Territory by Emma Bull
My childhood is so steeped in the Western genre that it’s hard for me to separate one from the other. Saturday nights were Gunsmoke and popcorn, Sunday mornings were The Lone Ranger, The Cisco Kid, an impossibly young Clint Eastwood in Rawhide, and Wild Wild West. Together, my brother and I watched endless reruns on summer nights of Steven McQueen with his sawed off Winchester rifle in Wanted: Dead or Alive and Chuck Connors fighting the good fight in The Rifleman. I knew Lee Majors as Heath Barkley first, and Michael Landon as Little Joe. I can comfortably say that I’ve read every Louis L’Amour book ever written (the Sacketts are one of my favorite literary families) and watched every John Wayne movie at least 10 times.
My dog is named Hondo for a reason.
When I heard that Emma Bull, whose War for the Oaks is one of the defining books in the urban fantasy genre, had written a “retelling” of the events between Wyatt Earp, Doc Holliday, Ike Clanton and the McLaury brothers in Tombstone, I knew I had to read that book. Happily, Territory more than delivers on Bull’s goal to go beyond the myths about the Earps and the Gunfight at the O.K. Corral; she has reinvented the Western for the modern age. Just as the writers of Deadwood made the frontier hip again for television, Bull breathes life into a legend. She isn’t satisfied with rehashing the most infamous gunfight in American history. Instead, she blends new characters into the story as well as a fantasy twist on what made Tombstone so appealing in the first place.
As it turns out, Territory does not include the gunfight at all. The book is about what came before that, and the many different personalities who swirled around Tombstone, looking for power and their own way to fame and fortune. Wyatt Earp is a darker figure that we remember, much more calculating and controlling. Doc Holliday is alternately living and dying, perplexed by the relationship he has with Wyatt and why it seems too compelling to break. The Clantons and McLaurys are well known cattle rustlers and tolerated by the townspeople -- even liked by many. The tension seems to be less about law and order and more between wealth and control.
Bull lures us in with new characters like Mildred Benjamin, a widow and typesetter at one of the local newspapers. As she observes the expanding influence of the local mining interests -- to the point of threatening homeowners off their property -- she also finds herself drawn to newcomer Jesse Fox. He has a secret to protect as well as a friendship with a doctor in the town’s Chinese district which extends beyond the social boundaries of the day. As Jesse and his friend Lung investigate the murder of a Chinese prostitute, Mildred looks into the failed but deadly robbery of a stagecoach. The Earps and Holliday hover around them, interjecting themselves in conversations large and small. The tension builds inexorably as killers are hunted, innocents fall victim to senseless violence, and no one seems to be able to control the town’s future. Tombstone is a tinderbox waiting for a match, and everybody knows it’s only a question of when.
There are several critical additions to Bull’s Tombstone that serve to enrich the story remarkably well. First, Mildred befriends Virgil Earp’s wife and finds herself quickly accepted into the rather closed circle of Earp women. Through conversations with them, another dimension to the story is revealed and, in combination with the strong female characters introduced in Chinatown, Bull exposes much about both the people of Tombstone and the Earp family. This is not a feminist rewrite of the frontier, though it is a far more realistic version of how Tombstone really was than all those movies I grew up on (and even that imaginative episode in the original Star Trek).
So what did I, a longtime fan of both Westerns and fantasy, really love most about Territory? First and foremost, I loved that it worked. This could have been some cobbled together, half-assed attempt at blending genres that diminished the original story and failed to connect with readers. But Bull has done her research and then some. Real names and real moments are all here and all well represented; history buffs will delight in the many sights and smells, and particularly the inclusion of the long neglected Chinese residents. Ultimately, though, we come for the story, and it is the story where Emma Bull really excels.
The fantasy twist is woven perfectly into the history, and Jesse Fox in particular succeeds both as a horse trainer (another example of Bull’s top notch research) and mystic. His references to his distant sister and his own personal anguish over his extra abilities make him very appealing to the reader (he seemed even like a bit of a kindred spirit of Holliday’s to me). Mildred’s curiosity, coupled with no small amount of dogged determination (plus a stubborn fearlessness born of surviving on her own), completely sold her to me. I look forward to reading more about both of them in the book’s sequel, which Bull currently hints at on her blog. Have no worries about a payoff, though -- the final pages are wonderful, and send Jesse to a whole new level as Western hero.
Fans of alternate history and fantasy will find a lot to love in Territory, but I hope that readers of literary fiction will give it a chance as well. So many of us grew up on the legend of Tombstone that, in many ways, this book belongs to all of us; it’s a new look at the West we all think we know so well, and a very effective reimagining of some American legends. I am so impressed by how well Emma Bull pulled this all off. She did a lot of work, and it shows in every brilliantly-chosen word.
Territory by Emma Bull