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The Lost Wagon Train (1936)

Cover illustration by Harrison Fisher

The Lost Wagon Train came about because the Depression of the 1930’s forced Zane Grey to face that one cannot keep on spending money without having some to spend. Cosmopolitan Magazine published the serial “The Lost Wagon Train” in 4 episodes from July-October 1932. According to Joe Wheeler (foreword 2016 ed) The Lost Wagon Train is seen as a companion piece to Fighting Caravans. Not until 1936 did Harper & Brothers publish The Lost Wagon Train in book form. The story is now available to borrow on Internet Archive. Pages 12, 13 and 175, 176 were not properly scanned.

All authors have their own style of writing. Zane Grey was no exception. The Lost Wagon Train is typical of Zane Grey romances in many ways. Latch has failed at love and failed in the military. Grey has yet again used nature as a character. In addition, the story is written for the white middle-class of his day. However, it is a darker story than most of his others.

“Latch’s band of outlaws and savages hid in Spider Web Canyon awaiting the Kiowa scouts who were to fetch news of any caravans that were approaching.

It was a summer night in 1861. Spider Web Canyon lay up in the first range of mountains rising off the Great Plains. The rendezvous had been a secret hiding-place of Satana, a fierce and bloody chief of the Kiowas. He and Latch had formed a partnership – a strange relation growing out of an accidental joint attack upon a wagon train.” (p. 1)

Chief Set-t’ainte was known as Chief Satana/Satanta among the white population.

Chief Satana in The Lost Wagon Train must be based on Kiowa Chief Satanta, (Set-t’ainte/White Bear). Satanta was a Chief whose guerilla tactics challenged the US Army and slowed down the invasion of his people’s lands. It is easy to forget that the Civil War was a war within a war. In The Lost Wagon Train Satana sees Latch’s gang as a tool to ally with but also as traitors to their people.

Stephen Latch “looked to be around thirty 30 years old and was the son of a Louisiana plantation owner“. When the Confederacy failed to bestow on him a commission in the Confederate Army he duelled with the officer who

“forestalled him. With blood on his hands and with all the Rebel hatred for the North in his heart, he had set out to wage his own battle with the Northerners. From a guerilla warfare it had degenerated into border outlawry.”

To Latch the Kiowas were disposable tools. He would gladly sacrifice them in his impossible search for revenge for acts brought upon himself.

It seems obvious that the way I understand stories depends on how old I am. When I first encountered “Vogntoget som forsvant” (Norwegian translation) I must have been around 10-13 years old. Back then, I read the story as a story without any understanding of the time it was written, the time it was describing and how incredibly difficult it is to determine exactly what makes something “right and wrong/good and bad”. Determining that has become more and more difficult with time. At this point of my life, I find myself unable to do so on purely logical grounds.

Understanding the behaviour of the Kiowa warriors during the first part of The Lost Wagon Train is easy peasy. War consists of a series of gruesome actions. Agreeing to massacre the entire wagon train makes sense as a tactic in this horror. At the 1867 Medicine Lodge Peace Treaty, Satanta spoke: “… I came to say that the Kiowas and Commanches have made with you a peace. The word shall last until the whites break their contract and invite the horrors of war. …” And the whites did.

“This must be the notorious war-cry of Indians, Cynthia recognized in it the great vengeful cry of the tribe that had been deceived, wronged, robbed, murdered.” (p. 58)

In The Lost Wagon Train Satana, Hawk Eye and the Kiowa warriors are stereotypically portrayed and made so Grey’s intended readers would buy his stories. “Uggh!” certainly pops up a lot. They are supporting characters, nothing more.

Other than Stephen Latch, the only other character who comes to life is Corny/Slim Blue. Estelle is more like most of Grey’s female leads. Corny does not appear until the second part of the story. The first part of The Lost Wagon Train is mainly about the forming of Latch’s gang and their massacre of the Bowden wagon train at Tanner’s Swale on Dry Trail. The second part of the story is a sort of redemption story but also has the required romance of any Zane Grey romance story.

“Let go of that woman, Leighton”

Many people see Stephen Latch as an evil man. Would they feel the same if the story had been about the massacre of a Commanche village? Or the annihilation of a plantation in the South? I don’t see either Latch or what he did as particularly evil. Or, rather, no more evil than all the terrible things humans do in the name of a cause. He is an expert at rationalization, objectifying his targets and soothes his conscience enough to go through with what he planned. Latch is a man who wants to survive and does not want to starve while doing so. His time is a brutal one, propaganda is intense and his methods are in line with that time’s methods. So, maybe Latch is not that different from you or me. What Stephen Latch is, is a complex character. I do not particularly like him, but he is still a great character for this story. Nor did I like John Bowden, who was about to be massacred. I have met many John Bowden’s in my life. People who have power over others are definitely not exempt from stupidity. Often it seems as if the degree of their greed equals the degree of their stupidity. Bowden is completely unwilling to even consider the dangers he is putting his caravan in. All that matters is getting his stuff to Fort Union as fast as possible.

My favorite character, as usual, is nature. During the build-up to the battle, Grey uses nature to change the rhythm of the story, possibly to give the reader breathers.

“transforming the canyon from a dark, gray-fogged, stone-faced crack in the wilderness to a magnificent valley of silver and gold iridescence. The wisps of clouds lifted up as on wings of pearly fire, the white cascade tumbled out of a ragged notch in the black rim, to fall and pause and fall again, like fans of lace; …”  (p 19).

Against orders, one person survives the destruction of Bowden’s wagon train. To say that Latch gets the shock of his life, is an understatement.

“Christ. Am I mad? … Who are you?” cried Latch in a frenzy.

“Stephen! You-you! … Oh, that you should be the one to save me.”

She sank to her knees with nerveless hands.

“No! … It can’t be! Not you! That would be too – too horrible.”

“Yes, it is I, Cynthia,” she whispered.

Of course she finds out almost immediately that Latch is leader of the gang. Because he is a weak man, Latch blames his actions on her. And, because of the way women were/are supposed to be, Cynthia accepts that blame.
“In a word – Leader of Latch’s band… To this you have brought me.”
……

“I will welcome death at your hands. I have brought you to this degradation;”

Latch has two friends in the gang. Keetch and Lester Cornwall. Keetch loses his leg in one raid, and stays in Latch’s Field taking care of Cynthia and Latch’s business. Lester Cornwall stays at Latch’s side. Again and again Cornwall warns Latch about another gang-member, Leighton, and every stinking time Latch ignores the danger. In fact, Latch is the only one who does not see the danger Leighton poses. I know it is a necessary literary device for this story, but I just have to say that Latch drove me crazier with this gullibility. Well, actually Grey drove me crazier.

Grey writes historical romances, not historical novels. This is why people, events and places do not match the time of the story. But many of these people, events and places were real. When Latch speaks of the Maxwell Land Grant on Vermigo, he is speaking of a place that actually existed.

When the time came for the gang to dissolve, Latch did well by his people.

“We’re here first. This valley is mine. I bought it from Santana. It is wonderfully rich in grass, water, climate. Farms will prosper here. Game abounds. The hills are covered with timber …My proposition to you all, except Leighton, is this. I’ll start you all with a ranch and cattle – say five hundred head each. A fine start! Also five thousand dollars each! Bunch together with some Mexicans, and Keetch here to superintend, and throw up cabins corrals, barns. Build homes. Get yourselves wives, even if they have to be squaws. And live down the past.”

And that brings us to the second part of the story. On page 152 Grey brings us to a future time that has Corny/Slim Blue as a main character, Estelle Latch is another one, and, this time around, Stephen Latch as a supporting character to both their stories. It begins with Slim saving Estelle and that, of course, brings romance into The Lost Wagon Train. Romance fraught with complications, huge complications – the kind Zane Grey loves. Gigantic complications rooted in Stephen Latch’s past.

Again, we see Grey’s love of the landscape when he writes about Corny’s reaction to seeing Latch’s Field for the first time.

Like all the valleys in this region, Latch’s headed in a notch under the hills. Only this one was by far the most imposing and beautiful of the ones he had seen. Green squares attracted his speculative eyes, groves of cottonwoods and ridges with a line of walnut trees marched to the opposite wall, meadows like parks of golden grass shone against the sunset. (p. 181)

Because of the way meaning changes, some of Greys sentences made me smile. All stories from that era do that to me. “Making love” is not intercourse nor does “ejaculation” have anything to do with semen. “Gay” is happy etc.

Latch’s way of being able to live with what he had done, accepting but not condoning, seems like a sensible method. It reminds me of stories from Rwanda. No matter what his motives were, Latch completely changed his behaviour once the band was dissolved. Leighton is a great example of what might happen if a person get stuck in their past. Yet letting go is such a difficult thing to do. The Tutsi and Hutu certainly know all about that. Just look at the way many Germans still try to make up for something their grandparents did. I certainly struggle plenty with letting go of hurt.


The Lost Wagon Train is found on Internet Archive


Reviews:


Translations:

  • Audio: The Lost Wagon Train; Narrated by John McLain; Brilliance Audio, 2017
  • Czech: Zmizelá karavana; Translated by Josef Vorel; Illustration by Zdeněk Burian; V Praze, Novina, 1938
    • Illustration by Josef Ulč; V Brno, Novina, 1993
  • German: Die Todeskarawane; Translated by Franz Eckstein; Berlin, Th. Knaur Nachf. 1937
    • Todes-Treck; Translated by E. Tabory; Bergisch Gladbach, Bastei-Verl, 1968
    • Der letzte Wagenzug; Translated by Alfred Dunkel; München, Wilhelm Heyne, 1973
  • Hungarian: Úri bandita és városi leány; Translated by Kosáryné Réz Lola; Budapest: Palladis, 1938
  • Italian: La carovana scomparsa; Translated by Nicoletta Coppini; Illustration by Guido Crepax; Milano, Sonzogno, 1968
  • Norwegian: Vogntoget som forsvant; Translated by Lars Berge; Oslo, Ingar Weyer Tveitan, 1961
  • Polish: Zaginiony tabor; Translated by Janina. Sujkowska; Illustrated by Lucjan Jagodziński; Warszawa: M. Arct, 1938
  • Portugese; A caravana perdida; Translated by Raul Correia; Illustration by Carlos Alberto Santos; Lisboa, Agencia Portuguesa de Revistas, 1961
  • Spanish; La caravana perdida; Translated by Luis Conde Vélez; Barcelona, Bruguera, 1950
    • Translated by Ramón Margalef Llambrich; Barcelona Molino, 1982
    • Argentina, Librostauro, 2010
  • Swedish: Vagntåget som försvann; Translated by J.E. Berg; Stockholm, Interdeal AB, 1964

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Posted by on 2017-07-28 in Books

 

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