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With writing reminiscent of Alice Munro, Carol Shields, Larry McMurtry, and Elizabeth Strout, Juliet in August uncovers the incredible drama beneath the inhabitants of a sleepy prairie town.
Juliet, Saskatchewan, is a blink-and-you-miss-it kind of town—a dusty oasis on the edge of the Little Snake sand hills. It’s easy to believe that nothing of consequence takes place there. But the hills vibrate with life, and the town’s heart beats in...
With writing reminiscent of Alice Munro, Carol Shields, Larry McMurtry, and Elizabeth Strout, Juliet in August uncovers the incredible drama beneath the inhabitants of a sleepy prairie town.
Juliet, Saskatchewan, is a blink-and-you-miss-it kind of town—a dusty oasis on the edge of the Little Snake sand hills. It’s easy to believe that nothing of consequence takes place there. But the hills vibrate with life, and the town’s heart beats in the rich and overlapping stories of its people: the rancher afraid to accept responsibility for the land his adoptive parents left him; the bank manager grappling with a sudden understanding of his own inadequacy; a shy couple, well beyond middle age, struggling with the recognition of their feelings for each other. And somewhere, lost in the sand, a camel named Antoinette.
Winner of the 2010 Governor General's Literary Award for Fiction
It was the end of August, before the Perry Land and Cattle Company’s fall gather, and the ranch cowboys had too much time on their hands. They were standing around the dusty yard watching the horses swat flies with their tails when the young buck, Ivan Dodge, somehow managed to convince one of the old veteran cowboys—Henry Merchant was his name—to meet his challenge of a hundred-mile horse race through the dunes and the grasslands of the Little Snake Hills. It wasn’t like Henry to act so impulsively, but Ivan Dodge was getting on his nerves with his restless strut and his mouth that never stopped yapping, even in his sleep. Henry figured he could beat him. He figured Ivan Dodge was a rabbit: fast, all right, but not smart enough to win. You needed strategy to win a hundred-mile race.
Perry cowhands got enthusiastically involved in the prerace planning, even the ranch manager, who saw an opportunity to build relations between the ranch and the burgeoning community of homesteaders. They decided on five in the morning as a start time and agreed on the buffalo rubbing stone just north of the settlement of Juliet as the start and finish of the race. This was close to the ranch headquarters, but also close enough to town to create some excitement and attract the local gamblers. The cowboys would each ride four horses—the first-and fourth-leg horses their own, and the middle-leg mounts selected from the ranch remuda—switching every twenty-five miles in the corners of a hundred-mile square. They each put up fifty dollars, a lot of money in those days. The challenge became known, and race day settled into the consciousness of everyone for miles around Juliet. Word spread like chicken pox.
Popular support went to the elder. That was because Ivan Dodge was arrogant and needed to be brought down a peg or two. It was right that Henry Merchant win the race, and so the cowboys and the townspeople and the settlers alike bet their money on the veteran, believing in life lessons and confident that Ivan Dodge would be taught one. Only a few of the more serious gamblers bet on Ivan, suspecting that youth might just skunk experience.
The ranch cowboys and a few men from town (the ones who had bet the largest sums of money) showed up to see the riders o? in the early morning, rubbing their hands to warm themselves in the cool air, building a fire in the hollow next to the buffalo rubbing stone to boil coffee in an old pot. The first-leg horses stamped and snorted, sensing excitement and ready to go, while the gamblers examined them closely for clues as to which would carry its rider to an early lead—the young cowboy’s prancy bay gelding with his wide nostrils, clean throatlatch, and distinctive white markings, or the old cowboy’s leggy sorrel mare, who looked like she might have the reach of a racehorse.
Ivan and Henry discussed the route, and Henry said, “I’ve got people in the corners to make sure you ride the whole hundred, so don’t go taking no shortcuts,” which made Ivan smirk and say, “I wouldn’t be worrying about me, old man. I doubt those rickety bones can even sit a horse for a hundred miles.” The two cowboys said, “Ha, we’ll just see,” back and forth, “We’ll see about that, won’t we?” Ivan Dodge was wearing a new pair of fringed leather chaps with silver conchas, and the old cowboy couldn’t help but make fun of his fancy outfit. When they mounted up and loped o? as their pocket watches marked five, they were still exchanging barbs about the young cowboy’s sense of direction (famously bad) and the old cowboy’s bones (famously stiff), which amused everyone greatly. The gamblers were in high spirits, and they told and retold the best retorts to newcomers as they arrived wanting details about the start of the race.
The day took on the atmosphere of a summer fair. Spectators congregated at the three change stations, but by far the largest crowd gathered at the buffalo stone, which was the finish as well as the start of the race. Town families walked the short distance to the stone, and farmers and their wives and children came on horseback or in wagons from all directions, by road or cross-country. They brought picnics. A fiddler showed up—no one seemed to know him—and he played jigs and folk songs to entertain the women and children. The local newspaperman took pictures, although he wasn’t much interested in the farmers and their families and wished he could ride with the two cowboys and capture the race as it unfolded. Like the gamblers, all he could do was wait for the finish.
The two riders went north from the stone, past the Torgeson homestead, past the Swan Valley Cemetery with its one lonely marker for Herbert Swan, the first settler in the area to die. Then along a soft dirt road for twenty miles, all the way to the Lindstrom place and the new schoolhouse, the first change station. A good well in the schoolyard, but no time for much of a break. West into the sand hills, the sun just beginning to climb in the eastern sky. Up the first big dune to the top, sharp-edged ridges breaking away like crusted snow, rivers of sand cascading down. Ahead of them, a wilderness, endless miles of sand and grass. No fences, no farms at all until they came to the Varga homestead and the second change station, where the Varga brothers and their families had begun construction of a Catholic church so the visiting priest would have a proper place to conduct the mass. Fresh horses waiting by the newly laid stone foundation, a drink from another good well, the warm smell of sweat and leather, and then south into the heat of the day. No active dunes now, just low rolling hills, August brown and stabbed with the blue-green of sage, muted colors sliding by under the horses’ long-trotting strides, the mercury at its peak for the day, the air so hot it’s hard to breathe, heat waves blurring the land ahead.
Then relief. Down a sandy cut bank into a coulee, deer scatterings, a doe and her twins separated in the excitement. At the bottom, a spring-fed creek, an oasis of sorts shaded by willow and poplar trees. Such respite from the sun, the temptation strong to wait here until later in the day, but after a brief stop, back up into the heat and a stretch of good flat land. Farms cropping up again on this stretch, small clapboard houses and newly erected pasture fences, newly patented wire gates to open and close, and then the east-west rail line where someone has planted a Union Jack and people are waiting for the last change of horses.
Twenty-five miles to go in the blistering sun, straight east through open grassland. Soft rolling hills, an endless graveyard of bleached cattle bones, sober reminders of the previous winter storms. The rise and fall of landscape, the monotony of up and down, twenty-five miles going on and on and feeling like the whole hundred all over again. Until finally, the creek that winds toward Juliet. Water for man and horse, then up out of the draw, the pace quickening with the sense that the finish line is not far now. The horse’s head high, a trot turning into a lope and then a hard gallop for the buffalo rubbing stone and the waiting crowd of onlookers.
Most of whom quit cheering when they saw it was the young buck galloping toward them, whooping and waving his hat, his horse lathered and foaming. They’d bet on the wrong cowboy.
And then their jaws truly dropped when they saw he was riding the same bay horse that he’d set out on.
Impossible, they said.
The horsemen among the spectators looked carefully for signs that this was, in fact, a different horse. As the young cowboy cooled him out, they examined his markings—a star, a snip, and one white foot—and concluded that he certainly looked like Ivan’s first-leg horse. Then one of the spectators from the first change station rode in and verifled Ivan’s claim that, after giving the bay a brief rest, the young cowboy had carried on, leaving his fresh horse behind. This spectator also brought the news that Henry Merchant’s first horse had thrown a shoe and with it a piece of her hoof a fair distance short of the change station, and Henry had lost precious time walking.
The gamblers gave the win to Ivan Dodge and accepted their loss. The newspaperman made his notes about the race (won in a time of 12 hours and 32 minutes), the weather (seasonably hot), and the young cowboy’s sensational mount (purchased from Mister Herbert Legere of Medicine Hat and said to have Arab blood), and took a front-page photograph of Ivan and his horse, prancing like he was ready for another twenty-five miles, which was good, because they still had to get home to the ranch headquarters five miles to the southwest.
The ranch hands were mostly disgusted and tired of spending the day among farm families with noisy children and plow dirt under their fingernails, and they drifted into town in search of new excitement. Most of the townspeople—the implement dealers and hotel owners and railroad men—went home for supper, except for the few serious gamblers who had won money and were now happy to stick around and shoot the breeze with Ivan Dodge, who was telling the story of his heroic race over and over and couldn’t wait for Henry Merchant to come into view so he could rub the old cowboy’s nose in his loss. A couple of the men had flasks with them, and when the farm women noticed, they moved their picnics and their families away from the buffalo stone and the bad influence of the gamblers. They knew that their husbands had bet good money, too, but they pretended not to know.
The children were tired and cranky at the end of a long hot day. The fiddler was still there, and he was trying to play for them, but his tunes had taken a sad turn, as though he were lamenting something lost—his homeland perhaps. When one little boy put his hands over his ears and began to cry, the young but forthright Mrs. Sigurd Torgeson handed the fiddler a pie plate of cold chicken and boiled eggs and dill pickles and firmly tried to say in a mix of Norwegian and newly acquired English that everyone had heard enough fiddle music for one day. She noticed that the fiddler’s hair was unkempt and his clothes were not all that clean, and she wondered why she hadn’t noticed that earlier, and why the mothers had let him near their children in the first place.
A malaise settled over the farm families, one that they didn’t quite understand. They weren’t sure why they were waiting. They ate their picnics quietly, feeling strangely depressed about Henry Merchant’s absence. They kept looking to the west, watching for a horse and rider to come into view. They wanted to see Henry Merchant cross the finish line, as though doing so would punctuate a disappointing day with something good. After they’d finished eating and he still hadn’t arrived, they concluded that he’d given up and gone home to the ranch, that there was nothing to do but pack their picnic things and leave. They said their good-byes and headed o? in various directions to homesteads that suddenly felt lonely and tentative. They were, all of them, somber, not because of money lost, but because they’d been so certain. This was a determined lot who wanted badly to believe in the future. It was disconcerting to be wrong.
Eventually, it became known that the old cowboy’s race was pretty much a lost cause from the time his first horse threw the shoe. He’d failed to make up the time on the second and third legs, and on the fourth, his best horse, pushed beyond what his usually sensible rider knew was wise, quit on him. When the horse stretched out and released a stream of urine the color of coffee, the old hand knew the race was over.
Into the evening, the young cowboy sat on the buffalo rubbing stone and smoked cigarettes and talked to the few people who remained—the newspaperman and three or four others—and finally he said, “Well, boys, I don’t suppose there’s any point waiting much longer. It’s past old Merchant’s bedtime, and I imagine he’s sound asleep somewhere. Either that, or he’s up and died.” He guffawed in a way that annoyed even his new fans, and then he mounted his horse and rode back the way he’d come. His own body felt a little worse for the wear when he climbed into the saddle, but of course he kept that to himself. He felt let down that he hadn’t had the chance to rib Henry Merchant in public; that had been the whole point. He thought about riding into town to find the other ranch hands and then realized he didn’t want to see them. He tried to reason why that was and grew dejected when he figured out it was because they really hadn’t wanted him to win.
Just as he was about to turn south and head for home, he saw Henry’s bowlegged hobble coming toward him in the dusky light. The young cowboy waited, having planned something smart to say, but thrown o? guard because Henry was without his horse.
“Tied up on me” is all Henry said when they met.
The two of them turned south toward the Perry ranch, the excitement over and the challenge won or lost, depending on whose perspective you were looking from.
By now it was almost dark. The two cowboys walked together for a ways without talking, young Ivan still on his horse, not thinking that Henry might want to change places with him after his long walk, and then Ivan grew impatient with the slow pace and said he was going to ride on ahead.
“Well, I guess I won,” he said. He couldn’t help himself.
The old cowboy stopped and took o? his worn Stetson hat and shook sand from the brim and then gave his head a good scratch before putting the hat back on.
“I guess you did at that,” Henry said.
“I won good.”
“Fair and square.”
“I wouldn’t go that far,” said Henry. “Fair’s got nothing to do with it.”
“You needed to be taught a lesson and you weren’t.”
“Who’s the one with a million-dollar horse?” asked Ivan. Then he added, as though the idea had just come to him, “I could make money with this horse.”
“He’s got distance,” said the old hand, “I’ll give you that. But he’s about as cowy as a housecat.”
The young cowboy moved his horse out and tried to urge him into a lope, but this time the horse wasn’t anxious to pick up his pace. He balked, and when Ivan hit him with a spur, he gave a good buck, straight up, all four feet o? the ground. Ivan wasn’t expecting that and was just plain lucky that he managed to stick. When the horse finally moved out, Ivan called back, “I’ll tell you who needed to be taught a lesson, and it wasn’t me.”
Henry let it go. He dearly would have loved to see Ivan and his fancy new chaps in the dirt, to at least have that bit of victory, but he was exhausted, and he thought maybe he had learned a lesson, although he didn’t want to admit it. A hundred miles is a long way to ride in one day, even for a man who made his living on horseback, and he was feeling his age and wondering why he’d been so stupid as to rise to Ivan’s challenge. Worst of all, he had pushed a good animal too hard and had risked losing him. Now here he was, walking as the last of the daylight disappeared, alone, his feet and his hip joints killing him, the insides of his calves raw as skinned rabbits, his savings fifty dollars leaner, and it served him right, or at least that is what he thought as he limped home, not knowing whether his horse would be dead or alive when he rode back to get him and his saddle, or maybe just his saddle, in the morning.
To add to the humiliation, when Henry went to strike a match and check the time on his pocket watch a half hour later, he found the watch was missing. He couldn’t remember where he’d last looked at it, somewhere along the trail. Well, he’d just have to accept that loss, too, even though the watch had cost him a week’s wages.
When he finally reached the Perry ranch yard, he headed straight for the barn and lay down in an empty box stall. He was thirsty but too tired to chance running into anyone, too mad at himself to tell the story of what happened, not wanting to see Ivan Dodge again until he’d had a good sleep. Ivan Dodge, who was bound to be lying in his bunk waiting with one more irritating remark. Tomorrow would be soon enough to hear it.
But even though he was bone-tired, Henry couldn’t sleep. His throat was dry and he didn’t feel right. His body felt heavy. He was lying in a deep bed of straw, but he could still feel the ground underneath him, like a hard clay pallet. And although the night was dark as pitch, he could see pictures drifting by in front of his eyes. The whole country was moving, as though he were watching it through the window of a slow-moving train. He could hear sounds in his head. A train whistle. The repetitive clacking of steel wheels on the railway tracks.
And o? in the distance another sound, the pounding of thousands upon thousands of hooves. The buffalo. He’d wished many times that he’d seen the buffalo. He’d witnessed the prairie before crops and barbed wire fences and towns like Juliet, before it was divided into townships and sections and quarter sections for men with walking plows and wives who tended vegetable gardens, but he’d been too late for the great woolly herds that migrated through the grassy expanse. He listened to the thundering of their hooves, and it turned the pictures in his head into rolling black clouds that seemed too big to fit within the contours of his skull. They pushed outward against the bone, colliding with one another and changing direction, rolling and bumping until they slowed and flattened out into blackness and, finally, the night was still. The sounds that emerged were quiet, comforting sounds. The breeze whispering through the sage and buckbrush; the rustle of poplar leaves; a fiddler’s sad tune, barely audible; fine grains of sand spilling to the ground o? the brim of a hat.
A cat descended from the hayloft above Henry, curled up beside him in the straw, and began to purr in his ear. The cat’s domestic purring was the most comforting sound of all, and Henry considered something he had never considered before: that a prospect besides death might be out there waiting for him beyond the boundaries of his life as a ranch hand. There was talk that the Perry Land and Cattle Company would soon close its northern operation, give up on the harsh Canadian winters and let the government parcel o? the grazing land for cultivation. Henry thought about the homesteaders who had congregated at the buffalo stone and the other three corners of the hundred-mile square. He’d hardly given them a glance twenty-four hours ago, but now he began to envy them their self-contained lives and the privacy of the homes they’d built to return to at the end of the day. He pictured one of the houses that now dotted the landscape, a simple, two-room wooden structure with a single-pitch roof, like a chicken shack. He saw his dusty boots on the doorstep, a white curtain blowing through an open window, a houseplant in a coffee can on the windowsill. A good deep well nearby, the first furrows of cultivation and planting. Although it was a travesty for a cowboy, he imagined himself stealing away from his ranch hand’s life into a new one, on a piece of land with his name on the deed; not here, so close to the Perry ranch, but north maybe, or east along the rail line. He could leave the ranch quietly and just disappear. He liked the idea of that, disappearing without a nod to anyone.
As his departure became a certainty, his heart slowed and his body lightened, and the straw beneath him became as soft as a feather bed. In the hot barn, tomorrow was cool and clear, like water on his tongue.
With the cat purring next to his head, Henry Merchant fell asleep.
By morning, he was gone.
Posted March 10, 2013
A sparse and beautifully written slice of life in the small town of Juliet, Saskatchewan.
Everyday overlapping and intertwining stories of people quietly living their lives.
We get to know the people of Juliet first through a bored horse who escapes his trailer and arrives at a farm where the new owner has been contemplating the farm left to him by his adoptive parents now deceased wondering what to do with his life. Seeing the beautiful Arab horse appear in the moonlight he hops on and takes a 100 mile one day ride visiting the people of Juliet along the way and coming to a decision in his own life.
We meet a bank manager, a shy older couple, a crazy mother of six, a woman looking to reconnect with her daughter and grandchildren and Antoinette the lost camel….and speaking of Antoinette, my one complaint about the book was not enough of her!
I loved this book, I love the slow pace the everyday ordinary people living their lives. A beautifully written book that will stay with me for some time
Posted July 29, 2012