I'm not wild for westerns and cowboys are not my weakness. But that said, the adventures of Esther Chambers, Chicago schoolgirl turned homesteader heroine in Anna Keesey's Little Century, kept me turning pages.
Untethered and aimless after the death of her mother, Esther bravely pulls up stakes and lights out for Oregon's high desert country in search of family. The family in question is her distant cousin, a cattle rancher named Pick. Pick quickly convinces tenderfoot Esther to homestead Half-a-Mind, an abandoned claim adjacent to his own spread--even though she's a city girl who's never ridden a horse, and is not, strictly speaking, old enough to file a claim. No matter. Esther is nothing if not plucky, and if she proves up her claim in five years, Pick will buy the land from her. In the meantime he's counting on her presence to help keep out the sheepmen and preserve Half-a-Mind's good cattle-grazing land.
Well, everyone knows that cattlemen and sheepmen are sworn enemies, and Esther soon finds herself in the middle of a full-blown range war. This book has all the elements of a classic western: harsh wilderness, an arid, desolate landscape, outlaws, outcasts and privately-administered justice. Plus, the town of Little Century has enough quirky characters--including the eccentric newspaper editor, the nosy postmistress, and a somewhat shady lady--to keep you happily occupied between confrontations. There's a romantic angle as well. Two of them, in fact, as Esther finds herself pursued by both a cattleman and a sheepman, guaranteeing that the course of true love does not run smooth.
Keesey teaches creative writing at Linfield College in Oregon; this is her first novel, but hopefully not her last. Fans of historical fiction will find it a tightly plotted, wonderfully descriptive evocation of the turn of the last century, and mighty fine reading.