The Western has been an established genre of fiction for well over a hundred years. In the early to mid20th century, Western fiction grew in popularity, largely driven by similarly themed motion pictures and television programs. In the 1970s, however, the genre began to fall out of favor with the general population. Even so, there has always been an audience interested in new stories or masterful reworkings of existing tales. Indeed, there are continual rumblings of a comeback for the Western genre. All that may be necessary for this to happen is a strong story, with all of the genre trappings, that is told so well that it doesn’t seem like a pastiche or something that has already been seen before, a book like The Survival of Margaret Thomas by Del Howison.
Margaret “Peggy” Thomas was living a good life. She lived on a farm just outside of Bleak Knob, Missouri with her husband James. James is the local sheriff, which, for the most part, does little to interfere with their quiet, happy life together.
One day, while both James and Peggy are in town, the bank is robbed. James, as the marshal, steps in to attempt to stop the crime, and he is gunned down while pushing Peggy out of harm’s way. The bank robbers get away, James dies in the street and Peggy begins her new life of remorse and regret. She blames herself for James’ death, thinking that if she hadn’t been in town, if he hadn’t been trying to protect her, he would have survived the bank robbery.
Three years later, Peggy receives a telegram. It is from a sheriff in San Pueblo, Arizona who states that a member of the gang that killed James has been captured and is going to be put on trial. She is welcome to attend if she would like. This cuts through the fog of drink and regret in which Peggy has been functioning. She knows that she really hasn’t been living since James died, and she wonders if she should try to go. It won’t be easy. Arizona is a long way from Missouri, and Peggy would be a woman traveling alone. This will be a long, difficult and dangerous journey, but she will go. She needs to go. It is the one final thing she must do for James.
In The Survival of Margaret Thomas, Del Howison tells a story that is instantly familiar, with all of the recognizable trappings of a western tale, but simultaneously seeming like a welcome discovery of something new and exciting. Howison’s portrayal of the 19th century West seems spot on. It is a brutal and savage place, in the process of being tamed, but still a force to be approached with caution. It is also a stark reminder of how difficult communication and travel were during this time. Today, travelling from Kansas City, MO to Yuma, AZ, the points between which Peggy must travel by train over the course of several days, takes only a matter of hours. And this does not include the days of riding on horseback between Bleak Knob and Kansas City on one end of the journey and between Yuma and San Pueblo on the other.
Howison uses Peggy’s journey to explore not only the territory, but also the people living within it. He creates a series of interesting and memorable characters that Peggy encounters, some of which come to play crucial roles in her journey. He also illustrates the markedly different experiences of those living in town, on the outskirts of a settlement and those whose homes were only accessible by days of travel to a train station.
The Survival of Margaret Thomas is proof that there are still compelling Western stories to be told. It is also proof that Del Howison, an established writer and editor in horror fiction, can cross genres more easily and effortlessly than his characters are able to cross state lines and it appears he has staked a new claim on the Western.