Giles A. Lutz, The Honyocker (1961)(from the archives, Ron Scheer)
Giles A. Lutz (1910-1982) was a prolific writer, with over 60 western novels published under his own name and a half dozen pseudonyms. During the 1940s and 1950s, he published more than 200 stories in the pulps, mostly westerns, but also sports fiction. In 1962, he received the Spur Award for this novel, The Honyocker, from Western Writers of America.
Plot. “Honyocker” was an insulting term bestowed by cattlemen and cowboys on homesteaders in the far West, who attempted to make a living from subsistence farming on what had at one time been open range. Turning the prairie sod, they were destroying not only free grass for the ranchers. Unknown to them, they were also permanently disturbing a fragile ecology too arid for cultivation of dryland crops that would support a family of settlers.
Lutz builds his story around such a family, the Backuses, who have migrated to Montana from Missouri. Years of crop failures and an aversion to hard work have left them poverty stricken and desperate. The central character, Ashel Backus, is the one honorable son among three who tries to keep his brothers from stealing to put food on the table. Discovering that they have butchered a steer taken from the herd of a neighboring rancher, Milo Vaughan, Ashel offers to pay for the animal by working off the debt, and Vaughan agrees to hire him for a month of odd jobs around the ranch.
|Montana homestead, 1910|
Character. Becoming a temporary ranch hand works against Ashel in two ways. From the start, Vaughan’s foreman, Dandy Cabe, openly despises him, and the two are quickly involved in a fierce fistfight. Meanwhile, other homesteaders believe Ashel has betrayed them by changing sides in what is becoming a simmering range war.
The surprise is that Milo Vaughan is more than satisfied with Ashel’s work (mostly jobs the cowboys won’t do, like repairing a roof and fixing fence), and Milo’s wife quickly comes to like him, too. After a month, he is offered a full-time job. All of this earns the scorn of Dandy Cabe and Ashel’s two brothers, who make trouble for each other, despite Ashel’s efforts to keep the peace.
Animosities deepen as Vaughan’s daughter returns from back East, where she has been going to school. Both Ashel and Cabe are attracted to her, but she has plans to marry someone else. Matters come to a head on the day of the wedding, as Cabe hunts for Ashel to kill him, and one man finally guns down the other.
|Montana ranch, 1872|
Ashel is an appealing character—a young man with a strong sense of ethics, he is torn between loyalty to his disreputable family and the warm respect he earns from Vaughan, who becomes something of a father figure to him. Not only does he get the approval of Milo’s wife, but their daughter, Jenny, admires him as well. Her presence in the story provides occasion to bring out Ashel’s loneliness and his sense of futility at the unlikely prospect of ever winning the love of such a girl.
Wrapping up. Reading the novel, I puzzled for many pages over why it received a Spur Award. The first two-thirds of what is a very short novel are flat and formulaic and the characters cardboardy. When Vaughan gives Ashel a lecture on the environmental impact of homesteading, the novel surprisingly comes to life. It stops being a conventional story casting greedy ranchers as villains threatening the well being of poor-but-honest frontier families, as we see in Jack Schaefer’s Shane (1949).
Oddly, this turn in the story gives it legs and a momentum it has lacked until this point. It deepens the dilemma for Ashel as hostilities mount between ranchers and homesteaders, and everyone turns on him as someone not to be trusted, including Vaughan. And suspense builds in the final chapters as Cabe determines to kill Ashel.
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