Land of lawlessness
Two historical novels offer searingly good stories set in the raw and dangerous American West.
Set in 1876 Wyoming, Dragon Teeth is a “found” manuscript from the great Michael Crichton, who died in 2008. Not a typical Crichton blockbuster, it draws from the best of Western fiction. (Think shootouts and a villain whose entrance makes the saloon music halt.)
On a foolish bet, sheltered Yale student William Johnson joins a summer expedition to Wyoming, where he assists a paleontologist digging up dinosaur bones. They hit the jackpot, unearthing a previously undiscovered skeleton. But Native Americans, water buffalo herds and a scheming, rival paleontologist send the expedition packing. Johnson is separated from the group and finds himself in a rough town with the deliciously perfect name of Deadwood. On his first morning, he steps outside the hotel to find a body in the street. “Flies buzzed around the body; three or four loungers stood over it, smoking cigars and discussing its former owner, but no one made any attempt to move the corpse, and the passing teams of horses just wheeled past it.” This is, needless to say, a long way from the rarified air of New Haven. Burdened with crates of fossils he feels compelled to protect, Johnson is challenged for the first time in his life to survive on his own wits, not his parents’ money.
Full of twists and a cool appearance by the Earp brothers, Dragon Teeth is both thrilling and thought-provoking.
Also fighting for survival is Dulcy Remfrey, the heroine of Jamie Harrison’s debut, The Widow Nash, set in turn-of-the-century Washington and Montana. Dulcy is fleeing her abusive ex-fiancé, Victor, but two factors complicate her efforts: One, Victor is her father’s business partner, and two, her dear father has just died after suffering for years from syphilis. While accompanying her father’s body on a train from Seattle to New York, Dulcy disappears—or so it seems.
Actually, Dulcy fakes her own suicide and slips off the train in windy Livingston, Montana, where she becomes Maria Nash, a recent widow. Although she tries to keep to herself in this “place where she’d stopped being herself,” Dulcy gradually becomes part of the colorful Livingston community, with its corrupt police, promiscuous innkeeper and gossipy women. After a lifetime of attending to her father while he searched the globe for a cure for his illness, this is the first time Dulcy has been truly alone. She buys a home and plants a garden, reads stacks of books and quietly starts a tentative romance with a writer.
“She had finally peeled off her old life, lost her ability to fret over secrets before this new one,” Harrison writes. But a slip-up in Dulcy’s carefully cultivated new life could lead Victor right to her door.
Richly descriptive, The Widow Nash is the luminous story of a woman suspended between two worlds, one promising, the other catastrophic.
This article was originally published in the June 2017 issue of BookPage. Download the entire issue for the Kindle or Nook.