The Ox-Bow Incident is a short novel by Walter Van Tilberg Clark published in 1940. Clark was a chronicler of life in the west who was transported to this part of the country as young boy. This is his first and most distinguished novel. He was an educator “who wrote only five books, all about the west.
“Set in 1885, The Ox-Bow Incident is a searing and realistic portrait of frontier life and mob violence in the American West. First published in 1940, it focuses on the lynching of three innocent men and the tragedy that ensues when law and order are abandoned. The result is an emotionally powerful, vivid, and unforgettable re-creation of the Western novel, which Clark transmuted into a universal story about good and evil, individual and community, justice and human nature. As Wallace Stegner writes, [Clark’s] theme was civilization, and he recorded, indelibly, its first steps in a new country.” [Modern Library Classics, Amazon]
“Set in the late 19th century in Nevada, two cattlemen arrive in town where several cattle rustling have occurred. After one of them had a small altercation in the town bar, someone accuses them of these crimes. But before anything can be done, a man rushes in the bar and announced a local rancher has just been found dead and forty head of his cattle were taken. Attention is now turned from the cattlemen to criminals on the loose.
This news leads to the formation of a posse. It is led by a local rancher who was a Civil War officer and a vengeful deputy sheriff, and both are supported by men from the area who are now in town. Despite a passionate shop keeper who does everything in his power to dissuade the mob and let cooler heads act, the posse/mob heads out in search of the rustlers.
The group is comprised mostly of men, and one woman, following the leaders who are seeking vengeance that they believe can only happen at their hands. A few others, including the cattlemen who were accused initially are along with the unspoken wish that they can dissuade the mob. After all, this mob could be after them if a better target hadn’t appeared. We learn much about the feelings of all stripes through the narrator.
After a few hours three men with forty head of cattle are found around their campfire at Ox Bow Valley. They are accused of killing the rancher and stealing the cattle. The mob finds them guilty until proved innocent. They men are interrogated and what happens after this and the fallout is describe in the rest of the book.
This tale of the old west by Walter Van Tilberg Clark is considered one of the finest of this genre.”
1. Who is the narrator? What was his involvement in the plot?
2. Did anything in the book alter your views of the “old west”?
3. How did the women, Frena, Rose, and Ma Grier compare?
4. Are the characters, the Mexican and Sparks genuine three-dimensional or simply cultural stereotypes?
5. What motivates Davies to remain the voice of reason?
6. What role did tension between the characters play in the plot?
7. How did Major Tetley’s attitude toward the posse and his dealings with his son compare?
8. What did you think of the young man, Martin? How did he compare with the other accused?
9. How are these westerners alike or different from those in My Ántonia?
10. Are you satisfied with the ending? If not, why?
11. What did you learn from this book?
The discussion of The Ox-Bow Incident on December 11, 2018 was begun by the moderator who asked, “did you like the book? This question was defensive. The moderator had recommended the book. An immediate reply from a member of the group was, “I didn’t like the book.” Before anyone else could chime in, this person’s follow up was, “but I did learn something, and the book was well written.” With this out of the way, the discussion settled on behavior and attitudes of the characters.
The men were masculine, sometimes aggressive and were looking for a fight or what they considered vengeance (justice?). This was manifested by their joining a posse hunting people they were told had killed a man in the act of cattle rustling. The only mitigating circumstance was that rustling had been plaguing the community for a while and the people from the town and surrounding areas were eager to pursue people who they were told had stolen 40 head of cattle and murdered a man well liked in the community. It was agreed by all that most of the men were eager participants. The make up of the twenty eight man posse seemed to be on three categories: those followers spoiling for a fight without actionable evidence, one young man forced to prove his manhood while wracked with the feeling that he was involved in an unjust act whether the men they were pursuing were innocent or not, a person desperately trying to see that justice is done, and two men who were worried about being accused of a crime.
The town was on the down turn in part because the railroad was supplanting the stage coach. Maybe this explains the driver carrying Rose and her new husband back to the town being drunk and his helper wounding an innocent man. This was followed by an unrelated comment about the pony express that was supplanted by the telegraph ending its brief but storied 19-month history two days after the transcontinental telegraph was completed.
The shop keeper, Davies, who failed to stop the lynching was too hard on himself, most agreed.
Tetley killing himself after the suicide of his “effeminate” son Gerald was possibly a remorseful act. The fact that he ran himself through with a military sword and he wore a civil war uniform could be considered self-serving. This stirred comment that it is reasonable to say that man is born with a conscience.
The three women in the book were not cast in a favorable light and were not “three dimensional characters. This could be said of most people in the book except for Art and Gil who both spoke in their own voice.
Martin, the young man and leader of the group found with the cattle who was wrongfully accused with a Mexican and a senile old man did not create much interest. His behavior was not dealt with in detail although he was at times eloquent in his own defense.
The progression of the weather from a pleasant day in town to cold and foreboding night created a powerful image which the reader could feel. In contrast the lynching itself happened only after the sky became light. This no doubt had some meaning, but it was not explained. Was that by design making it necessary for the reader to figure out the importance?
The judge was a bad guy or more likely weak and ineffectual.
When Sheriff Risely arrived, and it was learned that Kincaid was not killed, and Martin paid for the cattle, the evil act of the mob was fully exposed. The lynching was terrible regardless of any guilt but to do this to an innocent man was unspeakable. Then Sheriff Risley forming a new posse of ten men to look for real rustlers showed that life moves on. Justice is served in a way when Mapes and other zealots were not picked to the new posse.
We had pretty much finished our discussion and the mood was subdued. The unstated feeling was the book had missed an opportunity to live up to its accolades. This led me to go back and re-re-read the last dozen pages. These pages led me to the conclusion that Gil is the character with the most depth. He reveals that his fighting is more sport and macho behavior than the desire to hurt someone. He decides to avoid a fight with Rose’s husband because he can’t think of a way to start one. He admits it just wouldn’t be fun, although he is being tormented by Rose who is downstairs showing off. Gil then rethinks things and admits he would have killed Swanson if had a gun. Then his behavior suggests Swanson wasn’t even worth killing.
Gil continued to call himself a coward for not taking a gun with him when he joined the gang going after the men who were eventually lynched. He knew that Tetley would have to be stopped and if that happened the rest of the mob would lose heart and disperse. He knew that he would force Tetley to stand down from threats or he would have to be killed. Gil called himself a coward for not being willing to do this when it was the only way the men could be saved from lynching. He knew that the only way to stop this act was to stop Tetley and he blames himself for having an excuse for not doing it, not having a gun. Gil is solicitous toward Art who is feeling the effects of his wound inflicted the night before. Gil is the one who took the lead in contributing of fifty dollars for Martin’s family even making the contribution from Art without asking him. Gil read Martin’s letter to his wife. Art could not read. Reading these pages puts an exclamation on this book that the reader must dig for. It wasn’t a happy ending, but the reader got the feeling that justice in the best way possible, had been carried out and Gil a prominent but vulnerable character proved his character.
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