The year is 1900, a time of endings and beginnings. The place is the little town of Century, in Oregon, big enough to support a church and a general store but no restaurants, no hotel. There is a postmistress (who reads other folks’ mail), but that’s about it for civil amenities. Esther Chambers, an orphan at 18, has traveled here to see whether she can make a home with Ferris Pickett (“Pick”), a 30ish eligible bachelor and up-and-coming cattleman who has built something of a palace outside of Century named Two Forks. By a clever and timely fib, Pick gets Esther to represent herself as 21, so that she can homestead a prime piece of property that lies between his ranch and the only available source of water, a lake called Half-a-Mind.
This looks like the beginnings of a promising romance novel (Pick has a “golden moustache”). But Anna Keesey’s “Little Century” is a far more ambitious novel than that, a work about who will inherit the earth, and who deserves to.
All the hallmarks of the classic Western novel are here, as well. The cattlemen in town are plagued by sheepherders. (Cattle crop grass loosely; sheep mow it right down to bare ground, rendering it useless for several seasons.) Both sheepherders and cattlemen need the railroad to come through Century. And more than the train, of course, they all need water. Esther doesn’t exactly realize it, but she’s a strategic pawn in Pick’s game.
If you’re not going to inherit the earth, the most efficient response would seem to be to fight for it. Far away in the Philippines, the natives are conducting some kind of war: Esther reads about it dimly; we know it’s just the beginning of a century of worldwide carnage. Up here in the high desert, a wagon belonging to a sheepherder is burned, a yellow cat is wounded, and at the annual church picnic Pick’s prize bull is beheaded by an irate sheepherder. The thrust of all these strikes is to avoid human murder, but as people feel forced to take sides, they hold harder grudges and become ever more righteous.
We are meant to see from the very beginning that Pick is the most dangerous kind of man — one who entertains lofty thoughts of what it is to be good but cheats easily, gets Esther to engage in a fraudulent land grab and keeps a thug or two around to do his dirty work. He means for Century to become a prosperous city and for himself to be the head of it. But he’s a louse.
Nevertheless, Esther and Pick come to an understanding that she will be mistress of Two Forks. But — wouldn’t you know it? — the young brother of a sheepherder from up north catches her eye and vice versa.
This plot works easily and well, but the real joys of the book are the set pieces showing town life and Esther’s almost unnoticed passage into womanhood. There’s a church dance, effortlessly drawn, and a couple of sermons, boring and portentous, and scenes of Esther learning to ride and plant and plow, and a perfect little scene of Esther and a friend helping a little girl jump rope.
Personally, I would have taken the highly symbolic general storekeeper, Mr. Peaslee, and left him on the cutting room floor. Keesey’s writing is so accomplished and easy-seeming that she doesn’t need the ruffles and fringes he brings in. Her words are clear as lake water. “O that inexhaustible Oregon we each enclose,” she writes. “And Century is tiny, after all. Look how the mind can hold it, rock it, like a child.”
“Tender” is a word Keesey uses again and again to describe her characters. She mothers them, cares about them like children, wants to protect them from the hell they have been so intent upon making. She persuades the reader to cherish them, as well.
See regularly reviews books for The Post.