Monday, April 16, 2018

The Price of the Prairie by Margaret Hill McCarter

Tedious romance novel amid some interesting Kansas history
Though born in Indiana, Margaret Hill McCarter lived most of her life in Topeka, where she was an English teacher in addition to authoring several popular historical novels set in Kansas. Her book The Price of the Prairie, published in 1910, is primarily a romance novel, but it is set against the background of real historical events in the Sunflower State. The narrator, 60-year-old Philip Baronet, looks back on his youth and his relationship with his childhood sweetheart Marjie. The fictional town of Springvale, where the story takes place, is located on the Neosho River, which would put it somewhere in southeastern Kansas, but the characters make frequent trips to Topeka, and a few travel farther afield. Phil’s adolescence coincides with the Civil War, and the book touches upon the border struggles between free- and slave-state factions, but the story mostly revolves around Indian affairs. Set against this backdrop is a convoluted drama of thwarted love, much like an Anthony Trollope novel on the Great Plains. Persecuted by jealous, greedy, and gossipy townsfolk, Phil and Marjie are torn apart by an annoying misunderstanding. Will their love overcome all obstacles and reunite them in the end?

While the historical context is interesting, unfortunately McCarter is no Willa Cather, and this is no prairie epic. For starters, McCarter’s prose has a real problem with clarity, to the point that it’s often difficult to tell exactly what’s going on or who’s doing what. This problem is exacerbated by the way she frequently jumps about chronologically without warning. For example, one of the main characters dies, but if you blink, you’ll miss it. Then you find out several pages later that he’s not dead; McCarter was referring to an event that took place years in the future. She is also terrible at simulating ethnic accents or speech impediments, to the point where some dialogue is unintelligible. Phil Baronet’s narrative voice also has its problems, as McCarter is just not very good at telling the story from a masculine perspective. Phil never comes across as a genuine human being, just an old fashioned woman’s ideal of what the perfect romantic hero should be. Even when Phil is talking about himself, he gushes as if he were his own girlfriend.

The book is at its best when it’s a full-on western, during the few chapters in which McCarter depicts warfare between the U.S. Army and the Native Americans. Here she is surprisingly successful, bringing a grittiness and urgency to military history reminiscent of classics like The Red Badge of Courage. In such passages the text has all the excitement of a John Wayne cavalry movie, but it would have to be one of his earlier films, of the decidedly anti-Indian variety. Native Americans are relentlessly depicted as evil and savage throughout the book, with the exception of a few brief, positive comments on friendly tribes towards the end. General Custer is portrayed as a knight in shining armor, and no mention is ever made of settlers stealing Indian land. Instead, the Whites are overtly credited with saving America from its former inhabitants.

McCarter may have been the most successful Kansas novelist of her day, but it’s probably safe to say she was a big fish in a small pond. Even today, the list of classic Kansas novels is small, and McCarter’s work may show up on such lists merely for lack of competition. Though I can’t speak of her other work, this book in particular is not very good. If you’re looking for a good Kansas classic, try The Boy Settlers by Noah Brooks (1918) or Dust by Emanuel and Marcet Haldeman-Julius (1921).
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