With her debut novel Little Century, Anna Keesey finds herself among other admirable writers with the hard-won title of late-blooming author. Keesey recently turned fifty, and as she endearingly lamented to Peter Ho Davies in a Poets & Writers interview, “Do I wish I’d finished my first novel earlier, before I got fifty-year-old lady neck, and when I had the potential to be fabulous? Devoutly. But I’m glad I persisted, in my fluttery, distracted, dorky way.”
Readers have much to be glad for, too, when it comes to the supposedly “dorky” efforts of Keesey’s persistence with Little Century. Set at the turn of the 20th century, the novel tells the story of Esther Chambers, a grieving and lost eighteen-year-old girl who travels alone from Chicago to the high desert of Oregon after her mother’s death leaves her orphaned. Esther arrives in the town of Century, a place of “eerie rock [that] has flowed from inside the earth through some unnatural crevice, blackening the landscape like Hades’s chariot,” to meet her only known living relative, a distant cousin named Ferris Pickett, a cattle rancher.
Quickly, she realizes she is one of the few women — and the only city slicker — in the bleak desert outpost of Century. She also discovers that not only is this land barren and fruitless, but also that Pick is the king of it, as he “leads the way around [Century] in keeping sheep off what’s cattle ground.”
Pick’s ranch is expansive and artfully crafted, but he has an agenda for Esther while he’s got her staying with him. Spurred by his desire to control more of the surrounding desert, he convinces her to hold down a plot of land with her name on it. Esther has to lie about her age and then sign a deed for the claim. Vincent, who helps Pick run his ranch, explains the agreement she’s entered into like this: “You’re supposed to spend six months of nights there and grow a crop. But the law don’t say you have to eat or keep your clothes there.”
At first, those six months seem endless to Esther, in the daunting way that time has of stretching before a vulnerable person new to an unknown place. But there’s much to be done. She needs to learn to ride a horse; she must meet the other townspeople and settle herself among them; and she’s got a crop to grow and a well to dig. This may sound like the stuff of the Oregon Trail, or tired-out Westerns with contrived plots and predictable characters, but Keesey deftly draws her solid story with so much urgency that Esther’s survival — and the survival of Century — feel as real as any modern crisis.
Esther rises to the occasion, even as she hosts a wide range of personal dilemmas that grow as large and delicate as her budding crop of alfalfa. For one thing, Pick wants to marry her, and though she finds him handsome — and his sway in Century alluring — she’s not ready to settle down. Her decision gets more complicated when a sheepherder named Ben Cruff comes to her house to build a well as a punishment after a fight with one of Pick’s cattle rangers. In a subtly inevitable (but disarmingly unpredictable) fashion Keesey eases us into the realization that Ben and Esther are falling in love.
Esther couldn’t have chosen a more fraught love affair. An all-out war breaks out in Century over the use of land for cattle instead of sheep, and Ben Cruff posts himself violently in the middle of it. With the murder of the town’s only merchant — a man who was also Esther’s first friend in Century — Esther takes on the town’s fate. Though it’s heartbreaking, it’s also hard not to marvel, Oh but how far she’s come.
And how beautifully far Anna Keesey has come. She commented that this novel took her ten years to write, in part because in the beginning stages, she worked under “a fundamental artistic error”: fervently believing that writing a good book should feel as enthralling as reading a good book. As she told Davies, “I didn’t understand that I had to be a workman, a laborer.” There’s not a single sentence in this novel that reads like it took hard work. The characters, sprung from another time, living in a place as removed as another planet, come to life on the page, and all their flaws feel as consistent and true as the flaws of our dearest loved ones in this work of near perfection.