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Ledoyt cover

Leaping Man Hill cover

As previous commentators have noted, Ledoyt and its sequel, Leaping Man Hill, are quite unlike the rest of Carol Emshwiller's oeuvre. They’re not fantasies but Westerns. However, given this is Carol Emshwiller we're talking about, her Westerns are as unexpected and unconventional as her fantasy stories.

Most people’s idea of "the West" is constructed out of a diet of films and TV series. Women are rarely visible except as wives, daughters, cooks, school teachers, or tarts, or, on rare occasions, people who suddenly, mysteriously, know how to load guns for the menfolk when the Indians attack (though, curiously, not how to fire them, unless they're Calamity Jane or Annie Oakley). Women are possessions which emphasise men's masculinity, or decorative accents, appearing fresh, dainty and of course always highly corseted, a reproach to the sweaty, dusty appearance of the cowboy. Men are at home on the range, women live in town. Without men, women cannot survive. Only men are able to engage fully and successfully with frontier life. Women must inevitably struggle and fail unless they surrender to the masculine imperative and are placed safely within the confines of the house.

The question is, to what extent does any of this reflect genuine frontier life? Accounts of women's actual experiences of daily life in the West have over the years seeped out through the publication of diaries and letters, and it's clear that the lives of pioneer women were just as hard, and that they did "men's work" as well as "women's." They worked in the fields as much as in the house, tended to the animals, knew how to handle a horse and a gun. And yet, this is all so easily overlooked. Better by far to think of Calamity Jane as a comedic figure who really only wants to get her man, with or without a gun, than to imagine how these women really lived. It comes, then, as no surprise to find that Carol Emshwiller eschews the filmic view of Western life for something rather grittier, something that the writers of those letters and diaries would recognise as akin to their own lives.

Ledoyt (1995) works on the assumption that a woman, like a man, can go "out West" to leave behind a past life and reinvent herself. As Lotti Cochran notes, "It's American to be from somewhere else, and it's American to go from east to west. It's American to seek your fortune someplace other than where you are, or to be escaping something," but what Lotti perhaps fails to recognise is that not only is it American, it's also a male privilege to do this. Women who go west do so as wives or daughters, as single women in search of husbands, or as prostitutes. In the case of Oriana Cochran, she describes herself as a "widow," borrowing male status in order to establish her tiny ranch. Her neighbours may suspect the truth but it is a western habit to accept people at face value. Small, vulnerable communities cannot as a rule afford to ostracise their members without good reason, and a child born out of wedlock is not a good reason. Besides, as Oriana discovers, a widow is an attractive proposition in a community where women are a scarce resource. "She'd thought if she moved way out in the middle of nowhere, they'd stop coming, but they didn't."

Nonetheless, Oriana needs a man to do the heavy digging work needed to irrigate her land properly, and it is at this point she meets Bill Ledoyt, brother of her neighbour, T-Bone. That the widow and the hired hand will fall in love is an obvious romantic trope, but Emshwiller does not offer a conventional romance, unfolding over time, with perhaps the odd setback here and there before the final journey to the altar. Instead, Oriana and Ledoyt, two emotionally damaged human beings, struggle to articulate their feelings for one another. Oriana has fled the east after being raped by her fiancé, knowing that her family would refuse to believe her story. Ledoyt has lost all of his family, with the exception of T-Bone, to sickness, and has spent most of his adult life running from his failure to save his beloved sister. Neither Oriana nor Ledoyt can easily reinvent themselves. Oriana has to reconcile her intense desire for Ledoyt with her fear of physical contact, while Ledoyt has to consider whether he dare allow himself to form an attachment with Oriana and finally settle down.

For them there will be no comfortable resolution. Conventionally, in a Western the struggle for supremacy is between human and environment. Instead, Emshwiller offers an emotional landscape fraught with danger as these two people try to work out how to live together. Oriana, happy at last with a physical relationship, undergoes a series of pregnancies, miscarriages, and infant deaths. Each child who survives seems like a miracle, but a miracle which pulls her away from her relationship with Ledoyt. He, meanwhile, unable to fully believe his own good fortune, periodically but carefully goes on drunken benders, and from time to time goes back on the road, leaving Oriana to work the ranch alone, trusting that her husband will eventually return. In the midst of this, Lotti nurses mixed feelings of love and resentment towards Ledoyt.

Somehow, the family survives, even does well, and the couple's love remains firm if constantly tested as both Oriana and Ledoyt wonder if they dare express their love for one another out loud. The taciturnity of the cowboy is a running joke in Westerns but here the inability of the couple to fully articulate their emotions precipitates the events which lie at the heart of the novel. Oriana and Ledoyt are so absorbed in one another they don’t fully grasp the effect of their relationship on Lotti.

Lotti's small efforts at kicking over the traces turn into bigger gestures of defiance until she forces her half-brother Fayette to run away from home with her. During their journey Lotti kills a man in self-defence when he attempts to rape her. Fayette, who attempted to prevent the rape, is traumatised and becomes mute, and when he goes out to search for them Ledoyt develops pneumonia and comes close to death. Superficially at least, Lotti seems to be unaffected by the experience. During the course of the journey she has met the artist, L.D., and he has fired her with the desire to learn to paint. However, she also recognises that Ledoyt risked his life to come after her and feels compelled to make recompense by becoming a nurse when she is older. How the daughter of a small-time rancher might achieve either of these things is not, at this point, considered.

What becomes clear, however, is that Lotti's emotional distance is what enables her to survive. Her decisions have not always been sensible, and she blames herself for much of what has happened on the ranch, but as she grows older, she is the one who thinks clearly. When Ledoyt is gored by a bull after rescuing his nephew, it is Lotti rather than Oriana who takes on the day-to-day running of the ranch, partly to expiate her sins but partly, as she admits to herself, because she likes the work. Ledoyt's death brings about Lotti's apotheosis, for all that what promised to be a story of quiet salvation has become a tragedy for most of its participants..

But the quiet salvation is delayed rather than entirely lost, and derives from a newcomer to the story. When Leaping Man Hill (1999) picks up the narrative again, some nine years later, we see the ranch first from the point of view of an outsider, Mary Catherine. Lotti runs the ranch as best she can. Life is hard yet she seems to have embraced her destiny. She has turned down the chance to attend art school while recognising that without it she cannot fully develop her artistic talent, but she is peculiarly happy, even though all around her is chaos. Oriana has never recovered from losing Ledoyt, Fayette's behaviour is erratic, and Abel, born after his father's death, is emulating Fayette by becoming an elective mute and refusing to go to school. It is Mary Catherine's job to tutor him and to persuade him to talk, but she is also the witness to how hard Lotti is struggling to keep things going, and how much the ranch has been neglected since Ledoyt's death. Without saying anything, she starts to take on extra work, repairing and painting the buildings.

For Mary Catherine the Ledoyt family, chaotic as it is, represents security, by comparison with her own family circumstances, and in Lotti she finds a genuine friend. The frankness between the two is in stark contrast to the frozen emotions of the previous generation. When Mary Catherine confesses her attraction to Henri, Lotti's step-cousin, Lotti actively encourages her pursuit of him and connives to bring the two of them together. This is easier said than done; Henri has returned from the First World War suffering from shellshock and the loss of his right arm. He is unwilling to commit himself to marriage while Mary Catherine, desperate for his attention, is willing to accept whatever arrangement he is prepared to offer. In their on-off relationship, Henri and Mary Catherine recapitulate almost all the misunderstandings and hesitations of Oriana and Ledoyt, while Lotti, who has of course seen all this before, acts as guide to both in their long journey towards an emotional resolution.

Ledoyt and Leaping Man Hill are novels that fit into the interstices of more conventional Westerns, articulating the things that are otherwise left unspoken. The harshness of women's lives is brought into the open and the limited opportunities available to them are exposed. They are surrounded by men who, with rare exceptions, seem unable to openly express their emotions and who, as a result, treat women as possessions and marriage as a business transaction. It seems almost miraculous that in the midst of all this fully fledged relationships manage to flourish, albeit subject to the vagaries of a harsh way of life which snatches away happiness in an entirely arbitrary fashion. Emshwiller reflects this in her writing but also engages the reader's deeper sympathies as they follow the trials and tribulations of the Ledoyt family, willing them on to, if not a sugar-sweet happy ending then a decent and believable resolution to their sufferings.

Maureen Kincaid Speller is a critic and freelance copyeditor. She recently completed an MA in Postcolonial Studies and has now embarked on a PhD, focusing on indigenous contemporary literatures in North America. She has reviewed science fiction and fantasy for various journals, including Interzone, Vector, and Foundation, and is now an assistant editor of Foundation.

Maureen Kincaid Speller was a critic and freelance copyeditor. She reviewed science fiction and fantasy for various journals, including Interzone, Vector, and Foundation, and was assistant editor of Foundation. She was senior reviews editor at Strange Horizons when she died in September of 2022. You can read a 30 January 2023 special issue devoted to Maureen.
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29 May 2023

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Before the Occupation, righteousness might have meant taking overt stands against the distant invaders of their ancestral homelands through donating money, labour, or expertise to Chinese wartime efforts. Yet during the Occupation, such behaviour would get one killed or suspected of treason; one might find it better to remain discreet and fade into the background, or leave for safer shores. Could one uphold justice and righteousness quietly, subtly, and effectively within such a world of harshness and deprivation?
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