Desert Isle Keeper
Here's To The Ladies: Stories Of The Frontier Army
If writing about music is like dancing about architecture, then writing about Carla Kelly’s writing is like trying to describe a breathtaking rainbow to a colorblind person: It can be done, but it definitely loses a lot in the translation. There is no one who does poignant as well as Kelly, no one who can capture a mood with just one simple phrase, no one who combines the infinite potential of humanity with all of its ugly faults, and no one whose characters embrace the motto of perseverance as much as hers. It is this dichotomy that makes her traditional Regencies so much more than the sum of their parts, and it is also what makes these stories so special. Yes, some of them are romances between two people, but her stories are more than about just finding a happy resolution to a romance. There is a greater romance with humanity and an eternal optimism that burns brightest even as things seem most bleak.
Here’s To The Ladies: Stories of the Frontier Army is a collection consisting of nine little vignettes that open the door to a much greater understanding of Frontier America. But to tag her writing as merely a conduit for educating the reader (the Ayn Rand syndrome) is to miss the point. That any one of the stories could have been easily expanded to full-length speaks to Kelly’s ability to embed back-story (and sometimes forward-story) into every word. Equally, that it was frustrating that at least six of the nine were not expanded to full-length speaks to her genius and her ability to write characters that demand complete attention. What makes Kelly unique is that there is no question that everyone who reads this will find at least one story that makes them cry. For me, it was A Season For Heroes, but I am equally confident that this story is not necessarily the best one, and I would concede that any one of the other eight might strike another reader the same way.
Such Brave Men starts the collection, a slight tale of a second lieutenant’s wife who, facing Frontier life alone after her husband is sent on a campaign, is demoted in living quarters and must make do with a tent. It is an amusedly ironic story that nonetheless manages to be cheery, even as the recent émigré is faced with continued reductions in her living circumstances. The next story, We Shall Meet, But We Shall Miss Him is an out-and-out heartbreaker, a true Big Misunderstanding that does, oddly enough, have a happy ending. Its hero, Sergeant John Cole, is a well-drawn character, a man who is brave and honorable but who also has a few human foibles that alter the course of his life.
Fille De Joie is another Big Misunderstanding story, but this time it is between the sheriff and a married couple. Its wry sensibility and slapstick humor makes it the most lighthearted of the nine, but it doesn’t come without a little bit of angst along the way. It shares a theme of longing for human contact with the others, but this contact is a bit more literal than in some of the other stories. The Gift is another love story, one that hinges on another recurring Kelly theme of the importance of telling the truth – no matter how painful. The hero, a tongue-tied bachelor with some harrowing experiences in his past, finds a wife despite, and because of, being emotionally and physically battered and bruised.
In Kathleen Flaherty, Kelly really seems to hit her stride. The title character is a woman who is forced into a situation in order to avoid being raped, but who changes and grows because of her unforeseen circumstances. Kelly gives enough back-story to understand how and why the character is the way she is, and also gives the reader clues about how other characters feel about her without being too obvious about it, at least not until we’ve all figured it out already. The passages which describe Kathleen’s long, cold winter are frigidly perfect, and the desperate banality of wishing for a book to read and another dress to wear to a funeral points up the overwhelming difficulty of Frontier life. That this is, ultimately, a love story with a happy ending is hard to believe, but its heroine does ultimately find a place to call her own, even though she found her way there through an exceedingly difficult path.
Casually At Post and Mary Murphy share the theme of the love a parent has for a child as well as the importance of doing the right thing, no matter what people might say. The former also conveys the importance of faith, no matter the source.
A Season For Heroes and Jesse Mac finish the collection, and both tell of ordinary men revealing themselves to be extraordinary in extraordinary circumstances. In A Season For Heroes, the first-person narrator tells the story of how her father – in command of an all-black regiment and highly regarded by his men – is rescued by one of those men from certain death. When her mother goes to the black barracks to thank the sergeant, she asks him why he risked his life to save her husband’s. His response is lovely and heart-wrenching (yes, this is where I got teary): “Well, hell, ma’am, he’s the only man I ever served of my own free will . . . and I guess I love him.” The narrator’s mother replies, “I love him too, Ezra. Maybe for the same reason.” This story details the triumph of courage over societal conviction, and it’s just about perfect.
Jesse Mac is a long finale, another first-person narration that attempts to show the reader how it really was back there on the Frontier before Hollywood prettied it up. The narrator is inspired to relate his story because he is watching a war movie that just doesn’t get it right. He tells of an Army surgeon, a brilliant doctor who remained a sergeant because he constantly plays practical jokes, and was seemingly cavalier about the potential for his promotion. When the surgeon and the narrator, along with a motley crew of fresh fish (new recruits) and company men, make a treacherous journey through Apache territory, the surgeon reveals the strengths in his character, finds true love, and also saves the narrator’s life along the way. This is the most traditional Frontier tale, since it actually has Indians behaving menacingly towards the Frontier people.
As Kelly puts it in her introduction, she wants to “entertain readers with fiction but educate them about life in a garrison at an army post after the Civil War.” That intention, though handily achieved here, puts too narrow a focus on what these stories do. With her writing, Carla Kelly informs us about our own humanity.