It’s been quite a long time since I read and reviewed one of my Time Reading Program books. But this September, I read The Ox-Bow Incident by Walter Van Tilburg Clark. In fact, it was the only book I finished in September — which says a lot about how hectic life’s been for me of late. Walter Van Tilburg Clark published The Ox-Bow Incident in 1940, and Time, Inc. reprinted it in 1962.
Two cowboys return to town in the spring after spending months isolated on a winter range. They are thirsting for drink and interaction with more people than each other. In the saloon, they learn that one or two locals have been the victims of cattle rustlers and tensions are running high. Soon a young man enters the bar and excitedly announces that the rustlers have struck again, but this time, they killed a man, too. The sheriff is out of town, but that suits many of the locals well; they’d rather take the matter into their own hands by tracking down the rustlers and hanging them.
This is when the novel begins to take shape. Clark carefully describes many of the men (and one woman) who enthusiastically join the manhunt, the two who try to prevent it, and the ambivalent ones like the narrator. It becomes obvious that Clark is using this stereotypical Western scenario to dissect the different forces, personalities, and social dynamics that lead people to participate in group violence, even when they know it is wrong.
I can’t say that I loved this novel as I was reading it. It’s a disturbing topic, and it reminded me too much of recent news headlines and political players who advance morally dubious and oftentimes downright cruel social policies for personal gain, convenience, or expedient power politics. So I didn’t feel like the theme of the books was new or revelatory. But I keep coming back to the word “careful” — Clark so very carefully structures the action and characters to give maximum illustration to his theme. Also, the narration was in the first person, which really put me, as the reader, in the middle of the events and enhanced my feelings of ambivalence and responsibility. As a result, the book and its ideas have stayed with me and my appreciation of it has bloomed.
This Time, Inc. imprint was illustrated by Antonio Frasconi. Frasconi was considered a master of the woodcut print who illustrated over 100 books in his long career. He favored political and social themes, so it seems apt that the Time, Inc. editors would choose him for this novel. The stark woodcut of clustered tree trunks seems neutral until you read the novel and realize what happens in that grove of trees, which is very political indeed.
Copyright 1940 by Walter van Tilburg Clark
Reprinted with permission and new introduction by Time, Inc., 1964