Territory, by Emma Bull
Posted September 20, 2016on:
published in 2007
where I got it: purchased used
Territory is one of those books that I really enjoyed, but it’s hard to articulate why I enjoyed it. Reading this book was like climbing under a soft heavy blanket – everything just felt right. Emma Bull certainly isn’t the only author to ever write a weird west tale, to ever envision that Wyatt Earp had some kind of magic that protected him, his brothers and their interests, and Doc Holliday. But I think she’s the only one to do it quite like this, to pit Earp against someone like Jesse Fox.
I was never all that interested in Wyatt Earp. And maybe that’s why I liked Territory so much. In this novel Wyatt is, umm…. wallpaper? A room accessory? He’s there, but he’s the lamp in the room that is used to so you can see other things. Earp is walking through the story, having convinced himself the universe revolves about him, but this isn’t a story about him. Doc Holliday thinks he’s the star of this story as well . . . .
Territory revolves around the fictitious characters Jesse Fox and Mildred Benjamin. Fox may introduce himself as a horse breaker, but his skill set lies elsewhere. He’s been drawn to the boom city of Tombstone by his Chinese friend Lung Chow. Chow’s been trying to train Jesse in other arts for years, but Jesse’s stubbornness keeps getting in his way. Mildred is a widow, she works as a typesetter with one of the local newspapers. A woman with her feet in two worlds and her ear to the ground, she finds herself drawn to a man as secretive as she is. I really loved Mildred and what she goes through, her thoughts about where she in her life and how she got there. Earp might be a lamp that allows you to see other things, but Mildred is where all the brightness in the story comes from.
The plot of Territory moves along very slowly, and some readers will be turned off by that. For the first two thirds of the book, I didn’t mind the slow plot, the pace seemed to match the pace of life in the old west – lots of days of humdrum life, and then something crazy happens in the middle of the night. Most people spend their time just trying to survive. It’s a slow burn of Mildred befriending the Earp wives, and Jesse trying to make sure no one knows why he’s really in town, and a large handful of other things that only add depth to what’s already happening. I only got annoyed with the slower pace near the end of the novel, when I was just itching for something big and brash to happen. And not to spoil anything, but the novel doesn’t end with anything overly big or brash. Everyone seems to exhausted by that point.
What makes this book shine is the characterization of the two main characters Jesse and Mildred, the quiet intimate scenes, and the subtlety of the whole thing. If you like subtle, this book is for you. There are all these little scenes here and there that add so much color and dimension to what’s going on. For example, one of my favorite scenes is when Mildred stops at one of the Earp households, to find the Earp wives sewing tents in the living room while one of them reads aloud to the others to stave off the boredom. It’s a nothing, a throw away scene, but it warms up everything else that’s going on. As a woman who has trouble making female friends, it meant a lot to me to see Mildren struggle with the same thing, and then succeed. I’d like to think Mildred and I could have been friends.
And let’s talk about that horse taming scene. If you’ve read the book, you know what I’m talking about and you also know this is a very old fashioned way of breaking in a horse. When it comes down to it, It’s not the horse that’s being broken in, it’s Jesse. The entire scene, it’s him realizing he can use all his strength to fight what’s in him, and that in the process all he’s doing is exhausting himself. When he’s exhausted, the magic will still be there waiting for him, and it will be more powerful than him. So why fight it? Most people love the scene where Jesse explores his connection with the magic in the earth, but for me, it’s his realization that he’s being broken in, just like that horse, that’s more powerful.
It’s all the little scenes, like those two and so many others, that made this book for me. I enjoyed every minute of reading it. If you’re looking for a weird western, or a unique urban fantasy, or just something that plays with magic in a different and very subtle fashion, Emma Bull’s Territory is a title you should keep your eye out for at the used bookstore.