Thursday, September 24, 2009

Hostile Is Friendly to Reader

The Hostile Land
by Wayne C. Lee
Leisure Books, 2009

Apparently offered in hardcover only in 1964, this February 2009 publication is the first paperback edition of The Hostile Land. To my mind this is one of the rare times that a book’s generic-sounding title perfectly fits the story. The book’s hero is literally surrounded in a hostile land. Too, while the beautifully pointed cover is generic enough to fit many kinds of stories, it is still perfectly suited to the deadly menace that endlessly threatens the characters within the volume.

Web Blaine is on the outs with his father, Eli Blaine, owner of the biggest ranching outfit in the Dutchman valley, the oddly-named Tree Ranch. The elder Blaine is trying to gather up the public land homesteads that have sprung up all over “his” free range ranch. Ostensibly used as farms, these 160 acre plots are withering during a prolonged dry spell. While Eli Blaine claims to be buying the homesteads legally his foreman, Sim Dalbow, is actively playing rough with the sod-busters. Men have been beaten, burned out, and killed.

The younger Blaine has his own plot of land and is trying to organize the small farmers to form a mutual protection compact. He’s a favorite of the sod-busters because of his stand against his father. He is well-liked in town, too. Valaree, a bookkeeper-cum-schoolmarm-cum-gold-digger cannot keep her eyes off him, and is thoroughly jealous of any other woman paying him attention. This sharp, icy, emotion plays into much of the trouble Web faces. She is the bookkeeper for general store owner Henry Farnsworth and his affairs, which include owning the mysterious Bell County Land Company. She finds out much about Farnsworth’s underhanded dealings – information that would help Web and the others fend off their attackers – but remains silent out of a false sense of integrity fueled by jealousy.

Web’s sister, Becky, is married to a semi-worthless man named Gil Harris who plays each side against the other in the hopes of maintaining neutrality. Early on he challenges Web when ramrod Sim Dlbow and his gunhands order Gil to keep Web from crossing his land. Gil has signed over his property to the land company with the promise that he won’t be kicked out of the territory. His land, with no public road available, lies directly between Web’s land and town, effectively landlocking the younger Blaine. Web refuses to be shut in and shows he is prepared to fight his way to town. Not only does Gil give in, but Dalbow’s gunmen back down, too.

Eli Blaine does not know he is being used by Dalbow. A ruthlessly stubborn man, Blaine has been run out of various territories in the past for his hard line against squatters. Moving the family to their current location in the Dutchmans meant never having to deal with squatters again, or so he thought. His stubbornness has opened the door to Dalbow’s murdering ways and the foreman’s secretive, double-dealing plans with storekeeper Farnsworth. He also steadfastly refuses to believe his estranged son when Web reports Dalbow’s underhanded dealings. He never sees – until the very end – that Dalbow schemes to oust Blaine and take over the ranch and all satellite homesteads.

One particular conceit that Lee uses is far fetched in the extreme. It removes almost all believability. But since it comes late in the story the reader can – if he closes one eye and winks with the other – ignore it. Lee asks us to believe that Dalbow, a known killer and thief from Texas, can hide out on the Tree Ranch, taking only $40 a month for more than a decade before he puts his plan in motion and without either being found out or reverting to type. Then Lee asks that you believe this clever criminal kept a briefcase full of incriminating documents, news stories, and photographs of his past and the pasts of his gunmen. This is quite ludicrous.

It is, however, necessary to the story’s resolution.

The rest of Lee’s story is quite well told, though. It builds one incident at a time until the pressure builds to bursting. Web is true to his nature, wanting to keep violence out of the land and hold together as many farmers as possible. The task, of course, is untenable and violence does erupt.

In Lee’s hands the characters – especially Web, Gil, and Valaree – are well-developed. Others serve the story in a plausible manner. The pace Lee maintains is a bit slow, but that tempo allows tension to build. The deck is truly stacked against Web, who stands nearly alone at the end. The finish, though, is never really in question, like most of these oaters. It is no less satisfying that Web is able to deal with Dalbow, convince his father of his stupidity, rescue a reformed Valaree, and oversee Farnsworth’s exile. We’re left with the knowledge that peace with reign, farmers will return, and that a good man and a good woman have a lifetime to spend with each other.

While not as sharp or as driving has his previously reviewed Blood on the Prairie, The Hostile Land is a good, solid entry; a satisfying read.

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