From the bedside stack*: Revisiting old Territory

*the stack of books beside the bed, a.k.a. books that that have been on my reading list well past the “new release” period.

I’m not exactly sure why it took me almost three months to finish Emma Bull’s latest novel, Territory. It’s a slim volume about a period in history which has been so well-trod in movies and books that all I have to say “OK Corral” and I’m sure you could tell me how the story goes. Well at least some version of it. The story of Tombstone, Arizona during the 1800s (“The Town to Tough to Die”) has grown into American mythology. It’s been told and retold, fictionalized and revised for fact. We all have our favorite version.

Well, I now have a new one.

By now this shouldn’t be a spoiler but consider yourself warned:

Bull doesn’t spend her considerable talent retelling the events of the OK Corral. Her attention is fixed firmly on the relationships that bring the figures of Wyatt Earp (and his gaggle of brothers), Doc Holliday, Ike Clanton et al. to that famous moment. As it turns out, what happened at the OK was the tip of an iceberg. Beneath the surface, politics, intrigue and murder are rife in the burgeoning silver town. Since this is an Emma Bull novel and a touch of magic just beneath the surface like the scent of spent incense lingering in a room rests beneath Tombstone’s dusty streets. She resists the urge to define it rigidly, but when reading the book it feels that rules of magic in this world are concrete even if not always understood either by the characters or the reader. The descriptions of magic are lush but almost intangible. Its no surprise that, as one of the forerunners of the urban fantasy sub-genes, Bull knows how to avoid weighing down magic with words.

“Watch, Jess,” She’d said, and the candle flame went out.
“You blew it out. I’m not stupid.”
In the moonlight through the window he saw her grin, a fey, wicked look. “No, you’re not. So watch again.”
She’d stared at the wick, her lips thinned, her brows drawn together. The wick had smoked, glowed – and burned again.
He’d made her do it over and over until she had a headache. She tried to explain to him what she was doing, but he couldn’t do it, couldn’t even put the flame out, which she said was easier.
Think your way inside that wick, she’d said. You have to draw pressure around it, draw heat into it from the air.
On the writing desk before him, at the tip of the clean white wick of each candle, a flame wavered and rose.

What makes Territory feel like more than a fairy dusted western is how well Bull rounds out the cast of known characters with a host of other figures popular history has for the most part ignored: the Earp wives, Doc’s wife Kate Holliday, a thriving Chinese community, and many of the people who came west for reasons other than cattle or land. In this, the book finds unexpected depth in the relationships and interactions. This west is clinging desperately to the veneer of respectability, as evident the way Bull expertly captures the cultural and gender interactions.

Bull finds rich ground with her two main characters Jessie Fox and Mildred Benjamin. The former is anything but the stereotypical plains drifter, being partially college educated and semi-fluent in Chinese. The latter is a widow and typesetter at the local newspaper, who writes dime store western stories under a thinly veiled pseudonym that allows her readers and editors to assume she is a male writer.

Although both characters seem uncommon for their day, Bull creates a community around them that makes them feel even more believable. For Jessie, it’s the Chinese medicine man Chow Lung. The sense of their shared history of adventures imparts the relationship with that combination of affection and impatience that marks a master and his student. Widow to a much older man and Civil war veteran, Mildred treads the fine line of ladylike behavior even as she embraces her new found independence working for newspaper editor Harry Woods. To Mildred, Harry is far too concerned with her life, but it’s clear that he both encourages her fledgling career and has an eye on her future happiness.

If Jesse provides us with a view of of Chinese culture in the west, it’s through Mildred that see the world the Earp women: the wives of the brothers who have staked Tombstone as their territory. Also fascinating is the portrayal of Kate Holliday, Doc’s common law wife. A strong woman who goes up against every social convention, Kate is Doc’s match in every way. Their love affair provides the book with some of the most poignant moments.

Writing horses is always tricky – but unavoidable during a period in which horsepower involved hooves and teeth. Sam, Jesse’s horse, manages to avoid being a Disney caricature while still being involved in important scenes in the novel. I appreciate when writers either know horses or have done the legwork on research. Among Jesse’s many talents is as a horse trainer. His technique isn’t magic, but, to many of the people around him, it could be. The scene in which Jesse gentles one of the Earp’s fractious horses is as much about Jesse’s relationship to magic as about a style of horse training that, while uncommon for the day, was the building blocks for the type of equine psychology based training now popularized by modern day “horse whisperers.” (I also appreciate Bull’s opening caveat: don’t try this at home!)

The scenes with Fox and Benjamin shine. Their dialogue, through well grounded in “frontier speak” (thing Deadwood without all the swearing), sparkles with wit and chemistry. Thrown together by circumstance and initially mistrustful of one another, the attraction that blooms between Jesse and Mildred is born of growing respect and intellectual stimulation. Their scenes also feature some of the most delightful conversations about writing, authors and readers.

“I read [Twelfth Night] aloud to my younger sisters. They said it was pretty very pretty, but that no one would really have taken Viola for a boy.”
“They did if Shakespeare said they did,” Fox declared.
“I hope you aren’t that trusting with every author.” Mildred contemplated anyone getting their notions of human nature from “Stampede at Midnight” and quaked with guilt.
“I assume they’re trustworthy until proven otherwise.”
“How,” Mildred asked, feeling like a spy, “do they prove they’re not?”

Bull has a way of advancing the plot through dialogue in unexpected ways. Often times, it’s what is not said that is important, and seemingly innocuous conversations convey vital details. It’s not until last third of the book that the magic possessing the town is spoken about in any direct sense.

This may be why it took me so long to finish the novel. It’s not the kind of book I can read a few pages at a time before bed without having to backtrack a few pages the following night to make sure I hadn’t missed anything. It wasn’t until I sat down to finish it in a couple of solid chunks that all the pieces seemed to drift into place and hooked me firmly to the page. With this many characters, relationships, motives, and events magical and non-magical, the book is best enjoyed with devoted time.

I wonder if some readers will be disappointed to know that the OK Corral never features in Territory. I believe the novel ends right where it should, but perhaps not where we are used to seeing it end according to the familiar story. It’s a clever slight of hand: Bull takes the legend into her own special territory – infusing the western world with strong magic, rich characters, and well done romance. In this version of Tombstone, territory isn’t just claimed in land, but staked by the magic that binds people as much as loyalty, greed or love.

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About Eddie

Watch what happens when you give a writer a cello.
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