28 November 2017

Prose on Sandhills Fiction Lacking

December, 2017. Grant County News book review.

Some fictional novels select a geographic location and include in the narrative specifics that are proper and realistic for the setting.

Two novels recently released by Shannon Baker include features of sandhill’s land and its people but in many instances, fit the setting to work with her perspective and selected prose.

Stripped Bare was issued in 2016 and Dark Signal was issued in the later extent of 2017.

Her stories convey many features of a place she calls Grand County. This corresponds with Grant county, where the county seat is named Hodgekiss. A mention is even made of the windmill in the middle of main street.

The primary character is a ranch wife named Kate Fox Conner, working on the Frog Creek Ranch while husband Ted Conner is the county sheriff.

Each of the two fictional works deal with murder, and for each issue, the crime scene is conveyed amidst the first few pages.

In the first instance there is a killing of an oldtime rancher – Eldon Edwards former owner of a place of about 100,000 acres – and then the tragic shooting of the sheriff. With her husband in the hospital, Kate Fox takes on the task of finding the perpetrator(s). During the period of a few days that are needed to find the criminals, Fox travels throughout the county, and elsewhere, included Broken Butte, where the hospital is located. This obviously refers to Alliance, Box Butte county.

During the days of action, various characters or topics are regularly mentioned to convey features of the western ranch country in order to set the scene in the fictional sandhills of the books.

In each rendition, visits by Fox with various residents provides a means to introduce different residents so as to convey various “norms” of the ranch country.

In the first novel, a compatriot for the investigation is the county sheriff of the county to the north, the name of which has also been changed, and alluded to in various dubious ways.

There are also details included on a media mogul interested in creating a buffalo scheme by purchasing large tracts of ranch land. The derivation of this character, Glenn Baxter is obvious … just think CNN and realities of bought ranches where bison now roam. In the prose, there is obvious derision conveyed when the sheriff has to drive his electric car.

An aside thrown into Stripped Bare is the unneeded trivia that each sibling of the Fox clan has been named after a particular actor or actress. Fox’s family and relatives are regularly mentioned and serve as foils to make her efforts more difficult because while they can be helpful, they can also be troublesome. The artistic mother is conveyed as a character than any resident could gossip about because of her means of artistic inspiration.

A peculiar dubious item is why autogate is always spelled “AutoGate” as if the things deserve a proper name rather than just being a normal feature of county roads.

Why is Lincoln and the University of Nebraska-Lincoln said to be three hours from Hodgekiss? The distance is obviously much greater, but Kate Fox has to drive there in a day while searching for a family member so the distance is lessened to fit the narrative.

As the narrative of the first book continues, Fox soon discovers while she is looking into activities on many locals, that her husband has been having an affair with an old flame from years ago. This occurred prior to the marriage of Ted and Kate, eight years previously.

As the book closes, once the murders were found, Fox uses a devious means to change election signs. This changes provides a perfect introduction to the next book in the series.

Book two, Dark Signal, first pages present the grisly murder of a train conductor, occurring on the day when Fox was sworn in as county sheriff.

A brutal event that occurred with a swinging railroad tie at a railway overpass seven miles easterly from Hodgekiss. Of course, there is no train overpass in reality anywhere in the vicinity until at Thedford.

The prose continues to include local characters to add interest to the narrative. Some of the names are similar to actual residents of the region, including Hayward, Manning, Messersmith and Ostrander. Her relatively local compatriot was Trey Ridnoir, a state patrol officer from the west, and a character that Fox could use to show she was such a better officer, despite her lack of real experience. Typical clich├ęs are indicated: eating the donuts (i.e., cinnamon rolls), not understand local norms and schedules, appreciating fast food, and improper judgements. Each thing Fox did was, however, an accomplishment to achieve the final goal of closing the investigation, even if done wrongly and without a thorough consideration of the situation and possible outcomes, including personal safety.

During her search to the murderer(s), there were threats. Each instance – including a bolt removed from a tie rod that caused a vehicle accident, a fence cut (three strand barb wire?) and a murdered calf – provided a reason to talk with another resident, and meant she was getting closer to the killer and for the author to convey particulars associated with what our primary character thought was representative. Questions eventually arise about a long-time county commissioner, also a railroad employee.

Another statement which is blatantly wrong concerns a statement that robins and kingfishers “raised a ruckus” at the calving lot. Although this happened on the “Frog Creek Ranch” there is no such waterway in the given geographic locality, and there is not enough of a creek for kingfishers to occur. If the author had mentioned kingbirds, there would be no reason to question this statement. Anytime a kingfisher raises a ruckus, it is always just a bird or two and they do not occur at lot housing calves, according to the realities of a bird watcher.

The time-frame for this second work of fiction is also just a few days, which, similar to the first novel, does not allow any real expansive development of setting and land features, other than the personal view of the primary characters. There was certainly enough said about the Fox clan and their family matters.

The author took the opportunity to convey the family of the dead man as being intolerant of the region of the people, as they had not lived there for decades and thus simply did not understand the reality.

During both periods of time conveyed in the books, the weather is consistently indicated as being cold and snowy, with perhaps a day or two of moderate conditions. Their time frame is separated by nine months.

Included in the second novel, the media mogul is mentioned time and again, as he has become a friend, regularly talked to on the telephone. There is also the mention of the “Black Socks” a religious sect following particular strictures of faith. Both of these items can be interpreted as being similar to modern-day reality of the region.

One more problematic item closed Dark Signal. With ongoing pressure from family, and to get a life, sheriff Fox leased a home nearby at Stryker Lake, a relative short distance from Hodgekiss. It did not look so nice upon her initial viewing with a realtor whose medical condition was well described. The house looked more like a home when she arrived to move in. Her “friend,” the billionaire mogul Baxter, had refurbished the house, adding appropriate furnishings and making the place comfortable and welcoming. It would seem that this would be illegal as a county official cannot accept donations for their personal gain as given by any private citizen. Furnishing a home would seemingly fit within this constraint.

These books are an enjoyable and easy read, but if you have any sense of history and place, do not expect to read them without repeatedly finding statements which are not factual and thus detract from the value of these novels, despite any proclamation to having them set in the unique Sand Hills.

The Baker fiction can be a great read, but it does not properly represent the genre when facts are wrong presented, again and again. When an author decides to use the Sand Hills as a setting, they should at least be able to suitable convey the particulars and indicate details that represent reality. An author should convey the reality of the place and use their writing skills to refer to their characters and to express a comfortable story.

Give the prose some space and pay attention to details but don’t ignore the facts.