Sunday, May 7, 2017

Dodge City...and the Great War

Tom Clavin, Dodge City:  Wyatt Earp, Bat Masterson, and the Wickedest Town in the American West
St. Martin’s Press © 2017
ISBN: 978-1-1250-07148-4

Clavin’s simultaneous biography of Wyatt Earp and Bat Masterson has been fairly widely praised.  I thought it was a generally well-researched but hardly gripping story of the ten year period in which the west went from (mostly) wild to (generally) tame.  Wyatt and Bat are pretty compelling characters on whom to hang the tale, and one of the most compelling parts of their story is how young (Wyatt was 25 and Bat was not yet 20 when the story begins, in 1873) the protagonists were.  Indeed, it’s amazing how young most of the main characters—good (Virgil, Morgan, James, and Warren—Wyatt’s brothers; and Jim, Bat’s brother; Doc Holliday) and bad (Billy the Kid, Johnny Ringo, and many others, including the Clancy clan) were.  And the longevity of many of them (Wyatt lived until he was nearly 71; Bat died a month shy of 68; m more than a few of the other people in the tale lived into their 80s and 90s), given the times, is pretty remarkable.

 In my opinion, Clavin has two difficulties he has to overcome.  The first is that there is little real suspense; we know that Wyatt and Bat lived long lives and that their antagonists generally did not.  So every time Clavin relates one of the dangerous incidents in their lives, we know that they are going to get through it basically unharmed.  The second is the difficulty he has in really making clear the personalities and motives of the two men on whom he focuses.  While there has been a lot written about both of them, it seems to me that (at least based on Clavin’s use of his source material) no one really provided a psychological portrait of either man.  (This is, in general, an advantage for fiction—the author has control over the characters’ inner and outer lives.)

One of the lessors that I took away from the book, and one I have to re-learn every time I read a detailed piece of history from before the 20th century, is how mobile at least some portion of the population was, given how difficult travel was.  Just in the 10 period covered in the main part of Clavin’s book, Wyatt (as on example) moves from where he was born (in Illinois), grew up in Iowa, moved to Kansas, and moved around between Dodge and the Dakotas, Texas, and Arizona without really putting down roots anywhere.  After his Dodge City days, he prospected for gold in Alaska, did numerous things in California (where he finally mostly settled down after age 50 or so.  Just as one example of the difficulties of this sort of life:  It’s 900 miles from Dodge to Tombstone.  Google Maps tells me I can drive that in 13 hours.  For Wyatt, on horseback and pushing, that would take at least a month; in a wagon, even longer.  Even by train, it would be at least a week-long trip.  (This book, by the way, would really benefit from having some maps.)

If you aren’t familiar with the lives and times of Wyatt and Bat, Clavin’s book will help you understand the rimes.  I’m less sure that it helps us understand their lives.

John Gardner, The Secret Generations [© 1985]
eBook Publication by Endeavor Press

The Railton family—the main actors in John Gardner’s “Secrets” trilogy—have been insiders in English military and governing structures for generations.  In The Secret Generations, we follow three generations of Railtons from 1910 to 1920 and see how their lives were radically changed by the Great War—and how they contributed to t hose changes as they participate in the war.  Gardner is obviously telling a vast story here, and he has a vast cast of characters with which to do it.  (So vast, in fact, that I felt that the book needed either a list of principal characters, or a genealogy of the Railtons, or both).  In this book, we begin with three generations of the family—beginning with Giles (who must have been born in the 1840s), the middle generation (Charles and Andrew, presumably born in the 1865-1870 period), and the third generation (dating from around 1890, and the fourth generation arrives in stages throughout the book.

Giles is in many ways the focus of the book, and he is an insider (in many ways) in British intelligence.  His actions affect the lives of his family and have the possibility of affecting the Empire.  (“Real” people show up—Churchill, Lloyd George, Roger Casement—if only briefly.)  The plot focuses on German efforts at intelligence-gathering (and sabotage) in England and English efforts to obtain information on German initiatives, largely on the battlefield. 

I found the first half of the book something of a slog, partly because Gardner had to establish the family (so progress on the events that become important in the second half occurs only slowly), but the pace picks up considerably in the second half.  Gardner obviously knows the Great War’s history well, and the limited number of battle scenes evoke it in dramatic fashion.  I thought the extended coda was perhaps a bit more than we needed, but it does at least lead us into the second book in the trilogy---Secret Houses—which I am looking forward to.

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