A novel about the early settlers of the Oklahoma territory, focusing in particular on an adventure-seeking lawyer/newspaper man, as well as his wife who molds the rugged land into a home. 1929.
This book is a challenge to sum up in one sentence, as it’s a saga in the true Edna Ferber style. Anybody seen the classic movie “Giant”? (Growing up in Texas, I was forced to watch it in school…It’s about oil.) Or maybe you’ve seen the musical “Show Boat”? (A dark aberration in an otherwise pretty light genre.) Both of these were based on Edna Ferber books. Interestingly, Show Boat was the #8 bestseller the same year (1926) that After Noon was #9.
In 1930, Cimarron was the #1 bestselling book. And yet, unless someone is an old movie buff and has seen the 1931 or 1960 movie adaptations, I’m guessing they’ve never heard of it.
On the other hand, since I had been studying up on my early 20th century bestseller lists—-and I have a good memory—-I got all excited when I saw this Ferber book on the shelf of my very, very small local library. (Most of my library books come from a different, slightly larger town nearby.) Out of the maybe 200 adult fiction books kept at that library branch, for some reason Cimarron made the cut. And that’s how I ended up with a practically pristine first edition of the book, repackaged in a charming red library binding.
Lately, I’ve been reading almost exclusively British literature—-After Noon, Katherine Wentworth, Invitation to Folly, etc. It hasn’t been an intentional reading program or anything. Those books just seem…appealing. But one day I decided I was ready to (temporarily) trade in the bustling London streets and gentle English countryside for something different. And really, Cimarron could not be more different if it tried.
Cimarron is an interesting title. At its most transparent level, it’s named after the harsh country that today forms the panhandle part of Oklahoma state. The word “cimarron” itself is apparently a Spanish word for “wild.” Either of these title interpretations is spot-on, as the novel is both about the settling of this area and its “wildness.”
However, there’s also a character named Cimarron (“Cim” for short). He’s the son of the main character, Yancey Cravat, who is also sometimes referred to as “Cimarron.” (By the way, this book has the BEST character names!!) The novel could be named after either of these characters, as the novel is a saga not just of a place but of its people, and both of these characters bring meaning to the story.
In the end, I’d say that what Cimarron means is a combination of all the above: it’s about a place, its people; its past, its future; and the wildness that is an intrinsic part of them all.
Cimarron begins with a proud family, the Venables, all sitting around a table in Kansas, listening with rapt attention to an account being given by Yancey Cravat, the husband of Sabra Cravat, formerly Sabra Venable. Yancey is telling them about his “run” on the land in the new Oklahoma territory, which has just been officially opened to white settlers. Yancey, never one to miss out on such excitement, went to Oklahoma with the intention of claiming his own piece of the new land.
He misses the chance by just a breath. Still, he’s undeterred and announces to the Venables that he will be going back. Someone’s got to help settle this new, lawless land, he says. He’s a lawyer, and he also wants to set up a newspaper in one of the towns, Osage, that’s sort of sprung up out of the dirt overnight. Oh yes, and he’ll be taking his wife Sabra and their little boy with him, too.
The Venables, particularly the forceful matriarch, protest vehemently. Sabra is determined to accompany her husband, though, and she shows only a quiver of doubt as to what this new land will hold in store for her, she who has “old” blood in her veins and has only ever slept in one bed, one bedroom up until now.
As predicted, both the journey to Osage and life in Osage itself are rough. We watch Sabra, still quite young, grow a thicker skin than life would have otherwise demanded of her. There are Indians around, too, as this was several years after the Trail of Tears and the Reservation system was implemented. Sabra is mistrustful of the Indians. Yancey, a scholarly man fond of quoting Shakespeare, Milton, and various Greeks, understands and sympathizes with the Indians, much to the shock of the white community, including his wife.
Time, as years go, moves quickly in Cimarron. More happens in the book than you would think possible in a book of its modest size. (I’ve read book manuscripts are getting longer with the passing of years; I shudder to think how big Cimarron would be if written today!)
So there’s lots that happens in this book. The story mostly centers around Sabra, especially as Yancey goes off to who-knows-where, always seeking a new cause, a new adventure. Since for Sabra the world revolves around Yancey—-even when she’s resentful of that reality—-it really is a book about Yancey Cravat. I didn’t mind. In fact, I’d say it makes it an even more interesting story.
The climax of the book comes when, after the town has achieved a certain level of infrastructure, oil is discovered. The great irony is that the people who had awful land, farming-wise, now discover tons of oil on their land. This includes the Indians, who were given the land no white man would want.
To Sabra, the Indians’ transformation from impoverished loiterers to fancy-car-driving millionaires is the worst possible turn of events. Her husband, though, appreciates the irony of the situation. It’s towards the end of the book, and a bit lengthy, but I’m gonna quote this anyhow, as I think the passage is a true gem. Yancey starts:
‘The joke gets better and better. We took their land away from them and exterminated the buffalo, then expected them to squat on the Reservations weaving baskets and molding pottery that nobody wanted to buy. Well, at least the Osages never did that. They’re spending their money just as the white people do when they get a handful of it—-chicken and plush and automobiles and phonographs and silken shirts and jewelry.’
‘Why don’t they do some good with it?’ Sabra demanded.
‘What good’s Wyatt doing? Or Nisbett, or old Buckner, or Ike Hawes, or their wives? Blowing it on houses and travel and diamonds and high-priced cars.’
‘The Osages could help the other tribes—-poor Indian tribes that haven’t struck oil.’
‘Maybe they will—-when Bixby gives away his millions to down-and-out hotel keepers who are as poor as he was when he ran the Bixby House, back in the old days.’
‘No, honey. Just blanket Indians—-horse Indians—-Plains Indians, with about twenty-five millions of dollars a year gushing up out of the earth and splattering all around them. The wonder to me is that they don’t die laughing and spoil their own good time.’
Wow. I mean, WOW. A fantastic read all around.
Also, I learned why cowboy boots have heels! Anyone, anyone??