Lure of the Old West
Lately I have been wondering... does it make sense - economic sense - to write about the Old West? What is it about the 1870's, for example, that speaks to us in 2010? If I were a sociologist or an anthropologist I might be able to address the question in terms of cultural or social issues. However, I am a writer. So, what’s the attraction for me?
I write about people. I try to create strong characters who are human, with real problems a reader can identify with. You know, the Aristotelian concepts of Man vs. Nature, Man vs. Man and Man vs. Himself. So, why set my stories in the Old West? Specifically in Oregon? Even more specifically in central Oregon’s Willamette Valley?
First, because a “frontier” time and place is full of inherent conflict: the Old (Back East civilization) vs. the New (rough, tough American west); Native Americans vs. encroaching settlers; law and order
vs. lawbreakers/badguys/outlaws; individual rights vs. majority rights; fish-out-of-water stories that arise when a character first braves the frontier. And so on. Life in the Old West was interesting, precarious, surprising, rough, and dangerous. And fulfilling.
Second, there’s a fascinating aspect of settings in towns that have been created out of nothing; churches, stores, houses all built by hand; railway tracks laid by the muscle power of burly Italian and tough Chinese crews; horses for transportation; one-room schoolhouses; milk from a cow; butter from a churn.
Third, the clothing interests me: eye-catching Stetsons, sombreros, sunbonnets; sheepskin coats; cowboy boots with jingle-bobs; string ties and bolos; tight jeans on lean, well-built men; riding skirts; frilly blouses with lace cuffs; petticoats, bloomers, and corsets; ladies lace-up high-button shoes; long swishy skirts the wind can whip up becomingly;. And so on.
Fourth, I am an Oregonian. My great-grandparents (Boessen family), originally from northern Germany and Denmark, settled in central Oregon and raised 8 children. Great-Granddad was a brick mason, and half the chimneys in Coos County were built by him. My grandparents (Banning family) ranched on Oregon land and my Granddad started the first farmer’s coop in Oregon. My parents (Yarnes family) were both Oregonians; Dad was born in Salem, into a Methodist minister’s family; Mom was raised on a ranch in Dixonville (near Roseburg); she cooked for the hired men at 14 and rode bareback until she was 16.
Me? I was born in Oregon City, just south of Portland, during the year my father held his first teaching job, at Gold Beach High School. He was the English teacher, the basketball coach, and the principal. It was a very small school, with a graduating class of 7 students.
I grew up with stories about my Oregon family, handed down through the years at Thanksgiving dinners until they became like country myths: my grandparents’ rather odd courtship (Western Rose); my grandmother’s first teaching job at 16; the time my schoolteacher Dad unintentionally shot a pheasant in his corn patch with Mom’s .22 rifle at a hundred yards; the Depression years when Grandmother fed hundreds of hungry wanderers at her back door; the time when Mama’s brother rubbed bubblegum into her new hairdo; the time when . . .
For me, the Old West, and Oregon, are full of rich memories (and imaginings) of what life had been like for settlers, ranchers, Native Americans, schoolteachers, lawmen, and everyone else who peopled the frontier.