Paul Horgan Essay - Critical Essays


Paul Horgan’s fiction is dominated on one level by a skillful, aesthetic evocation of the southwestern landscape and climate and a sensitive delineation of character. His novels are exceptionally well written, with sharp detail and imagery often matched by a lyrical tone perfectly suited to the basic goodness of hisprotagonists. Yet to dwell on this strong sense of place is to miss a basic theme in his works and to misjudge the appeal of his writing. The strength of Horgan’s fiction lies in the reader’s immediate and sympathetic identification with the protagonists. Curiosity is perhaps humankind’s most distinguishing feature. This is true not only in an academic sense but in a personal way as well: To varying degrees, people take an interest in their ancestry and family histories. They want to know who they are and whence they come. It is both a peculiarity and a trademark of Horgan’s fiction that this kind of knowing is its constant concern. The dramatic center in Horgan’s books revolves around people learning the truth about themselves and their lives.

Horgan employs two mainnarrative strategies to accomplish his end. In books such as Far from Cibola and A Distant Trumpet, individuals must deal with an unexpected event upsetting the routine of everyday life and, as a result, are challenged to define their own lives more clearly. On the other hand, in novels such as Things as They Are and Whitewater, his protagonists conduct a more conscious search for an understanding of who they are and make a deliberate attempt to come to terms with their own pasts.

Far from Cibola

Often in Horgan’s fiction, discovering the truth about oneself occurs after some startling event disrupts the ordinary flow of life. Such is the case in Far from Cibola, which many critics regard as Horgan’s best novel. This short work, set in and around a small town in New Mexico during the early years of the Great Depression, records what happens to a dozen of the local inhabitants during a day in which they are all briefly brought together as part of a large crowd protesting economic conditions. After the crowd threatens to turn into an unruly mob, the sheriff fires a warning shot above their heads into some trees and accidentally kills a teenager who had climbed up the tree to watch the excitement. The crowd disperses after the gunfire, and the remaining chapters describe what happens to the dozen characters the rest of the day. Although these figures span a broad band of the socioeconomic spectrum of the New Mexican (and American) landscape of the 1930’s, Far from Cibola is not simply another proletarian novel of that decade. Economic problems and hardships are uppermost in the minds of almost everyone in the story, but the fate of each character hinges on his or her ability to recognize and accept reality as it suddenly appears.

The opening chapter provides a good example of what happens to all the characters in the novel. It begins with serene, pastoral images: Mountains are shimmering in the morning haze, and smoke from breakfast fires rises straight into the clear April sky. In Ellen Rood’s kitchen, there is a springlike feeling of peace and well-being. As she lays wood for her own stove, Ellen listens to the sounds of her two small children out in the farmyard. Her son, Donald, is chopping at some wood with an ax that is too big for his hands, and her daughter, Lena, is washing her face from a tin dish sitting on the edge of the well. Without warning, however, smoke rolls back into her eyes and sparks sting her arms when Ellen attempts to start the fire. At about the same time, Ellen realizes that her children are strangely quiet. When she investigates, she discovers a huge rattlesnake nearby; she quickly hacks it to death before it can harm her children. There are many scenes such as this one in Far from Cibola, in which people suddenly have an idyllic world overturned by a more sober, often harsher reality. How they react is a good measure of their character. Not everyone can prevail as Ellen does.

The incident in the courthouse provides a social context for what happens to the novel’s individuals. Until the crowd becomes violent, everything is fairly calm and orderly. There may be hunger and economic desperation in the community, but people have not yet fully faced the fact that there are no hidden food supplies and the government cannot help them. The killing underscores this bleak reality, and society as a whole must deal with this truth, as Ellen had to face the rattlesnake outside her kitchen door.

A Distant Trumpet

A Distant Trumpet, written more than two decades later, shows thematic concerns similar to those of Far from Cibola, but Horgan achieves them in a slightly different manner. The novel’s primary setting is Fort Delivery, a frontier outpost near the Mexican border in the Arizona Territory during the late 1880’s. Although there are a number of characters, the story centers on a young U.S. Army lieutenant named Matthew Hazard and an Apache scout called Joe Dummy. Deftly and incisively, Horgan dramatizes Hazard’s and Joe Dummy’s roles in helping to...

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