First Publisher: Signet,
First Published February 4, 1975
I have decided I really like the late Lewis B. Patten (January 13, 1915 – May 22, 1981) as a western writer. It's actually kind of amazing that I am just now discovering his work after an adulthood full of reading western books, but I guess I just always thought of him as one of those writers who came along after the pulp period and specialized in those slapdash written-on-the-fly paperback westerns that clutter up the bookstore shelves. I am actually not sure how I arrived at this bit of prejudice against him, but I officially repent of it now. Lew Patten has a newfound fan in Albie!
I first encountered Patten's spare and powerful prose in a short story called "Winter Of His Life," that I found and read in an old WWA paperback anthology. This story, a vignette about the final days of a western old-timer in a current urban setting, so impressed me that I knew I should give Patten's novels a chance once and for all. I am now glad I decided to check him out more fully.
My first choice among his novels turned out to be a real winner: ORPHANS OF COYOTE CREEK from 1975.
First published just 6 years before the author's death, ORPHANS was kind of like a hardcore, realistic take on the hackneyed Disney-ish idea of orphans alone on the frontier. [I am not being snobby, by the way... to this day APPLE DUMPLING GANG is one of my favorite movies.]
In this novel, three children-- a boy of 12, a girl of 8, and another boy of 4-- are orphaned abruptly when both their parents are killed instantly in a freak wagon accident. The oldest, Jason Huntzinger, has to suddenly make some quick decisions to keep the 3 of them alive. All of this happens literally within the first five pages of the book, and it is amazing how convincingly Patten is able to make both the circumstances, and the childrens' reactions to those circumstances, seem real. Making children seem like real, plausible characters is always a challenge for ANY writer of fiction, and Patten not only does this capably but even creates a memorably and complexly driven character in young Jason. Throughout the book Jason rises to the occasions that challenge him, and evn finds his true purpose as a result, adopting it as his supreme goal in life to keep he and his siblings alive and together. The forces against him range from bitter cold and possible starvation, to a vividly-drawn murderous drifter named Al Gruber and some well-meaning "bleeding heart" women encountered at a stage station, who actually-- and ironically-- cause more trouble for the kids than just about any other factor.
Just about the only adult who does the kids any good at all is a great character named Andy Tippett, the driver of the stagecoach that happens into the story. Tippett is a likably wise and world weary character who sees through all the facades and hypocrasy that constantly surround him. I really liked the following exchange he has with the boy Jason mid-way through the book:
Also, Patten gives a memorably sympathetic look at a small group of Arapaho Native Americans-- led by a well-drawn character named Walks Fast--who help the children and literally get massacred for their trouble. Only the kids and Tippett even seem to care or see the Indians' side of the whole mess, which gave the book a dark side that was appropriately handled but still kind of startling. With regard to the Indians, here's another great piece of description from Patten:"You figure you can support the three of you?"
“I reckon so." There was a world of assurance in Jason’s voice.
“Some of them Denver busybodies get hold of you and they'll..." Tippett stopped. He didn't know what would happen to the three orphans in Denver, and there was no use scaring the boy.
Jason asked, "They'll what?"
"Nothin'. I'd just stay as far as you can away from do-goodin' women if I was you.”
"Plan to." Jason grinned.
An Indian is as curious as anybody, and a single gunshot required investigation. Walks Fast immediately turned his horse toward the sound, and the others fell in behind.There was no chittering back and forth between them, as ther would have been had they been white. They rode in single file, each perhaps twenty-five or thirty yards behind the one in front. White men, by contrast, ride abreast whenever possible and keep up a steady stream of talk.
As you can see, Patten has this way with decription that often manages to be poignant, comical and profound all at once. He won the SPUR award for western fiction twice and I can definitely see why. He also-- based on my first reading of one of his novels-- seems to have had a strong sense of location in his work [this one took place mainly on the plains of western Nebraska] and he gave his characters-- both the good and the evil ones-- strong, realistic motivation. He was a real pro.