Monday, May 8, 2017

The Boy Settlers: A Story of Early Times in Kansas by Noah Brooks

Establishing a homestead in Bleeding Kansas
Noah Brooks
I first discovered author Noah Brooks through his short story “Lost in the Fog,” which is set in California. Impressed by this excellent piece of writing, I did a little research to find out more about his work, whereby I learned that he wrote a book about Kansas, which happens to be the state that has been my home for over 20 years. The Boy Settlers, published in 1891, is a historical novel chronicling the westward migration of a family from Dixon, Illinois, who seek to establish a homestead on the Kansas prairie. Brooks based the novel on his own life experiences of moving from Dixon in 1857 to spend a year in Kansas.

The narrative takes place in the years right before the Civil War, during the period known as Bleeding Kansas. The Kansas Territory was preparing for statehood, but it was still unclear, whether it would be admitted to the Union as a slave state or a free state. Pro- and anti-slavery settlers flooded into the territory to cast their votes for or against slavery. Both sides used violence, coercion, and corruption to drive settlers of the opposing faction out of the state or to discourage their voting. Two separate governments with separate constitutions—one pro-slavery and one free state—existed simultaneously, and various cities, often in close proximity to one another, were established as strongholds in favor of one side or the other. The family in this story enter this hostile environment fully aware of its dangers, but as anti-slavery advocates they refuse to be discouraged by pro-slavery ruffians. Brothers-in-law Mr. Howell and Mr. Bryant leave their wives at home in Illinois and take their sons, Charlie and Sandy Howell and Oscar Bryant, to stake out a homestead near Fort Riley, Kansas. The book follows their efforts at living and farming in this exotic new land of Indians and buffalo.

Given that most of the protagonists are teenagers, this novel was probably originally intended for a juvenile audience. However, literature of the 19th century wasn’t dumbed-down as much as today’s young adult fiction, so there’s nothing to stop grown-ups from appreciating Brooks’s narrative, particularly those grown-ups who are interested in the history of Kansas. The reader learns a lot about both the political climate and the natural environment of the territory in its nascent years of white settlement. Brooks writes in a very naturalistic style that favors descriptive authenticity over sensationalist adventure. While most of the time that strategy works to the book’s advantage, it also might be its one main flaw, as the story does move pretty slowly at times. Brooks’s intention seems to be to document the experience of typical settlers, rather than jazzing up the narrative with exceptionally exciting events. When a town is burned by pro-slavery fighters, or a group of settlers is attacked by Indians, these things happen on the periphery. The Howells and Bryants don’t experience them first-hand, but rather, like the majority of real western homesteaders, only hear about them second-hand through the prairie grapevine. One aspect of the times that Brooks captures very well is the feeling of isolation and independence that comes from living in this beautiful, untrod, sparsely populated region.

Living in Kansas, I often see lists or maps focusing on Kansas literature, but Brooks or this book are never mentioned, probably because he lived too briefly in the state to be considered a true “Kansas Author.” That’s a shame, however, because this novel really offers some good insight into the history of the state. The Boy Settlers deserves to be better known among Kansas readers.
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