The Ox-Bow Incident (Modern Library Classics)

The Ox-Bow Incident - Walter Van Tilburg Clark, Wallace Stegner This is a powerful book not only on the psychology of lynch mobs, but what is the quality that is most important in upholding civilization. Many might have seen the classic film, but I think the novel more than holds its own. Told as the first person account of a cowboy, Art Croft, at the periphery of events, first helping an attempt to stop the lynch mob from forming, than being swept up into it, he is thoughtful and does have a conscience. But what Clark tells us that's not enough without the "guts" to back it up. Set in 1885 in the small town of Bridger's Wells in an unnamed United States Territory near the Sierra Mountains; a place still a raw frontier. Clark sketches dozens of characters. There are twenty-eight in the lynching party--two are there to try to stop it--or at least try to comfort the victims. Spark, a black handyman and preacher who witnessed his own brother's lynching as a child, and Davies, who owns a store in town. Sparks especially because of his race is basically powerless, but Davies does try to stop the tragedy in the making--and what events do to him is part of the most heartbreaking part of the book. He consciously tries to play the "light" to Major Willard Tetley's "dark." Of all the characters in the book, the two that seem the most despicable are two at the opposite ends of the social spectrum, Monty Smith, the town "bum" and the rich and powerful Tetley, the "biggest man in the valley" with maybe one exception. But it's not so simple by the end, where we find reasons to condemn some of the "good" people and have sympathy for some of the "bad." Most of the people in that lynch mob are depicted as decent men. What rides them is various kinds of fear. Art and his friend Gil are partly drawn in because given the tensions in the town due to widespread cattle rustling, they fear being suspected. For most in that crowd, as Art puts it, "most men are more afraid of being thought cowards than of anything else." Others are "playing up to the audience." Gerald Tetley--the son of the Major--sees it as a pack mentality. "We're doing it because we're...afraid not to be in the pack." So it's a thoughtful book, with beautiful lyrical writing, that feels cinematic on the page in terms of description and characterful dialogue, one that deals with complex strands of race, ethnicity, gender and class. And one with more than one twist in store. Top notch in plot, characters, style and themes.