We have been watching the Yellowstone (Kevin Costner) modern day set series spin-off, 1883. It is a rough Western about that “Yellowstone,” Montana ranch’s family’s ancestors who are crossing (along with others) the continent that year from northern Texas to Oregon. The story is about what you might expect – except probably lots more so for our age of the streaming service and what one can now more easily get away with in terms of foul language, graphic violence, and nudity compared to “old-fashioned” U.S. commercial television.
The Western has been a staple of American filmmaking since the beginnings of motion pictures in the 1890s. The first big hit in that new filmmaking genre was the less than 15 minute long 1903 The Great Train Robbery silent. (Long out of copyright, YouTube has up the entire Library of Congress version of the film.) The Western has been called – along with baseball and jazz music – one of America’s great cultural “inventions.”
The Western has also always been a controversial genre in this sense. The white Anglo-American settlement of North America was and remains – especially after the creation of the U.S. in 1776 and it declared its independence from the British Empire – often ugly history. In the simplest of terms, from that Anglo-American perspective small bands of pioneers struck out into the wilderness, survived the harsh elements, attacks by both white brutal outlaws and occasionally raids by merciless Indians who butchered unarmed men, women, and children, and eventually carved out homes and new lives on a mostly empty continent; from the other side’s perspective, their lands were invaded by numerically overwhelming and far more powerful white colonizers who butchered unarmed men, women, and children, and took the continent by force. (For the latter viewpoint, Dee Brown’s groundbreaking Bury My Heart At Wounded Knee: An Indian History of the American West is necessary reading for any U.S. historian: It is essentially U.S. history up to 1890 told from the point of view of Native Americans.)
What strikes me most about 1883’s production itself is not that the narrator (and thus, technically, the “center” of the story) is a “17-year-old” white girl (daughter of ostensibly the “main” character – the great-grandfather of the character Kevin Costner plays in Yellowstone) from Tennessee, but how her narration seems to have her watching proceedings while looking down from atop “Mount Olympus” and not being actually involved in what is happening down below. Whether or not that was the aim of the middle-aged male writer, what that does for me is the moment I hear her voice-over’s often extremely “sophisticated” thoughts for a presumably indifferently-educated teen commence, I am jolted away from what is happening on screen – which is often actually compelling stuff. And I believe anything that distracts from what Sam Elliott (one of the stars) is doing on screen while acting in a Western is never a good thing.
A critic in a major publication went further, calling “her” “narrative” contributions the male writer’s badly misplaced ideas (to be kind here) of what a teenage girl wrote in a diary in “1883.” In my opinion, that is a real “zinger.” As a writer, when you see such scathing criticism leveled at another writer, you had better take note of it.
Relatedly, I had mentioned in a recent post about possibly writing my next novel with a woman lead. I will admit, too, that I have been thinking for a few years now about trying that. Responding, a woman reader sent me an Instagram message:
Of course, I had to acknowledge that encouragement:
I am being honest there when I say I am not entirely sure if I will yet. I have increasingly got the sort of a woman in mind. In any case, we will see.
I do know already “she” is NOT going to be a teen. I have written “17-year-old” girls as characters, but conscious of my limitations as a (particularly male) writer, I have always been extra-careful about writing them. I would never even try to write one of that youthful age as a novel’s main character – and especially not using diary entries.
I prefer to leave the writing of teen girls as main characters to, well, those who feel they can.
If what that 1883 “17-year-old” narrates as written by a middle-aged man often does not ring quite true as observations coming from an actual teenage girl, that does not mean teens cannot themselves write well, of course. The issue of teen authors is an intriguing one. TCK Publishing tells us (in an undated, but apparently 2021, post):
Storytelling comes naturally to children, making them a great source of imaginative stories. If they don’t have the technical skills of actually “writing” yet, they can still create their own stories by dictating them to an adult who can transcribe them.
Among their list of the “Top Ten” children authors is Annelies Marie “Anne” Frank.
After anti-Semite and nationalist lunatic Hitler took power in her native Germany, in 1934 when Anne was age four her Jewish parents fled with her and her older sister from Nazi Germany for the Netherlands. After Nazi Germany invaded the Netherlands in 1940, her father applied for a family American visa, which was evidently never processed (it was not rejected) due to the confusion amidst the hurried closure by the U.S. of its consulate in Rotterdam. The Nazi persecution of Jews in the Netherlands gained savage momentum as 1940 became 1941 and then 1942, and when her sister was summoned to come to “work” in Germany in July 1942, the Franks went into hiding in Amsterdam.
By now a young teen, Anne kept her diary from 1942-1944 – until the family’s hideout in concealed rooms in a canal house was discovered August 4, 1944. Eventually she was sent by the Nazis to Bergen-Belsen concentration camp in northwestern Germany, where she perished (it is generally agreed) in February/March 1945 probably from typhus. Her death took place only weeks before British troops liberated the camp on April 15, 1945.
At some point while in hiding, she decided she wanted eventually to publish her diary. Friends who had hid the family found (most of) the diary in the former hideout immediately following the family’s arrest, kept it, and gave it to her father (the family’s only survivor) after the war. Seeing it, her father was stunned – “For me, it was a revelation. There, was revealed a completely different Anne to the child that I had lost. I had no idea of the depths of her thoughts and feelings.” – by its contents and he had it published in 1947 in Dutch. (She wrote it in Dutch.) It was translated and published in English in 1952 as The Diary of a Young Girl.
Anne Frank’s diary is by now one of the most famous books – perhaps the most – ever composed by a teenager. Its ongoing appeal is not just due to Anne’s horrible Holocaust concentration camp demise that was much like that of millions of others whose names are not nearly as famous or are not famous at all. She wrote in her diary as a teen writes – a fact proven in no small way due to the reality that those, especially it appears girls, of a similar age clearly see so much of themselves, and what they themselves may think in private too, in the doomed German-Dutch-Jewish girl’s words.
I think it is best to end this post on that note.