The Bad Lands
The latest novel of Oakley Hall, a writer of distinguished reputation and talent, is a Western. Having said this much with most Westerns is enough; with The Bad Lands it is no more than a beginning. This novel is everything that a Western should be: it is set in the Badlands of the 1880’s; it has its cast of cowboys and cattle; it has its share of killings and violence. But to dismiss it as no more than a Western is unforgivable. It is also a novel of morality, of ecology, of ethics—in short, of life and its uncertainties. The Bad Lands is a novel of great importance.
Hall, who is the author of fifteen books, including The Downhill Racers and Warlock, presents in The Bad Lands a story whose debt to the life of Theodore Roosevelt is obvious at the beginning. The fact that Hall does not allow this influence to continue throughout the novel is the first hint of the restraint and the control that he exerts over every portion—indeed, over practically every word—of this novel. The story of Theodore Roosevelt’s experiences in the Badlands with the Marquis de Mores is the starting point for the plot, but the real interest is Andrew Livingston’s story. It is a compelling story, indeed, about men and their conflicts with other men, with progress, with life, with nature itself.
The themes of Hall’s novel are universal, the conflicts ones that every reader can understand because they are still without solution. The universality of the themes is one of the major factors that lifts this story out of its context as a Western and gives it significance as a serious work of fiction regardless of genre.
The Badlands of the 1880’s become a symbolic location for Hall as he addresses the problem of man’s exploitation of the land. In the 1880’s, the Badlands were a relatively unsettled and pristine wilderness, only recently taken from the Indians, a land that still remembered the blood that flowed from Indians and fur-trappers, that still heard in its memory the thundering hooves of herds of buffalo that had roamed its plains. But the Badlands were also the basis of the new dreams of cattlemen whose fortunes hinged on the upward swing of the cattle market and the unsettled prairies that this unspoiled land provided. It is significant that Hall should choose a setting in which the nearest sheriff was a hundred miles away, justice still operated with frontier swiftness, and blood seemed to flow regularly. The Badlands, so named because of their harsh environment and forbidding appearance, is the novel’s principal metaphor.
The two main characters are almost as unique as the land itself. Lord Machray, a Scottish lord who had been decorated by the British Army time and again for bravery in campaigns in India, the Sudan, Egypt, and Abyssinia, came to the Badlands with dreams of growth and development. For Hall, Machray is a symbol of progress, of growth, of civilization, but to the local ranchers, he represents exploitation of the land, the aristocracy of wealth won by other men’s labors and sweat. To the reader, he is a very real person with a dichotomy of traits: he is both strong and weak, coarse and gentle, a dreamer and a con-man.
Andrew Livingston, on the other hand, a New York banker and a member of the Liberal Republicans, is a man without dreams, hope, or purpose. His hunting expedition to the Badlands is designed to help him forget the drownings of his wife and daughter. Having cursed and condemned his God for such inexplicable cruelty, it is fitting that Livingston should come to such a Satan’s garden as the Badlands to kill for sport; it is also fitting that here he should find meaning in death, purpose in living, and beauty in the ugliness of creation. Hall suggests that life is a balance of opposites: of beauty and ugliness, purpose and meaninglessness, creation and destruction. Livingston becomes an Everyman for Hall, as the characters and events he encounters on his journey allow him in the end to hold all things in a certain...
(The entire section is 1,409 words.)