Independent in All Things, Neutral in Nothing

Internal Action of the Old West Revealed

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Always a source for excellent books, especially Westerns, my uncle gave me Heart of the Country, by Greg Matthews, for Christmas. Anticipating the receipt of a good book for the holiday, I uncharacteristically brought no books on my travel to Louisville, and began reading it immediately. From the start, I could not put it down.

The story focuses on Joe Cobden, a bastard child, hunchback and half-Indian, who lived most of his life in Kansas in the second half of the 19th century. As you may have guessed, being a bastard, hunchback and half-Indian made you few friends in the West at that time. Joe’s life unfolds with bountiful heartbreak, loneliness, and disappointment. And yet, I found Joe a character of great sympathy, and at times high character.

Matthews tells the story of Joe, and the other protagonists around Valley Forge, Kansas (a fictional place), with a mixture of unforgiving harshness and almost-Greek perspective on tragedy. Crime, sin and misfortune abound, and at times shock the reader – robbery; prostitution; repeated incest; suicide; masturbation with a corpse for inspiration; child abandonment; and greed.

Nearly every character possesses a major flaw or psychosis. In this sense, Matthews both reflects real life and deviates from it. Everyone does indeed have their own flaws, quirks and commits their own sins. But to depict nearly every person as having a major and disgusting propensity for profound sin exaggerates reality, in my experience. Through his treatment of the characters, Matthews reveals a dark and unflattering side of human nature, but tinged with ennobling nuance as well. Joe had no moral obligation to remain at the ridge caring for Calvin and Noah after Alma’s abandonment, save self-imposed moral obligation. This nuance differentiates Matthews’ achievement from other Western authors, notably Louis L’Amour and Cormac McCarthy, who in their own ways portray man in essentially Manichean terms.

I found this examination of the emotional, mental and moral dimensions of the Old West the most fascinating aspect of the book. I loved Lonesome Dove because it so beautifully revealed the Old West in terms of external action. We saw a cattle drive, battles with Indians, death and growth. The external action in Heart of the Country essentially ends less than halfway through the book. Instead, it bares open the internal action of the men and women of the Old West. Matthews tells us what each character thinks, feels and sees; we witness and even experience their terrible conflicts, outrage, courage, disappointment and pettiness.

That internal action makes for an outstanding book, and a treasured gift.


Written by Russell S.

January 8, 2012 at 1:12 pm

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