“One day you stepped in snow, the next in mud, water soaked in your boots and froze them at night, it was the next worst thing to pure blizzardry, it was weather that wouldn't let you settle.”
I read several Doctorows back in the late 1980s and never really clicked with him. His writing was fine; it just didn't blow my skirt up. For years though I have thought about picking up a copy of his first book Welcome to Hard Times. I usually like first books and I'm always intrigued with westerns that have been written by people that usually don't write westerns. E. L. Doctorow Welcome to Hard Times
starts off with a bang. "The Man from Bodie drank down a half bottle of the Silver Sun's best; that cleared the dust from his throat and then when Florence, who was a redhead, moved along the bar to him, he turned and grinned down at her. I guess Florence had never seen a man so big. Before she could say a word, he reached out and stuck his hand in the collar of her dress and ripped it down to her waist so that her breasts bounded out bare under the yellow light. We all scraped our chairs and stood up--none of us had ever looked at Florence that way before, for all she was. The saloon was full because we watched the man coming for a long time before he pulled in, but there was no sound now."The movie was released in 1967 starring Henry Fonda.
Edmund Burke once said "All that is necessary for the triumph of evil is that good men do nothing".
The men of Hard Times each reluctant to react, worried more about their personal safety than the security of the whole community failed to act. One man goes into the saloon with a piece of board intent on freeing Florence from the Man from Bodie. He staggers back out of the saloon, his head shattered and dies in the street. If other men had summoned the courage to go into that saloon with the one brave soul certainly things would have been different. I was reminded of one of my favorite movies High Noon. Hard Times was badly in need of a Gary Cooper character, but unfortunately the closest they had was a man named Blue. Blue was the pseudo mayor of Hard Times. He kept ledgers that tracked all the property and names of the individuals of the town. He settled squabbles. He was the only man who possibly could have rallied the men of the town and thrown the Man from Bodie from their midst. His highly developed sense of self preservation kept him from doing what had to be done. Not every town has a Will Kane (Gary Cooper in High Noon).
The town burned. Women were raped. People were murdered while others huddled in uncertain safety unwilling to lend a hand to those in direct need of assistance. The Man from Bodie leaves in the swirling smoke of his own destruction.
Blue left with a handful of survivors is determined to rebuild the town. Blue digs down and builds a dugout using sod for walls. I have pictures of the sod homes that my ancestors made when they first came to Kansas. There was no wood just prairie and sod was the only building material available. The Dakota territory where Hard Times is located proved as bereft of lumber as the flat lands of Kansas.
Blue recruits people to town, a tent city grows up then expands into real buildings as lumber is hauled up from the railroad. He is intent on rebuilding the town for reasons beyond his own understanding. They hire a sheriff. Things are going well until the mine that provided most of the revenue for the town plays out. Quickly on the heels of that disaster The Man From Bodie shows up again. He picks up right where he left off. The sheriff attempts to intervene and is shot and killed by The Man From Bodie. This time due to the economic uncertainly the out of work miners lend a helping hand to dismantling the town.
Blue is more proactive, even comes up with a plan that takes down The Man From Brodie, but can do nothing to save his town from the rampaging miners.
There are many subplots that explores human behavior that I haven't mentioned. This book is about average people who fail to organize and stand as one against the embodiment of evil (The Man From Bodie) and never recover from the devastating results of their failure to act.