The lunchtime book group, Downtowners, at The Kansas City Public Library, met recently to discuss Hellfire Canyon by Max McCoy. While the Spur Award-winning paperback prompted plenty of conversation, no six-guns were drawn between conversatin’ readers.
I started the discussion by asking attendees what they thought was meant by ‘western novel’ since none of them had ever read a western. The stereotypical elements were mentioned—cowboys, stagecoach robberies, saloon gals, showdowns, sheriffs and Indians, wide open spaces—and then readers started pointing out how this novel didn’t have any of the mentioned characteristics.
All of the readers were surprised at how much they enjoyed the story of an aged outlaw recounting a life of crime that started with induction into the blood thirsty gang of legendary serial killer Alf Bolin. In 1862, Jacob Gamble is a young teen when he and his mother are driven from their Missouri farm by Yankees. The soldiers burn the house and Jacob and his resourceful mother begin a series of adventures that take them to the military prison in Palmyra and then south through the Ozarks during a freezing winter, trying to avoid marauding gangs of guerillas and Yankee soldiers. In 1930s Joplin, Missouri, Jacob is telling this story to an ambitious girl reporter. Years later, her papers will be discovered by another investigative reporter, Max McCoy, who will try to turn the notes and journals into a novel.
Readers loved the story-within-a-story device that McCoy used and had a delightful time trying to judge which narrator came closest to telling the truth since the story is filtered through many voices: Jacob, gal reporter Frankie Donovan, fictional author Max McCoy, and actual author Max McCoy.
A creative and original way to spin a Western yarn that not only encouraged readers to partake of a genre they had previously dismissed, but generated thoughtful conversation as well.