In Anna Keesey’s debut novel “Little Century, ” a young pioneer woman is caught up in frontier turmoil in the tough country of central Oregon in 1900. Esther Chambers has left Chicago after her mother’s death to join a distant cousin, Ferris “Pick” Pickett, on his cattle ranch; Pick convinces the uncertain Esther to lie about her age (she’s eighteen, not the required twenty-one) so that he can take possession of disputed land and gain prime advantage in the settlement’s struggle to raise stock and lure a coveted railroad line. It is Esther, however, who will be required to live and work this patch of land, in a bare claim shanty, for at least six months. While city-raised Esther struggles to learn how to ride a horse “astride” and operate a plow, tensions are escalating between the cattle men and the sheepherders over where animals can graze or water. Anonymous violence erupts, first against animals and property, with each episode prompting a reprisal. In town, Esther befriends a half-demented storekeeper and a teacher with a shady background; her newfound independence is suddenly challenged when the mysterious and charming Pick gives her a ring and asks for an “understanding.”
Keesey nimbly covers the epic sweep of this historical material; she’s as comfortable describing landscape as she is parsing the layered emotions of townspeople, cowboys and a young woman experiencing love for the first time. She is especially adept at conveying the immense change Esther experiences after crossing the country to arrive in the far West: “The buckaroos often sing, and she knows why. The unpeopled distance and the careless cold weigh upon a person, compressing the spirit into a chunk without movement. Any two notes sung together press back and make a space for the tiny soul to warm up and swirl about.” Esther, who starts out in a stock situation—the storekeeper Joe Peaslee even remarks on the standard trajectory of fictional orphans: “they undergo trials, and then they marry”—grows into a kind and capable pioneer; she learns how to operate a typewriter and printing press, and tries to find moral absolutes in a troubled place where everyone seems to hold a secret. But coming of age in this era means she must marry, of course, and Esther now has to make a choice between her benefactor and the handsome young Ben Cruff, part of the sheepherder clan vehemently opposed to all things Pick.
This “which man will win her heart” plot is less interesting than the fresh, tender depictions of Ben and Esther falling in love. Even more engaging is the way Keesey interweaves global perspectives—including McKinley’s policies and the Philippine-American war—in her historical Oregon drama. Ultimately, what keeps us drawn to this well-made novel is how time and place wholly change Esther by the end of “Little Century”: “I want my horse, she thinks, and then, I am a girl who wants her horse. I am different from what I was.” (Emily Gray Tedrowe)
By Anna Keesey
Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 336 pages, $26