Cannonball Read IV

A bunch of Pajibans reading and reviewing and honoring AlabamaPink.

Archive for the tag “American West”

ElCicco#CBR4Review#09: The Case of the Deadly Desperados: Western Mysteries, Book One, by Caroline Lawrence

The Case of the Deadly Desperados, by Caroline Lawrence, is the first in what will be a series of detective mysteries set in Nevada in the 1860s featuring 12-year-old protagonist PK Pinkerton and aimed at the young readers crowd. Lawrence has previously written a critically acclaimed Roman Mysteries series (20+ books) and aims to entertain young readers while simultaneously teaching them. I haven’t read the Roman series but I am giving it serious consideration based on The Case of the Deadly Desperados. Lawrence tells a fast paced, ripping yarn, replete with historical facts and fascinating characters. Some, such as Samuel Clemens/Mark Twain, are real, while others are products of Lawrence’s rich imagination.

The plot: PK comes home from school in the small western settlement of Temperance, Nevada, to find his foster parents dead, brutally murdered by a trio of outlaws who are now after PK and the document that his Native American mother left him at her death. PK’s father, Robert Pinkerton of the Pinkerton Detective Agency, is also dead and so PK is twice orphaned and on the run. He ends up in Virginia City, a bustling and dangerous silver mining town, where he must figure out the document’s significance and whom he can trust before “Whittlin’ Walt” and his thugs find and kill him.

I was initially drawn to this book because I had read that PK seems to have Asperger Syndrome, and as the mother of two boys with autism, I want to see literature for young people that portrays autism spectrum disorders in an accurate and sympathetic manner. While the terms “autism” and “Asperger Syndrome” are never mentioned, as that would be anachronistic, PK would undoubtedly receive a diagnosis today.

PK is aware of his difference and how it is a disadvantage. He says, “I can see every leaf on a cottonwood tree. But here is my problem: I cannot tell if a person’s smile is genuine or false. I can only spot three emotions: happiness, fear & anger. And sometimes I even mix those up…. That is my Thorn: people confound me.” PK also has trouble with facial recognition, has extraordinary math skills, does not like to be touched and does not show emotion.  At one point, he thinks, “I am always happiest when I am on my own…. Does that make me a Heartless Misfit?” It seems obvious to me that Lawrence has created a character who has some significant autistic traits, although PK does not have the perseverations that I have seen in others with autism spectrum disorders, and he handles abrupt, life-changing situations and the need to move away from his familiar home without anxiety or a meltdown. Nonetheless, I like the way she has drawn PK and the reactions of those who meet him — some are sympathetic, some confused and put off, and some are bullies.

One character who helps PK is Grafton T. Brown, a real life African American painter who spent time in Virginia City and drew it. Brown helps PK distinguish people by looking at their ears instead of their faces. Poker Face Jace is another who helps PK. A professional gambler, Jace is amazed and impressed by PK’s lack of facial expression and tries to help PK learn to read people by their body language. PK learns that a man’s face is the most dishonest part of his body and that he would be better off looking at a man’s feet to see if he is happy, anxious or bluffing. I love the PK/Jace relationship. PK understands that Jace’s knowledge is more valuable than silver or gold and will help him survive, maybe even become a detective like his father Robert.

The Case of the Deadly Desperados is a fast-paced, action-packed, immensely entertaining story. Lawrence provides a couple of very interesting plot twists at the end and has created a colorful collection of supporting characters for future stories. Lawrence also includes some great historical information on life in a western mining town and does an admirable job of portraying the weaknesses and strengths of a person who has Asperger Syndrome. I look forward to reading the series with my own boys some day and finding out what they make of PK.

ElCicco#CBR4Review#04: Death Comes for the Archbishop by Willa Cather

Full title as purchased via Kindle is (The Original) Death Comes for the Archbishop (1927).

Back in high school, some 30 years ago, I read Willa Cather’s My Antonia. While few details stick out besides the tragic ending, I do recall that Cather’s literary environment was the west/frontier in the mid-late 19th century and the immigrant experience. In trying to find something interesting to read for CBR4, I came upon a reference to Death Comes for the Archbishop and saw that it made the Time Magazine top 100 novels since 1923 and the Modern Library’s 1998 list of the top 100 English Language novels. Based on this and vague but positive recollections of My Antonia, I chose Death for this week’s review.

Death Comes for the Archbishop is set in New Mexico in the second half of the nineteenth century and follows fictional French Catholic Bishop Jean LeTour and his vicar Father Joseph Vaillant in their missionary work amongst Native Americans and Mexicans. I expected the novel to follow a plot line that would involve some sort of conflict, leading to a crescendo and then the expected denouement. This novel, however, did not follow that sort of traditional story line. Instead, it is a series of smaller, more personal than historical conflicts over the span of about 40 years as Bishop LeTour expands his diocese, builds relationships with his flock, endures illness, separations and successes, and builds the Cathedral at Santa Fe. It is a story of his lifelong friendship with Joseph and his growing love for the peoples and landscape of the West. The writing is simply beautiful. Cather paints the landscape of the West with her words. She also shows an understanding and respect for both organized religion and native beliefs.

The problem I have with this story is that it lacks historical context. At the very end, as the archbishop’s health is slipping away, he reflects with happiness upon the fact that he saw the end of slavery and the Indian wars, yet the topic of slavery never comes up as part of the story, and the native wars are mentioned only in a cursory way. Kit Carson is a character in this book and is presented quite favorably as an honorable man. Yet he participated in the brutal displacement of the Navajo from their native lands, a fact which is also recognized in the story. At the end, La Tour is pleased to see that the Navajo have been allowed to return but the fact of their displacement doesn’t seem to have had much of an impact on him, even though he knew some of the natives who had to leave and saw their families ripped apart.

The story of LaTour and Vaillant’s friendship is often moving, and the character sketches of some of the locals (especially corrupt priests) are fascinating and sometimes entertaining, but in the end, Death Comes for the Archbishop left me a bit disappointed. Perhaps part of my problem is that I read this after reading Caleb’s Crossing, which is overflowing with historical context and genuine conflict. And perhaps I am unfairly imposing modern understanding and sensibility upon Cather. Maybe none of us is aware of our own context — we know vaguely of wars going on, economic and social issues only as they directly impact us. We go on about our daily lives without much thought for the bigger issues. So why should 19th century missionaries be any different?

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