(Reviewed by Judi Clark JAN 23, 2002)
"MacGregor's Lantern they called it, an' tales are long abou' the cattle plucked from th' darkest glens by only th' light o' th' moon...!"
At the end of the 19th century, the grasslands from Texas to North Dakota proved to be making many Scottish and English men wealthy cattle barons. Not wanting to miss out on this seemingly endless opportunity for staggering wealth, Philadelphian bank president Magnes Dowling wants in and is considering financing a Scotsman who wants to expand the lush flatland in Colorado known as South Park into an even larger ranch to raise his Scottish Highland cattle. His dream is to build his ranch into one that rivals his fellow Scotsman (and partner) Hugh Redmond MacGregor, only his will be based on the Highland cattle.
Margaret Dowling is the banker's oldest daughter, beautiful but not making any effort to resolve her spinster status, unlike her two younger sisters who have each married successful businessmen. Instead she teaches school, reads and follows the latest women's suffrage movement. She also has a secret desire to go out west and experience something similar to what she reads about in the dime store novels. So when her father invites the older, but still attractive Scotsman, Sir Kerr McKennon to the family dinner and then when McKennon boldly asks her to accompany him back to Colorado, she readily agrees. Obviously they are strangers and this is to be a marriage of convenience where each gets what they want. McKennon has an alliance with the bank in his dealings with MacGregor and Margaret escapes the repressive Philadelphian society. Even the possibility that her father has prearranged this encounter without her consent does not bother her for this is exactly what she wants. For one thing women in Wyoming already have the right to vote proving that anything is possible in the new west.
During the train ride west, Margaret becomes Maggie; a name she feels is more appropriate for her new lifestyle. To get from Denver to South Park, she follows Kerr riding atop a stubborn mule. Kerr's own mount is a striking mahogany bay from Kentucky. Maybe not the right horse for range work, but she is sleek and beautiful. And very skittish. Despite the hardships of the ride into South Park and the discovery of the shack that's to be their summer home, Maggie is fascinated with everything concerning the land and this life and quickly adapts. She is willing to work side by side with her husband and learn all that there is to do with cattle raising. Though the romance side of the marriage is missing, she nevertheless is hopeful that will change in time. Finally, it is time to drive the cattle to market and Kerr sets off, leaving Maggie to care for their animals. Suddenly everything changes when Kerr's horse returns early without its rider. By now Kerr's dream is Maggie's dream and it is up to her to save the Cameron Cattle Ranch; thus she refuses to return to Philadelphia as is expected of her. Instead she puts together a plan to be a cattle rancher and business woman and learns the hard way about tough men, business and greed, especially when she begins to suspect that her husband's death was not an accident, but murder.
From the start I liked this novel because it brought out that feeling I'd get as a young girl when I would read about women making their own mark in the world. If I were living in that time, I know I would feel very much the way Maggie did and would like to think I'd make the same choices. I have no idea what young girls think today about all their options or if they just take their freedom for granted, regardless this novel is a good reminder of a time when women were treated without regard. At the center of MacGregor's Lantern is Maggie and her will to kive her own life despite her society's proscriptions. The author opens the novel with a quote from Joyce Gibson Roach saying how a woman's emancipation occurred not in the picket line but "when they mounted a good cow horse and realized how different and fine the view... from the back of a horse the world looked wider." This is essentially the reason that Maggie was not going back to Philadelphia. She now had her own cow horse.
As an historical novel, MacGregor's Lantern brings to light the cattle baron period that occurred a little over a century ago. Maggie is introduced to the cattle business right at the brink of change, one in which neither her husband nor MacGregor are fully prepared. Up until this point the Scots and English had been in control of the cattle business with huge investments in American ranches. However, when it was divulged that some foreigners dealt dishonestly with the American land system, then even the honest ranchers were treated as if their claims were invalid. Many of the cattlemen owned a fairly large segment of land but also took advantage of neighboring land to let their cattle have "free range" access for grazing and watering. And then fences were put up and the original cattlemen found much needed water and grazing rights restricted. Moreover, the Americans, wanting the foreign investors out, were making it more and more difficult for the Scots and English to buy the neighboring land that they were already using. This is at a time that cattle prices were falling due to the decline in the beef-buying boom overseas. Other novels I've read have touched upon this subject, but this one really goes into the financial and political details of the time, especially the real hostilities of the Wyoming Cattleman's Association. Though it looked like cattle business could go on forever (think of this as comparable to the dot.com boom), the bottom fell out suddenly. Brown intermingles the facts of the time with the story line and characters to give us an irresistible read. In the end it's hard to exactly pinpoint who is the most guilty at stealing the cattle by moonlight, but Maggie is undeterred by the chicanery.
One convention that the author uses in the narration of his novel is that she lets the Scottish characters speak in their brogue dialect. It took me a few paragraphs before I had the swing of the language, but then it read just as naturally as the rest of the book. I think using the dialect helps in showing just how much a stranger that Maggie's husband is to her and then later, as we meet MacGregor and other Scots, it helps to remind us that the west was settled by a wide range of "foreigners." Parts of the novel do threaten to read like a romance novel, especially after MacGregor dies and Maggie is finally free to meet with a young Scottish drover. But then again, it is in keeping with the tone of the novel. After all, what is more romantic than the notion of a young woman going out west with a total stranger to start a whole new life? Really I have no complaints. The style of the novel drew me right in and held my attention to the very end, which came all too quickly.
One thing that I very rarely talk about is the bookbinding; but in this case, I have to mention it. When I removed the dust jacket, I was surprised to find that the artwork is also printed on the hard cover. For some reason this reminds me of the books I read when I was young. Also, at the beginning of each new section of the novel is a line drawing depicting something to do with the upcoming chapters. I enjoyed these for helping to visualize such things as the unique look of the Scottish Highland cattle. All in all there is something very nostalgic about the printing of this novel.
But what I like the very best about this book is that it doesn't end here. Brown is already at work on the sequel, which I can't wait to read. For the end of the novel is only the beginning for Maggie Dowling McKennon. I expect that she is ready to run her own cattle ranch now.
- Amazon readers rating: from 5 reviews
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Bibliography: (with links to Amazon.com)
- MacGregor's Lantern (August 2001)
- Sanctuary Ranch (April 2006) (with Junior Michael Ray)
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About the Author:
Corinne Joy Brown, a native of Denver and the first generation in her family to be born in the U.S, she grew up loving the west. She is an award winning journalist on staff at Persimmon Hill, the magazine of the National Cowboy Museum and Western Heritage Center on Oklahoma and writes extensively about people, places and events in the Western region for many other publications. A member of the Denver Women's Press Club, Western Writers of America and Women Writing the West, Corinne is busy with a new novel and a sequel to MacGregor's Lantern. She lives in Englewood, Colorado, shares a business with her husband and has a grown son and an Arabian horse.