07 March 2009

"The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance" by Dorothy M. Johnson

The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance and A Man Called Horse, The Hanging Tree, Lost Sister: The Great Western Stories of Dorothy M. Johnson
Dorothy M. Johnson
Date of Publication: 1 March 2005
Cover Price: $12.95
216 pages

At the risk of redundancy, this is a collection of four western short stories: "A Man Called Horse," "The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance," "Lost Sister" and "The Hanging Tree." These stories were originally published between 1947 and 1959; the afterward credits Johnson with not imposing 20th Century values on 19th Century characters, and you can well imagine the difference between even the values at the time of Johnson's writing and reading these stories today. They are unapologetically racist and sexist at times; coupled with Johnson's researched level of detail, one walks away from this collection having felt their authenticity.

Captive narratives were a popular 19th Century genre, and Johnson gives us two of them. "A Man Called Horse" is an eastern white man taken by a Crow tribe when he went west seeking adventure. An alternate title might have been, "The Ties That Bind," because Horse discovers a series of excuses and then reasons not to flee captivity. This is an allegedly accurate depiction of Crow rites and rituals of the time, explored through Horse's increasing conflict between his desire to return home and his growing obligations amongst the tribe.

The second captive narrative concerns the "Lost Sister," a tale about a middle-aged white woman being returned to her sisters after forty years living with the tribe that abducted her as a small girl. Owing to the age at which she was captured and the length of time spent with them, Bessie no longer has a white identity save a vague recollection of her one oldest sister, Mary. At the time of her abduction, Mary was her only sister and so her only tenuous link to her white identity. Had this been placed prior to "A Man Called Horse," it might easily be characterized as a Stockholm Syndrome story; having already seen in that earlier story the genuine bonds that could be formed between captor and captive--and how that relationship might easily transform into something far less adversarial--it becomes an inverted tale of captivity. Blood may be thicker than water, Johnson argues, but not thick enough.

Betwixt these two tales is "The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance." Having seen the 1962 film starring James Stewart and John Wayne before reading this, my reading was preoccupied with noting the vast differences between story and film incarnations. At its heart, this is a tale of western manhood; an aimless tenderfoot (Ransome Foster) mans up to seek vengeance against a bullying outlaw (Liberty Valance) after being thrashed and left for dead. Given my predilection for not spoiling stories--and since this is a generic blog, rather than a scholarly reading of literature--I will say nothing else about the tale at this time.

The final half of this book is the novella, "The Hanging Tree." A 19 year old woman (Elizabeth Armistead) is the lone survivor of a stage coach ambush outside a gold prospecting camp. She is eventually found, near death, and turned over to the care of Doc Frail. Frail returned to practicing medicine after his prospecting yielded a fortune, known to everyone in the ominously named Skull Creek mining camp. Where Ransome Foster's manhood was awakened by his encounter with Liberty Valance, Doc Frail discovered at the expense of his mining partner that he is, in fact, incapable of taking another life. He makes public his prowess with a gun and carries himself strongly, hoping all the while he will never again be tested and shown to be the coward he is.

Partly, "The Hanging Tree" is a further examination of western machismo; it is also a discussion of the corruptive power of wealth. Because of its length, these are easily the best developed characters in the collection and stand in testament to Johnson's devotion to telling stories about humanity. What constitutes a man? For that matter, a woman? Elizabeth struggles to establish her own identity, having always deferred to her father; she finds no welcome among the few other women in the camp. Simply put, students of gender issues will find much to contemplate as they read of Doc and Elizabeth.

Technically, there are several typographical errors in this publication; many of them in "The Hanging Tree." The font size is rather large, and the spacing generous; despite its 217 page count, I read the entire collection over about four hours. As I've previously confessed, I am hardly a great student of the American West; I prefer to let that era exist in its mythological state, rather than debunk the wonder of the time with the deflating disappointment of truth. In any event, I wholeheartedly recommend this collection to fans of short fiction. I doubt other fans of the film version of The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance will get much out of the original short story; I've not seen the film adaptations of "A Man Called Horse" or "The Hanging Tree" so I cannot comment on those. Taken entirely as short stories, though, these are engaging--even if they conflict with our 21st Century sensitivities.

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