a lot of good press about Anna Keesey's novel, Little Century.
My goodness, there is a lot of good press about Anna Keesey.
There is a very good reason for that: Little Century is great, and Anna ain't so bad herself.
I'll start with the book, commenting on some things I noticed about it that have not been commented on elsewhere. Sure, the sentences deserve all that praise, and will get back to one of them in particular—but first:
Chambers, a young 18, loses her mother and is orphaned. She flees the
city and goes out into the rural wilds, where it is animals as much as
humans who inhabit the landscape. I'm looking at the archetypal story
here and thinking fairy tale, and in fact the spare wind-swept landscape
of eastern Oregon is so richly described it may as well be dense forest.
But then hard facts, and careful depiction of hardscrabble frontier
life get in the way of this reading. I quickly had to abandon that
approach to the narrative and get used to the idea that the abandoned
homestead Esther takes on will provide, but there will be no magic
there. The work will be real, difficult, and largely lonely.
was a comfortable enough transition for me to live in Oregon's high
desert with cattle ranchers competing with sheep farmers for what merely
appears to be unlimited space and resources. Esther is a saint, a young
innocent of the prairie when she arrives. She grieves over her mother
properly and only expects the best when she encounters the locals, who
are scarce by comparison to her native Chicago. Her distant cousin,
Ferris Pickett ("Pick"), is her guide to the area. It is he who arranges
her homestead—a shady deal—and her horse and her cabin.
here the story is a slow build, not that there is anything wrong with
lush description of local scenery and characters. A longish first act of
the book is devoted to setting this scene before things get juicy,
starting with some good old-fashioned prairie sex and developing love
interest(s) for Esther. But soon our burgeoning
Romance-on-the-Western-Plain novel gives way to a rather dramatic clash
between the sheepmen and the cattle ranchers. With Pick, Esther has
family and love interest with the cattle ranchers, but her other
interest is in a shepherd. She's our central figure, she's the one we go
with, and thus we, too, straddle the divide.
hard to say more about the story that develops from here without ruining
it for those who will be reading it. I'll hold back on specifics, but
I'd like to inject something that I have not seen in other reviews—the
mystery that develops is worthy of the best of the genre: Ruth Rendell,
Ross MacDonald, you know the type—the humanity of the characters drives
each revelation, and the complexity of the story rewards you for having
paid attention to details earlier and punishes you for lapses. Esther's
coming of age as a detective with intuition to match Philip Marlowe's is
a surprising and delightful turn. When she loses her homey,
sewing-and-farming-and-cabin-tending ways, when she quits just going
gooey when she gets to know a Real Man Out West, she turns into her
real, far more interesting and clever self. And so, when she enters an
empty store she should not and later is hunted by a killer while she
melts away ice to reveal a final clue to his guilt, the earlier
scene-setting and character development pay off in this later real,
So there you have it—I offer a little Dashiell Hammett
to the mix of writers Anna has been compared to. Willa Cather seems
straightforward enough, given the setting, and Marilynne Robinson is
also there, given the sentences and the poetic denouement-by-negation
that echoes the final sentence of Housekeeping (but because of the drama in the story, Little Century
will make a better movie, alas). But don't be fooled by the
sentence-praising masses: by the time you get to the end of the story,
the pages cannot be turned quickly enough and the delicate construction
of the prose is the last thing on your mind.
But let's stick with sentences for now, because I would like to say that I wrote one once. It was, oh, several
years ago, let's just say. It involves Anna, her novel, and Merlin
Olsen. It was, if you follow the resume presented for Anna in the press,
her lost year, the unassigned time between the two degrees in her mini-bio: "Anna Keesey is a graduate of Stanford University and of the University of Iowa’s Writers’ Workshop."
many other things that year was for me, it was the year I got to know
Anna Keesey. A more general description would call it the year after we
had finished those commercially useless undergrad English lit degrees—I
and Anna at Stanford—and parlayed them into something they really
were never meant to be: A Marketable Commodity, a
teaching credential—in this case issued by the Bay Area Writing Project
at UC Berkeley. We were among a coterie of 30 young student
of them bright and some like me—all fulfilling the California state
requirement of a fifth year (yes, it is actually referred to as a
"fifth year"; it is that thing with no degree title attached to it,
required after four undergraduate years in some states, including
California, for acquiring teaching credentials). In some ways, I like how this phrase mirrors another: "fifth wheel."
Anyway, we spent the year taking a
variety of education courses and going out to local schools to work with
mentor teachers and subject unsuspecting local middle- and
high-school students to the missteps of a recent college grad. There was also a writing workshop sandwiched between the two
semesters. In the course of that workshop, I wrote my sentence.
was lucky with my writing group in that workshop. I was with Grant, a
natural writer and intellect with a genuinely enviable easy-going
demeanor; Pamela, Patti Smith–obsessed at a time when that had some
teeth to it, dammit; and Anna, someone I had already made pals with but
whose writing revealed depth that sort of surprised me. I sat there
among this talent. I wrote one piece about a foam bed I bought—it was a
scream, let me tell you—and then I had to produce something else.
is, I didn't have a clue what to write for my second piece. I just kept
thinking about that great foam bed. It was winter break. I had just
gotten married. I was into lounging, not writing. It was January, and I
was still in college. I was watching TV . . . the NFL playoffs. And then
something hit me: "Hey," I said, "I've got a great idea. I will write about the NFL broadcast I'm watching and thus combine the thing I want to be doing with the thing I have to be doing." Man, that was original—what a creative thinker I am!
thus produced a first draft for my writing group that was certainly not
any better than you are imagining it could have been. I filled it with
remarks about the TV commentary—pithy, disparaging remarks about the
inanity of sports broadcasting. I bet you're sorry you missed it.
there, somewhere in this mess of a thrown-together piece, was what I
wrote to describe my response to a particularly vapid comment by one of
the broadcasters: "I knit my brow at Merlin." Now, I knew when I put
that down that it was a cheapie—it doesn't work at all if the
broadcaster isn't named Merlin—but why do I care? Brow-knitting writes
the check that "Merlin" cashes. That, I said (and still say) to myself, is a sentence.
next day, after reading my new piece to the group and some obligatory
and genteel remarks from those fine people and my pretending I was
interested in hearing how to revise that drivel written solely—solely!—
to fulfill a requirement, came the last word on it, from Anna. She
chuckled and looked down at the page, letting out the sentence while
shaking her head and smiling: "I knit my brow at Merlin."
Kinda made the whole thing worth it.
time has passed since that year we started out as Tom and Anna, recent
lit grads, and left as Mr. Sumner and Ms. Keesey, ready to report. I
never actually taught in high school other than that student teaching
gig and a little subbing; I ended up overseas teaching ESL/EFL at
colleges. Anna got one of those prime Bay Area English teaching gigs
with, if I remember it right, five preps for six classes.
then more time passed and we sort of stayed in touch and sort of
didn't. Anna always maintained her post as a teacher and writer (but for
post-Iowa teaching moved on to creative writing courses at different
colleges), but I fell out of it entirely to do this book editing job I
still do. At one time I asked Anna to review and help edit a book, which
she agreed to do. I also remember talking over dinner one evening,
after she had begun to write seriously, about a book she was working on
about a family leaving Missouri for Oregon in January 1900. She
mentioned them seeing New Year's fireworks while they were traveling.
That was more than ten years ago, and now there is Little Century.
There is no family, but there is Esther, and Missouri is Chicago. I
have no idea what other details remain from that distant past. I think I
mentioned that we sort of didn't stay in touch, did I not?
all of this is why, reading Anna's book, I focused on one of her own
sentences with particular interest. It falls on page 239, and somewhere
else for the e-book edition: "She wipes her knit brow with her golden
When you read a book by an old friend,
arbitrary little connections can come up, and so for me I naturally
thought back to a younger Anna having a laugh over "I knit my brow at
Merlin," though the context and gravity of Anna's sentence could not be
farther from the one I had, well . . . crafted. Still, I felt that
knit-brow connection and devoted a little thought to this sentence,
coming away thinking that, holy cow, Anna's book really is jam-packed. I
picked this sentence, but any reader could pluck any one of a any
number of sentences and see how things just really fit together.
what is so good about "She wipes her knit brow with her golden little
hand"? A couple of things, but start with the obvious: "golden
little" is miles better than "little golden," though I'm certain I would
probably put down "little golden" and move on, figuring that would do. But that is hardly the end of it, since "golden" itself is a bit
curious until you come to know, a few pages later, that the girl thus
described, Marguerite, has a previously unknown connection to Pick, who
himself has a mustache that is described here and there as golden.
Earlier, Marguerite herself had playfully taken a strand of her own
hair and drawn it across her lip like a mustache. Such exploration into the text takes me right back to my lit-majoring days, perhaps not so wasted after all.
And Little Century
proves to be a complete novel again and again. You will, for example,
be rewarded if you take up Anna on her invitation to contemplate the
significance of the war in the Philippines, which operates in the
background throughout the story. Yes, the Philippines can be subjugated,
but we know now that the U.S. will not win anything by it. Cattle
ranchers can likewise successfully drive out the sheep but lose the
railroad when chaos ensues. Are there other events over the past hundred
years that have similarly refused to produce "winners"? Korea, Vietnam,
Iraq, Afghanistan to quickly dash off some obvious ones in the arena of
politics and war; it has certainly been an extremely little century.
And that year I met Anna, and the long time between then and now? Well, that was very little, too.