"Each man has a song and this is my song." (Leonard Cohen)

Wednesday, April 1, 2020

Powderkeg by Leo V Gordon & Richard Vetterli


A good read


Leo Gordon, that classic heavy in Western movies about whom I was writing the other day (click the link for that), also wrote screenplays and novels. Under the name Leo V Gordon (which was how he started his acting career) and in collaboration with Richard Vetterli, a political scientist, he produced in 1991 what is, really, a classic historical novel, set during the so-called Mormon War.

It is a novel, not a textbook. The first words you read are: 

Powderkeg blends truth and fiction. Many of the important events portrayed and statements made are a matter of historical record. Nevertheless, the authors remind the reader that Powderkeg is a novel.

The story is clearly well researched, and there is a great deal of (very interesting) historical detail. Professor Vetterli is (or was) at Brigham Young University, Provo, UT and clearly knows his Utah history. Gordon too was knowledgeable about the nineteenth-century West, especially concerning horses, firearms and other Western paraphernalia. It all sounds authentic.
 

At the same time it reads like a Western movie, if you get me. It starts, as many Westerns did, with politicians in Washington DC and soon switches to the frontier, where are introduced to the protagonists. And these actors are well-known to Western lovers: the likes of Jim Bridger, Porter Rockwell, Wild Bill Hickok and young Bill Cody. There’s enough ‘Western’ about it to feature a quick-draw between Rockwell and Hickok (which Hickok loses).

Key characters: Rockwell and Hickok

Some characters are fictional, and some real people who figured in the events are omitted. For example, a key player at the time was Captain Stewart van Vliet, and he doesn’t appear at all. Kanosh and the Utes don’t figure either. That’s fine. Like Western movies, novels are not meant to taken as hard fact.

The Utah War, Utah Expedition, Utah Campaign, Buchanan’s Blunder, 1857 – 58, call it what you will, was hardly a war at all. There were no battles and no one died in direct conflict between the US Army and the Mormon militia. On one level it was a futile exercise that achieved nothing. Militarily, it was a dud. But politically it was fascinating and Gordon & Vetterli clearly enjoy recounting the machinations and downright skullduggery that lay behind it. We are in the pre-Secession world of 1850s high politics and the events play out against that backdrop.

It really was a blunder by Buchanan

I won’t give an account of the ‘war’ here. There are plenty of books on the subject and if you want a briefer summary the Wikipedia article isn’t bad. I recommend instead that you read the novel and get carried along by the events.

There are just a few errors and infelicities. The British Prime Minister was Palmerston, not Palmerstone, and he was either Lord Palmerston or Viscount Palmerston but not both. There’s the occasional language anachronism. I don’t think anyone in 1857 would have said, “You’re in a no-win situation.” These are only little niggles, though they do matter in a way. An historical novel depends on credibility to work. Still, I suppose Western movies played famously fast and loose with such matters, and this book is for the most part careful and accurate.

The Mormons are definitely the goodies. Brigham Young is portrayed as ultra-wise and statesmanlike. The Mormons are loyal to the flag. Young is said to have remarked, “I love the government and the Constitution of the United States, but I do not love the damned rascals that administer the government." He had a point. You could say that’s still true today. Some of the aspects of Mormonism that were very unpopular with much of the American population at the time, such as polygamy, are not mentioned at all in the novel. There are no Danites, or corps of Mormon assassins, and the Mountain Meadows Massacre doesn't get a mention - perish the thought. Young and his supporters are American patriots who are entirely in the right.
 
Brigham is the sage leader (civil and ecclesiastical)

On the other side, Albert Sidney Johnston, commanding the expeditionary force, is shown as a pig-headed martinet who may have been contributing to a nefarious plot to form a confederacy of the West (the suggestion is that he wanted to take his army on into California). His 2-i-c, Colonel Philip St George Cooke, is portrayed very positively, and tries to rein Johnston in (coming close to mutiny in the last chapter) but Cooke was famously a friend of the Mormons.

The bad guy

OK, it’s a point of view. A novel has to have a ‘slant’ or an agenda. It still makes a quite gripping read, carrying you along and turning the pages. 

The authors: 

Leo Gordon

Richard Vetterli


7 comments:

  1. I once had a one dollar gold piece with President Buchanan's picture on it. I would have thought that Lincoln or FDR would have been more appropriate.

    Richard

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    1. I still have Kennedy silver dollar. Does that count as historic?

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  3. Those are interesting characters. Philip St. George Cooke was the father in law of Jeb Stuart. During the Peninsula Campaign, Cooke was the Union cavalry commander and Stuart the Confederate counterpart who embarrassed Cooke by leading two reconnaissance missions which circled the Union force without being caught. I read an interesting book by an early Texas settler, Noah Smithwick, who arrived in Texas in 1827 and in 1836 was part of a ranging party dodging Santa Anna between the time of the Battle of the Alamo and Battle of San Jacinto. He left Texas on foot for California when Texas seceded. In the vicinity of El Paso, he camped overnight near Albert Sidney Johnston, who had resigned his command in California and was heading east to assume a Confedrate command. Smithwick said that Johnston said, "You know, sir, that you are betraying your country." Smithwick replied, "No, sir, you are betraying yours." The parties departed in opposite directions the next morning. That was the end of Smithwick's account of early Texas. It was entitled The Evolution of a State.

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    1. Very interesting. Thanks. So many friends and families were divided at that time, and so many "parties departed in opposite directions", as you put it.
      Jeff

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  4. Ironically Johnston who was killed at the battle of Shiloh - I think he is the highest ranking officer killed during the Civil War - was born in Washington in... Kentucky ! whose legislature and inhabitants mostly sided the Union after a time of neutrality. He had quite a career having fought the Blackhawk War, the Texas revolution and the Mexican-American War. JM

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    1. He comes across in the novel as an almost sinister, certainly incompetent officer.
      Jeff

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