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Between the Lines: Wagons Ho!... or something like that
(June 2002)
By David Pitt

You know, there's a lot we don't know about the "Old West." It wasn't all cowboys and Indians - I know you're not supposed to say Indians these days, but that's the phrase we grew up with - and it wasn't all cattle rustling, shoot-'em-ups, wagon trains, and home, home on the range. There was a lot going in the U.S. of A. that nobody ever talked about in all those oaters we watched as kids.

For instance: in February, 1859, in Washington D.C., a congressman by the name of Dan Sickles shot and killed a fella called Philip Barton Key. Sickles was a good friend of one James Buchanan, who currently held down the job of President of the United States of America, and Key was the son of Francis Scott Key, who wrote a little ditty called "The Star-Spangled Banner." Philip Key and Sickles's wife had been, shall we say, fooling around a bit.

After the murder, Sickles surrendered himself to the proper authorities; he was tried, and, if you can believe it, acquitted. His wife's life was ruined, but Sickles went on to have a shining career, eventually rising to the rank of Brigadier General in the army and fighting in the Civil War, at the Battle of Gettysburg. American Scoundrel (Doubleday), by Thomas Keneally, chronicles Sickles' rise to greatness, and asks the burning question: how the heck can a guy commit murder, get away with it, and become one of the country's most respected statesmen?

Keneally, better known for his fiction (he's world-famous for Schindler's List, but he's written a lot of wonderful stuff, you oughta check him out), brings a novelist's eye to this true story. The book is beautifully written, finding that perfect balance between history and drama. It's like the finely-detailed Civil War-era novels of Jeff Shaara, only more poetic, more elegant.

Speaking of world-class novelists, here's Larry McMurtry's Sin Killer (Simon & Schuster), the first installment of a projected four-volume epic. Here we meet the delightful Berrybenders, an aristocratic British family that transplants itself to the American West in 1830. Their plan: to make their way up the Missouri River and make a fortune out of the acres and acres of unsettled land up north. Naturally, the wild West ain't nothin' like what they expected.

McMurtry is, of course, author of a fistful of amazingly entertaining Westerns. Lonesome Dove, which won him the Pulitzer Prize, is utterly brilliant, and Sin Killer is - well, let's just say if he didn't already have a Pulitzer, he might need to start making shelf space now. In case you're wondering, the title refers to Jim Snow, a frontiersman of dubious nature whose relationship with young Tasmin Berrybender is at the center of this big, sprawling story. Why is Snow known far and wide as the Sin Killer? We'll let McMurtry tell you that.

McMurtry's best novels nimbly mix comedy and drama, keeping us on our toes, and he's in fine form here. You'll be chortling out loud one minute, biting your nails in suspense the next. This is one of the best novels from a consistently excellent writer.

One of the best Western clichis - it s a clichi if you've seen more than two Western movies, anyway - is the Wells Fargo stagecoach. Philip L. Fradkin's Stagecoach: Wells Fargo and the American West (Simon & Schuster) is a history of the well-known company, tracing its development from its beginnings as an offshoot of another company whose name might be familiar (American Express) to its emergence, in the twentieth century, as one of the country's most trusted banks.

There are lots of facts and figures here - Wells Fargo's assets grew from $300,000 in 1852 to more than $270 billion in 2000 - but what makes the book so thoroughly enjoyable is its flavor: Fradkin, a veteran journalist (he shared a Pulitzer in the mid-1960s), has written several books about the West, and he makes this long-ago period of history seem current, alive, vibrant. Wells Fargo was a bank, courier company, and communications giant all rolled into one. Sure, it might have looked like a buncha guys driving horse-drawn buggies, but behind this Western-movie image was a corporate superstructure as complex as any you'll find today. This is a rich, colourful book that transports us back to the West, and fills us full of things we never knew before.

You know, there is really a whopping pile o' things we don't know about this period. Like this: If they were going to secede from the United States, the Southern states needed money; to get money, they needed to sell their principle commodity, cotton, to England. But they couldn't do this because President Lincoln's navy had set up a blockade, keeping Confederate ships from getting anywhere near England.

So Jefferson Davis, the president of the upstart Confederate States of America, decided the only way to make a go of it was to pull the Union blockade out of position - distract it, you might say. So he set up this elaborate scheme to build a secret navy in England, and use it to come at the Yankees from a totally unexpected direction.

The Rebel Raiders: The Astonishing History of the Confederacy's Secret Navy (Ballantine), by James Tertius deKay, is the rousing, thrilling, wildly entertaining account of this little-known part of Civil War history. Davis's plan was gutsy, so inventive that it seems like something a novelist might make up, but it's all true. The book's full of spectacularly exciting real-life characters: James Bulloch, sent to England to build a secret fleet of warships; Charles Adams, who tried, and failed, to keep the British from helping the Confederates build their navy; Raphael Semmes, whose vessel, the Alabama, attacked sixty Union ships in a heroic effort to help Davis's navy get their cotton out of the country. This might be nonfiction, but it's as spine-tingling as any made-up naval adventure.

Since we're in a naval frame of mind, let's take a couple of moments and check out The Sea Shall Embrace Them (Free Press), by David W. Shaw. I don't know if you've ever heard of the luxury steamship Arctic; it was one of the largest ships in the world a century and a half ago, a lavish floating palace with a steam engine two stories tall, spacious rooms, and enough opulence to make the richest passenger feel at home.

On Sept. 27, 1854, off Newfoundland, on the last leg of a Liverpool-to-New York voyage, the Arctic collided with a much smaller vessel, the Vesta. Arctic's captain, James Luce, did everything he could to save his ship and its passengers, but four hundred men and women were dead by the next morning. Eighty-seven men were rescued: twenty-two passengers, sixty-five crew. No women or children survived.

Luce survived, though. And when he returned to New York, he had a horror story to tell: the crew, he said, had overpowered him, mutinied, turned tail and fled. There were not nearly enough lifeboats to fit everyone left aboard. As he raced for shore, Capt. Luce's ship sank beneath him; it took five hours for it to go down. Shaw, an experienced sailor and naval writer, puts us right there on the Arctic, makes us feel as though we're on the doomed luxury liner. He also gives us plenty of background: the fierce competition between steamship lines, the race to see who could build the biggest, fastest ship, the United States' dream of becoming a thriving commercial maritime enterprise. When the Arctic went to the bottom, so did the U.S. dream of seagoing commerce. The country looked inside itself and - in case you were wondering why I've included this book - set about exploring, and developing, its immense unsettled mountain ranges and flatlands & taming, if you will, the American West.

Hey: got an idea for a future column? Got a book you really love? Got a subject you wanna explore through books? Email me. Or, I might just keep blithering on about whatever strikes my fancy ...
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