In the tradition of such classics as My Antonia and There Will Be Blood, Anna Keesey's Little Century is a resonant and moving debut novel by a writer of confident gifts.
Orphaned after the death of her mother, eighteen-year-old Esther Chambers heads west in search of her only living relative. In the lawless frontier town of Century, Oregon, she's met by her distant cousin, a laconic cattle rancher named Ferris Pickett. Pick leads her to a tiny cabin by a small lake called Half-a-Mind, and there she begins her new life as a homesteader. If she can hold out for five years, the land will join Pick's already impressive spread.
But Esther discovers that this town on the edge of civilization is in the midst of a range war. There's plenty of land, but somehow it is not enough for the ranchers--it's cattle against sheep, with water at a premium. In this charged climate, small incidents of violence swiftly escalate, and Esther finds her sympathies divided between her cousin and a sheepherder named Ben Cruff, a sworn enemy of the cattle ranchers. As her feelings for Ben and for her land grow, she begins to see she can't be loyal to both.
Little Century maps our country's cutthroat legacy of dispossession and greed, even as it celebrates the ecstatic visions of what America could become.
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Farrar, Straus and Giroux
June 05, 2012
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Excerpt from Little Century by Anna Keesey
THOUGH SHE WOULD NOT HAVE ADMITTED to any fixed expectation, Esther is still confounded by what meets her at the end of her journey. The hands at the Two Forks ranch, it appears, can be called boys or fellows by Pick, or buckaroos by Vincent, but not cowboys, except in fun. They are not boys, anyway. They are laboring men in flannel shirts and leather vests and boots worn down at the heels. They have brown necks and cheeks that look chapped, as if they have employed shingles to scrape away their beards. They may be strong--they must be, if they direct cattle about--but they don't seem very likely. They are lackadaisical, on Esther's first morning in the high desert, at the task of fitting boards over the windows of the Two Forks house, which have been shattered by vandals.
"Buckaroos don't like to do anything excepting to ride and to wrangle," says Vincent, who helps run the ranch. "They want to act like they never seen a hammer. And of course they'd rather take out after those sheepmen and separate them from their slingshots. It's a dull job to clean up when you want to hit back. But Pick works them, and they do what he says."
Last evening, at the end of her four-day journey to Oregon, in the windy winter dusk, she was greeted by destruction. As Vincent drove the wagon into the yard after a cold and dusty trip from the train station, she saw no welcome party arrayed on the steps, but lamps swinging, the yellow beams crossing into and out of the stripes of light coming from the house, and a number of bare-chested men kicking glass with their boots. She held her valise on her lap and hugged it. Disorder? All right. But damage, ill will? Bad neighbors? She had not imagined this when she decided to come west.
And now, despite hours of grateful sleep after the discomfort of the train, the morning seems no more promising. Esther pulls her coat around her and sits down on the bitter iron of a wagon tongue. Before her are miles of gray plain roughened with brush, rising into a blurred olive band of vegetation and other bands of smoke and slate blue too far away to be consequential. And beyond these the three rocky peaks Vincent calls the Sisters array themselves in robes of ice. Esther has never imagined a land so fruitless. Under snow is thin, silky dirt, and under that, rock so rough it catches the leather sole of one's shoe. It is eerie rock; it has flowed from inside the earth through some unnatural crevice, blackening the landscape like Hades's chariot. The shrubs are plentiful yet parsimonious, flexible but dry. Here and there, like scarecrows with giant heads, windmills brood over the plain.
Vincent hands her a cup of coffee, and the heat feels good through her gloves. She thanks him and tastes it. Bitter, manly, and scalding, not like tea. "What did you mean just then, about sheepmen?"
"Herders and owners of sheep. Not so many around here as cattle, but there's some."
"But why would sheepherders break your windows?"
"Don't care for a cattleman."
"Oh." She's embarrassed to say she doesn't understand, but he sees this and comes to her aid.
"Pick leads the way around here in keeping sheep off what's cattle ground."
"Do they try to come onto his ranch? Isn't that trespassing?"
"Well, that land ain't legally part of Two Forks. Most of this desert around here belongs to the U.S. government. But McKinley don't give much of a damn, and since cattlemen's taxes been nursing this town along for years, it's just fair we get first crack at the open grazing. Last week Pick had the buckaroos mark out some territory by burning what they call deadlines on the trees up there in those hills. Bunch a sheep came up there--local stockman named Brookie Duncan runs 'em--and the buckaroos chased 'em all down, shooting and hollering and scaring the bejesus out of the herder boys. He takes a large pull of coffee, and shakes his head. Maybe it wasn't that nice. But you give them boys a penny and you'll be out a dollar."
And the shepherds responded by breaking the windows. "But why slingshots?" she asks.
"Can't waste the ammunition to shoot out a window, they're too poor. And they don't really want to hurt anybody. I don't think they do. Well, they're not likely to get much of a rise out of your cousin. Ferris Pickett's nothing if he ain't cool."
She's perplexed, a little thrilled, by these doings, but she hopes the sheepherders have vented their annoyance and won't come back. Pick, her cousin, does seem cool. He will make sure everyone behaves, certainly. His house alone is a testament to his competence and certitude; it is by far the largest place she has ever lived in. Inside, the wallpapers and carpets are scarlet and blue, almost royal, and the furniture is rich and polished. Outside the house is broad and formal, with massive front doors, a dark mansard roof, and bright white paint. Above the veranda runs an abbreviated balcony with an iron railing, like baroque black lace. But for the large metal windmill twirling beside it, this house would look suitable commanding a large lawn with redbuds and lilacs in one of the better areas of Chicago. Even with three of its large windows cracked or shattered, it is impressive, even haughty, as if it has mustered itself out of the dust and then been surprised by the humble neighborhood.
Vincent follows her gaze. "Pick built it a while back, when he was young. Well, younger. He's thirty now. He wouldn't go for so much gewgaw anymore, now that he's grown. Say now--" He gestures east with his bearded chin. "That claim of yours is a pretty property. It sits on a lake, most of the time."
She pictures a piece of land rising and flying away from its lake like a magic carpet. "Most of the time?"
"It's a playa lake. It's not there all year. Comes and goes, so they call it Half-a-Mind. You can water stock all spring at Half-a-Mind, but come August, you're sure to go begging. There's a place to stay, though. Miller built a cabin on the claim before he absquatulated."
"I'll live there all the time, then? That is--all the time?"
"Now, that depends on what you mean by live. You're supposed to spend six months of nights there and grow a crop. But the law don't say you have to eat or keep your clothes there."
"I don't think I know how to grow anything. Except marigolds."
"Oh, I'll show you. Anyway, you can eat with Pick and me and the boys. You're only a mile away."
A mile! And not a cable car anywhere. She ventures, "I saw there weren't any ladies at breakfast."
"You aren't married?"
"Isn't Pick married?"
"We're not much good at marrying at Two Forks. Maybe it's a problem with the well." He laughs. "No, sir, you're the first female we've convinced to stay with us for long."
For long? Someone has been and gone, then. But she never imagined that there would be no women on her cousin's ranch; it had not occurred to her. For most of her life she has known mostly women and girls. Her mother, her school friends and teachers, and her mother's friends. But there is a town here, somewhere. There will be--well, people.
Pick, tall and soft of footfall, appears behind them, resettling his hat on his fair hair. "You're ready," he says to Esther. "Good. We'll go over to the claim."