Though I read them out of order, The Bad Lands, which Oakley Hall labeled the second in his “Western Legends” trilogy, completes my loving embrace of this portion of his work. Each of the books reworks a western myth, turns it inside out and upside down, and in the telling gives us a profound depth of understanding into our history and our assumptions. In Warlock, it was the O.K. Corral. In Apaches, it was the Lincoln County Wars and Billy the Kid. In The Bad lands, Andrew Livingston is a stand-in for Theodore Roosevelt, a tenderfoot from New York who comes west to try his hand at the life of ranching and herding cows, the romance of which life has intrigued him for lo these many. I don’t know much about Roosevelt’s adventures in the Dakotas except that he invested sizable chunks of cash and that they influenced his politics and his attitudes toward life, but Hall wouldn’t ever provide a one-for-one relationship between between the characters and events in his novels and in real life. He’s not that easy.
Livingston finds himself in the midst of a classic (cliche?) conflict between cattle barons and settlers. Between those who would fence the range and those who would keep it open. Between those who would prevail by their own rude justice and those who strive for conventional ideas of law and order. Between raw brutality and at least a pretense of humanity.
Hall, as usual, challenges the assumptions that popular literature and films bring to these kind feuds and gives us a cast of characters and a series of actions in which no one is free of either virtue or blame. As for the winners when all is said and done, as Livingston puts it, maybe there are no winners. Maybe there’s just history. Certainly, the statue that towers over everyone at the end of the book represents a man of gargantuan vices, though they tend to be sins of the flesh rather than those of the spirit. He may not be the kind of character we’d like to think bequeaths his heroic legend to our towns and our myths. Yet, of course, we honor and revere many such.
It may not be Dante, but it sure isn’t your conventional oater, folks. You can’t just plough your action-packed way through Oakley Hall. You have some thinking to do. And your thoughts may not guide you to pleasant conclusions.
But the reading pleasure is unsurpassed.