Oregon-bound from her home in Chicago, Esther Chambers gets a hopeful impression of her soon-to-be home from a train conductor who describes it as an abundant garden shaded by trees so large you can build a house by felling just one. This lush, developed Oregon known to Portlanders, and to author Anna Keesey, a professor at Linfield College, is far from the high desert where Esther lands. "Oregon," she sees, "has been misreported."
Keesey's compelling debut, Little Century (Picador, 322 pages, $16), is classic Western genre fiction, juxtaposing a stirring love story with the unforgiving frontier in Century, Ore., at the turn of the 20th century. We follow 18-year-old Esther, recently orphaned by her mother's death, as she ventures west to join her only living relative, cousin Ferris "Pick" Pickett. Pretending to be of age, Esther homesteads a piece of land only to find herself embroiled in a war between cattle and sheep ranchers. Her loyalty is torn between her cousin, a cattleman, and her love interest, a sheepherder. Beginning timid and naive, Esther matures quickly and courageously into womanhood. Keesey's well-drawn characters have relatable flaws and hidden secrets, making them feel genuine.
While the youthful romance keeps a lighter tone, Keesey is careful not to sugarcoat the brutality of the Wild West. She writes: "He just kept smiling and his teeth were all outlined in blood. I never saw anything like that son of a bitch."
The narrative is intriguing, although not fast-paced. The driving conflict is introduced too late in the story, pushing the bulk of the action to the end of the book as the beginning drags. Like many great Westerns, grim fate is foreshadowed: "For if this is the fate of the sheep, what of the shepherd?" Esther asks. At times, this bogs downs the book, creating a sense of hopelessness, only partially averted by magnificent imagery and escalating romance.
Keesey writes with an easy elegance; her prose is gracefully captivating and clear as the playa lake in the center of town that also serves as the center of the battle between the ranchers. "All is gray and sleeping under a shiver-thin coverlet of old snow," Esther remarks upon arriving in the desert. Though the story moves at the slow pace of its era, it's a well-written visit to a time and place unbeknownst even to Oregonians of our own place and time.