Courage, and Champlin paints a convincing Ormond. Ormond's fundamental honesty--even in light of his unseemly behavior--salvages him for the reader, and places the courage question in the foreground. Battlegrounds provide a natural test of what's viewed as courage, but Champlin reminds us that courageous acts may have other sources. "Courage," Ormond's buddy Gunderson comments, "is nothing more than willful, stubborn pride. For whatever reasons, pride keeps a man from acting cowardly."

Not just the privates' but the generals', the politicians' and the media's conduct come into play in Territorial Rough Rider. As one dinner guest deliberately misreads an armchair hawk's comment about the Spanish in Cuba, ("Which arrogant bastards? The Hearst papers and the War Department?"), this book is also about a rush to war fanned by the press.

Champlin has effectively re-created a private's experience in the expeditionary force invading Cuba. He's successfully recounted an example of early U.S. imperialism. If a mysterious lady in black just happens to enter the plot, from who knows where, and for who knows why ... oh, well; we can deal with it.