By Anna Keesey
(Farrar, Straus and Giroux, Hardcover, 9780374192044, 336pp.)
Publication Date: June 5, 2012
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In the tradition of such classics as My Ántonia and There Will Be Blood, Anna Keesey’s Little Century is a resonant and moving debut novel by a writer of confident gifts.
Orphaned after the death of her mother, eighteen-year-old Esther Chambers heads west in search of her only living relative. In the lawless frontier town of Century, Oregon, she’s met by her distant cousin, a laconic cattle rancher named Ferris Pickett. Pick leads her to a tiny cabin by a small lake called Half-a-Mind, and there she begins her new life as a homesteader. If she can hold out for five years, the land will join Pick’s already impressive spread.
But Esther discovers that this town on the edge of civilization is in the midst of a range war. There’s plenty of land, but somehow it is not enough for the ranchers—it’s cattle against sheep, with water at a premium. In this charged climate, small incidents of violence swiftly escalate, and Esther finds her sympathies divided between her cousin and a sheepherder named Ben Cruff, a sworn enemy of the cattle ranchers. As her feelings for Ben and for her land grow, she begins to see she can’t be loyal to both.
Little Century maps our country’s cutthroat legacy of dispossession and greed, even as it celebrates the ecstatic visions of what America could become.
Anna Keesey is a graduate of Stanford University and of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop. Her work has appeared in a number of journals and anthologies, including Best American Short Stories. She is the recipient of a National Endowment for the Arts Creative Writing Fellowship and has held residencies at MacDowell, Bread Loaf, Yaddo, and Provincetown. Keesey teaches English and creative writing at Linfield College in McMinnville, Oregon.
“Little Century . . . is rendered vividly through fluid and restrained prose, solid plotting and a keen eye for detail . . . Keesey, a graduate of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, treads [her] territory competently, imbuing her characters with palpable motives, rich contradictions and fully realized pasts. She also stays atop the rising action of the story, upping the stakes for her characters and the town of Century as she herds us efficiently toward the conclusion. At the same time, she knows not to hurry readers along without letting them soak up the atmosphere. The real star of the novel is Oregon’s high desert, a vast, quiet plain Keesey captures in many of its dynamic moods, in language ranging from the plainspoken to the elegant . . . [Keesey’s] language serves the story admirably, rarely crossing the line into the self-conscious, the sentimental or the flashy. In short, Keesey is a sentence writer in control of her craft. She’s a storyteller who stays out of her own way.” —Jonathan Evison, The New York Times Book Review
“Ambitious . . . Accomplished . . . [Keesey’s] words are clear as lake water . . . [The] plot works easily and well, but the real joys of the book are the set pieces showing town life and Esther’s almost unnoticed passage into womanhood. There’s a church dance, effortlessly drawn, and a couple of sermons, boring and portentous, and scenes of Esther learning to ride and plant and plow, and a perfect little scene of Esther and a friend helping a little girl jump rope . . . ‘Tender’ is a word Keesey uses again and again to describe her characters. She mothers them, cares about them like children, wants to protect them from the hell they have been so intent upon making. She persuades the reader to cherish them, as well.” —Carolyn See, The Washington Post
“[A] briskly romantic, nontraditional Western . . . It’s Willa Cather with a sense of humor . . . Keesey portrays her men and women as deeply flawed but so achingly vulnerable that it is impossible not to identify with them.” —Liza Nelson, O: The Oprah Magazine
“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.” —Elizabeth Word Gutting, The Rumpus
“Keesey writes lyrically and examines the ferocity of frontier life with an unromantic and penetrating voice.” —Kirkus Reviews (starred review)
“Highly entertaining reading. First novelist Keesey has produced a top-notch novel of Western Americana.” —Keddy Ann Outlaw, Library Journal (starred review)
“Confidently energetic . . . While Keesey offers a variety of characters with intriguing stories of their own, it is the richly depicted setting—from desert to dry good store—that showcases her talent.” —Publishers Weekly
“Here is a fine novel, written with grace, about the settling of Oregon and the evening redness in the West. The desert town of Century is about to consume itself with greed and vengeance when a young orphan from Chicago shows up with a moral clarity that outstrips her age, to remind us that character matters, and that justice is pursuant to conscience. Little Century is a frontier saga, a love story, and an epic of many small pleasures.” —Joshua Ferris, author of Then We Came to the End
“ ‘One place understood helps us understand all other places better,’ Eudora Welty once said, and such is the case in this outstanding debut. Anna Keesey renders Little Century’s time and place marvelously, but the novel’s concerns are timeless and universal. With its beautiful language, memorable characters, and compelling story, Little Century is sure to gain a wide and appreciative audience.” —Ron Rash, author of Serena
“This is a beautiful and completely absorbing book. In spare, luminous prose, Anna Keesey perfectly conjures the textures, characters, and urgency of life in Century. I read it at a gallop, and didn’t want it to end.” —Madeline Miller, author of The Song of Achilles
“Little Century is rich and true and achingly beautiful. Its heroine, Esther Chambers, is the kind found in the best classic literature: an innocent caught against the backdrop of escalating violence whose essential goodness and loyalty shine through the savagery around her.” —Kathleen Kent, author of The Heretic’s Daughter
“In this novel of stunning beauty, Anna Keesey gives us the American West at the turn of the century, and a cast of unforgettable characters who will risk anything to tame it. Oregon’s hardscrabble frontier comes utterly alive for us in prose so lovely, spot-on, and accomplished that I found myself dog-earing nearly every page. An incredible debut—and a writer to watch.” —Paula McLain, author of The Paris Wife
“Anna Keesey conjures her Western landscape of ranches and homesteads with painterly richness, but it’s her uncanny historical imagination that really takes the breath away. Her characters pulse with life; their times feel as immediate, as urgent and vital, as our own.” —Peter Ho Davies, author of The Welsh Girl
“Historical fiction at its finest—precise and particular in detail, character, and setting, yet vast and epic in scope and theme. Little Century is a remarkable achievement.” —Larry Watson, author of Montana 1948