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the wind

8 december 2016

Dorothy Scarborough is a 2016 inductee into the Texas Literary Hall of Fame, though she was unable to attend the ceremony; she'd been dead for 80 years.

Scarborough's reputation is based largely on The Wind, a curiosity of a novel first published in 1925 and for a while best known as the source for Lillian Gish's last silent film (1928). And then not known at all: The Wind was out of print till 1979, when the University of Texas Press re-released it, and went out of print again after a reissue in 1986.

The Wind is told (by a third-person narrator) from the perspective of Letty, a girl who's come west to try her fortunes on the Texas frontier. She has no other good options; she's an orphan at 18 and her pastor, after "praying over" her situation, has shipped her from her native Virginia to a cousin on the prairie. In theme The Wind starts out akin to Kirby Larson's recent Hattie Big Sky and many another frontier-woman novel. There's even some good fun early on, with cowboy dances and a pair of aw-shucks cowboy suitors for Letty's hand.

The fun doesn't hold up. Right from the first chapter, which is told from a distanced, ominous perspective in the detached voice of the narrator, we know that the title element is going to get our heroine. The wind out in Sweetwater, Texas is just too strong for any woman to hold up against.

I happened to be staying in Sweetwater overnight a few days ago, and can testify to that wind. It rained the morning I left town, and the women huddled around the hotel desk were saying in hushed tones "Well the rain cleared out, but now that wind'll come down …" When I stopped for gas, the wind nearly knocked me flat; if I turned around, I could lean back into it comfortably. And this on a day that turned out to be 65 and sunny. Imagine a winter of blue northers.

Dorothy Scarborough imagines the blue northers for you, and the relentless coppery summers of a time it never rained. And the droughts, and the rattlesnakes, and the scrubby mesquite trees, and the sand everywhere. And the lean longhorns, and the scrawny horses, and the weatherbeaten men, and their guns. There seem to be a lot of clichés in The Wind, but there's also a lot of local color that has become clichéd in American culture because of Dust Bowl photography and western movies. In reality, you can see much the same landscape along I-20 today that Letty sees from a train window in the second chapter of The Wind in the 1880s. It's a little better-watered, and features more oil wells, but the mesquite and the distances (and, as noted, the wind) are still present.

The Wind falls neatly into two halves. In the first, Cousin Bev welcomes Letty, and his wife Cora puts the young woman to work as tutor to her four children. They live in a hard-scrabble ranch house, and Bev (who'd fled Virginia to mend his consumptive lungs) scratches a living from the range, but Cora's pride and energy keep the family upright and forging forward. Letty seems destined to marry some cowpoke or other and start her own ranching family.

But when the two comic cowpokes, Lige and Sourdough, propose to her (just pick one, the other will be fine with the choice), Letty reveals that she doesn't love them that way, and prepares to stay on at Bev and Cora's. This archetypal romance-novel gesture sends the book spiralling into noirish territory. Cora is livid – her whole tolerance of Letty turns out to have been premised on the girl getting married and getting out, ASAP. What's worse, she suspects Bev of having a thing for Letty. Scarborough handles the transition brilliantly. All kinds of hidden depths that are never explained or explored open briefly and then shut again, leaving hatred and disillusionment behind.

Suddenly emotionally homeless, Letty marries Lige immediately. Sourdough is not as happy with this outcome as he'd claimed to be, and breaks off his longterm close partnership with the other cowboy. Letty moves into Lige's shack of a home and watches her surroundings deteriorate as a year of drought sets in. The situation goes from worse to awfuller, and ends in death and madness – exactly how, you should read the book for yourself to learn. It maintains suspense throughout, and holds up 90 years later as a narrative thriller.

The Wind is dated too, inevitably. Letty's world is one of counterpoint: as the year winds round monotonously on the plains, she thinks of the rich seasons back in Virginia. She thinks too of the "darkeys" who filled her Virginia world with colorful folk expressions and simple songs. She thinks of her Mammy's tenderness and helpful chiding. "You'll likely have to do yore own washin' for a spell if you marry either of us," says Sourdough (145). Implicit in the warning is that Letty used to have darkeys to do her washing for her.

The plains are a relatively classless society; if everybody's equally poor and uncultured, everybody has equal opportunity to become rich and sophisticated. Except Mexicans, naturally. There's an old retainer on Lige's place called Pedro, and Letty "felt for him something of the same affectionate familiarity she had felt for the darkeys at home in Virginia. He was simple and childlike of heart" (191). Somewhere between a servant class and domestic animals, "darkeys" and Mexicans underpin the classed reaches of American society. Scarborough's narrator takes them for granted, and seems to associate livable civilization with their presence, which insulates white people from labor.

This unthinking racialization of class somewhat undercuts the novel's considerable and interesting feminism. (I guess I shouldn't complain about not having everything, especially in a 90-year-old obscure novel, but the racial attitudes of The Wind vitiate its impact and make it less than vital today.)

Meanwhile, the book opens with the complaint "Why aren't girls taught to make their living and take care of themselves, the same as men?" (22). The book's men, including Lige and the melodrama villain of the piece, Wirt Roddy, gender the West, making it seem like there's something natural in both the environment and the female body that renders women helpless and dependent on men. Gradually, Letty comes to see that that isn't so. Well, it may be so for her, but it certainly isn't true for Cora, who copes far better with Texas than Bev or many a man. It isn't true for a frontier grandmother who Letty meets, a woman who's borne twelve children and seen eight grow up, starting out in a sod dugout. "Gran'ma" says that

Men don't know what [the wind] is to us. Their nerves ain't like ourn. They're made so they can stand some things better nor we can, while agin they're as weak as babies about something we don't think enough of to be skeered about. (194)
The question would be, which of those things matter? When the novel comes to its climax, Letty shows herself strong enough to overcome anything men can throw at her. But she is ultimately not as strong as that wind …

Scarborough, Dorothy. The Wind. 1925. Austin: University of Texas Press, 1979. PS 3537 .C16