Who says the Western is a played-out genre? Carol Emshwiller stakes her claim with a feminist version, set on the eastern slope of the Sierra Nevada in 1902, that strikes ore nobody else has bothered to mine.
It's the unlikely romance of a rancher, Oriana Cochran, and a tramp cowboy, Bill Ledoyt, she has hired to dig irrigation ditches--a romance jealously observed by her daughter, Lotti, who brings on tragedy by running away from home at 14 disguised as a man.
Emshwiller ("Carmen Dog," "The Start of the End of It All") sees both wildness and civilization as enemies of love. It flourishes only on the emotional frontier that her half-tamed Old West symbolizes, an ambiguous region that she explores with crisp, straightforward prose and a sense of fun.
Cochran loves Ledoyt from the start. Lotti both loves and hates him. Each has reasons. Ledoyt's very name is a mongrel, corrupted from the French--Beal Ledroit. He is brave, modest, hard-working and kind. He is also threadbare, snaggletoothed and hairy, known to leave jobs without notice to go off into the mountains and get drunk.
In the opinion of his prosperous brother (who has evolved from Thibault to Tibo to T-Bone), Ledoyt is "scared stiff he might amount to more than a peck of turnips someday, after all."
Cochran, landed and educated, is seemingly far above him, as one of her well-to-do suitors reminds Ledoyt with a beating. But she is "soiled" by her status as an unmarried mother and has been sour on men since her handsome, cultured fiance in Massachusetts raped her.
That act sent Cochran fleeing west. It also produced Lotti. The girl doesn't know who her father is but imagines him to be a paragon. She sees only Ledoyt's scruffy side, calls him "Horse Face" and "Old Him" and takes drastic steps to divert attention to herself, from throwing a tantrum at her mother's wedding to setting herself on fire.
But Cochran, having experienced a brute in the guise of a civilized man, appreciates a true gentleman no matter how uncivilized he looks.
That is, when she can stifle the prejudices of her upbringing. She has to work at it, just as Ledoyt, a drifter since his teens when an epidemic killed most of his family, has to struggle to give up the solitary life. Both worry that their love is only a pretense, even as their efforts--hers to get wilder, his to settle down--are making it the real thing.
As for Lotti, she would rather be an "in-between nothing" than a girl. She dreams of a free, masculine life, but the beauty of the landscape also pulls her in civilized directions: to writing and art. She is Jo March from "Little Women" in cowboy boots, toting a derringer.
The letters Lotti secretly writes to the East, inquiring about her origins, bring civilization to her door in all its cloying Victorian stuffiness. Meanwhile, her dash for the mountains forces her to recognize that some people who look like brutes really are.
Lotti harms herself and others, but we aren't meant to condemn her. She is groping for the balance between wild and tame that her mother and Ledoyt have reached before her--the balance that makes love possible. She is learning to find her own gold in the frontier domesticity that Emshwiller, previously known for science fiction, has conjured up out of a thousand details of ranch life: hailstorms, barn dances, infant deaths, recipes, nostrums, Lotti's drawings, and hilarious and chilling excerpts from moral and medical guidebooks of the period.
Call it the mother lode.