By Anna Keesey
Picador, July 2013
About the Book
In the tradition of such Western classics as My Ántonia and There Will Be Blood, Anna Keesey’s Little Century is a resonant and moving debut novel by a writer of confident gifts.
Orphaned after the death of her mother, eighteen-year-old Esther Chambers heads west in search of her only living relative. In the lawless town of Century, Oregon, she’s met by her distant cousin―a cattle rancher named Ferris Pickett. There, she begins a new life as a homesteader in the hope that her land will one day join Pick’s impressive spread.
But Century is in the midst of an escalating and violent war over water and rangeland. As incidents between the sheep and cattle ranchers turn to bloodshed, Esther’s sympathies are divided between her cousin and a sheepherder named Ben Cruff, sworn enemy of the cattlemen. Torn between her growing passion for Ben and her love of the austere land, she begins to realize that she can’t be loyal to both.
Esther Chambers’ mother passes away, and so she makes the journey from Chicago to the ranching lands of Century, Oregon. A distant cousin, Ferris Pickett, meets her and asks her to homestead a piece of land he hopes to one day add to his thriving cattle operation. Only 18, Esther doesn’t meet the qualifications for homesteading, but Pickett encourages her to claim she’s 21 and to live on the land in a tiny cabin and farm it with minimal help until enough time passes that he might obtain it.
Esther meets a cast of characters very different from any she’s known in Chicago. There’s the postmistress who steams open everyone’s mail and reports her intelligence; there’s the school teacher with a shady past who changed her name and hopes for a new life; there are the sheepherders, namely the Cruffs, who want to share the land with the cattle ranchers, who refuse to do so; and there is the railroad the cattlemen attempt to woo in the hopes that the line will be extended to include tiny Century, making it easier to ship their cattle east. But the conflict between the cattlemen and the sheepherders becomes vicious, with stock slaughtered, men beaten, and homes torched.
When Pickett asks Esther for an “understanding” for them to wed, she agrees. She has come to love the land and enjoys her little patch of it more than she ever thought. But Pickett hasn’t told Esther much about himself, and as Esther comes to understand his past and his involvement in the current conflict between the cattlemen and the sheepherders, she finds herself in a tough position.
The publisher likens this book to Willa Cather’s work, and I’d agree. It’s a grown up Little House on the Prairie with some historic conflict over grazing rights thrown in. It’s very slow in the beginning as Esther acclimates to Oregon life, but as the discord in town grows and Esther must choose a side, it comes to a satisfying conclusion.
Rebecca Henderson Palmer