When Esther Chambers moves to central Oregon from Chicago in 1896, she finds herself caught in a range war between cattle-ranchers and sheepherders. Anna Keesey’s elegant debut novel, Little Century, resurrects the complex West of those early days, in prose that captures the rhythms and diction of 100 years ago.
Esther’s mother died a few months earlier, and her only surviving relative is a distant cousin, Ferris Pickett, known as Pick, who owns the Two Forks ranch outside of Century, Ore. Pick persuades the 18-year-old to swear she is 21 in order to file a claim on a plot of land that includes a playa lake called Half-a-Mind. Water is scarce in this arid country, and Pick wants to graze his cattle at Half-a-Mind, although sheep-ranchers also use the free-range land nearby. “You’ve had a hard time,” Pick tells Esther. “But this is a good country for someone alone. We’re all equal out here, and everyone makes his own luck.”
Esther settles down on her claim and begins to adapt to her new life. She befriends a few of the locals, including Century’s shopkeeper, Joe Peasley, who loans her books and the use of his typewriter; and its schoolteacher, Jane Fremont, who also lives on a claim. Esther is initially perplexed by the tensions and alliances between the townspeople. But before long, she realizes that those who behave coldly to her often do so because she has unwittingly thwarted their hopes or ambitions.
Pick is the community’s most-respected member, and when he asks Esther to consent to “an understanding” that they will one day marry, she agrees. But expedience has a way of trumping morality on the frontier, and the conflict with the sheepherders escalates into wagon-burnings, livestock-killings and murder. Even the upright-seeming Jane and Pick have secrets. Liberated by her own claim’s isolation, Esther indulges in a forbidden friendship with a young sheepherder.
“Justice is hard to come by,” Esther thinks, and the plot of Little Century echoes this notion.
Keesey has fashioned an authentic story out of the moral compromises Western settlers made in order to live and work with one another.
This book review originally appeared in High Country News.
By Anna Keesey
Farrar, Straus and Giroux/Picador
336 pages, $16