Jane Candia Coleman Turns An Old-Fashioned Cattle Drive Into High Adventure.
By Emil Franzi
The O'Keefe Empire, by Jane Candia Coleman (Five Star, Cloth, $19.95)
MOST OF THE Old West trail drives were south to north, as were the classic stories that described them, from Red River to Lonesome Dove. Jane Coleman's latest novel is based on the diary kept during a real cattle drive that began in New Mexico and went through Arizona to San Diego. Set in the winter of 1888-89, the drive happened much later than those better-known adventures. Railroads were the principal reason for the demise of those earlier drives, but the railroads were the cause of the one featured here.
The late Roger MacBride liked to quote his adopted great-grandmother, Laura Ingalls Wilder, author of Little House on The Prairie, as saying "anybody who won't steal from the railroad can't be trusted"--a common attitude throughout the West in the late 19th century and beyond. The railroads were gouging Southwestern ranchers so badly in the late 1880s that they simply couldn't afford to ship cattle, so they had to either drive them on foot or lose their ranches.
The hero in Coleman's story is 24-year-old Joanna O'Keefe. Recently widowed, she has acquired her husband's share of a large but troubled New Mexico ranch in partnership with a pair of immigrant Scottish brothers, John and Angus McLeod. Coleman populates the rest of the novel with a cast of believable characters, both good guys and bad, and there's even an Italian version of Walter Brennan at the chuck wagon--kind of like Red River in a different direction with one of the bosses as a lady.
Coleman's writing makes you feel the gritty scut work of moving a herd of cattle 1,000 miles over bleak terrain. She makes it clear that nobody in his right mind did this stuff for fun; being a "cowboy" was really a scummy job.
She also gives us a blossoming love interest between Joanna and one of the brothers, enough nasty bastards and unexpected obstacles to keep things interesting, and the ultimate triumph of the good guys. Fans of Cormac McCarthy will be turned off by that--there's no cavalcade of misfits, losers, victims and bad guys who never miss when they shoot. Coleman is kind of old-fashioned that way, bless her--and probably more accurate. The geography of Arizona and the Southwest are portrayed as they then were, when rivers like the Gila and the Colorado still ran.
Readers who enjoy Western historical fiction that accents strong female characters without making them caricatures will enjoy The O'Keefe Empire. In another time, when the values it presents were held in higher esteem by Hollywood, it would have had a fair chance of being made into a movie. For the McLeod brothers think Randolph Scott and Jimmy Stewart with a Scottish brogue. We could do a whole lot worse.
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