PEARL by Anne Leaton
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Pearl is Pearl Start, the remarkable daughter of remarkable, famous Belle; now, with her two adult daughters, Ruth and Jeanette, in attendance, Pearl lies lying in a hot Arizona hotel in 1925. But Leaton (Good Friends, Just; Mayakovsky, My Love) soon flashes back to tell the story of Belle and her various men: Pearl is fathered by Cole Younger, who goes on to molder in a Minnesota prison; it's Belle's misfortune to be keener and cleverer than all her lovers; at times she hides out at a lunatic asylum run by Woodson James, doctor-cousin to Frank and Jesse. And everyone recognizes Belle's enormous style, presence. . . and hard-mindedness. Later, in fact, Belle will use her well-worn whip on her daughter--when Pearl announces that she plans to marry an unsuitable ""halfbreed,"" who is much (as Belle sees it) beneath her. So Pearl runs away from her headstrong, unyielding mother--only to develop those same flinty qualities herself, as she aggressively becomes the most successful and intelligent brothel-owner in Fort Smith, magnet town of the Indian Territories at the turn of the century (later to become Oklahoma). The Belle Start story, of course, is familiar fiction-material; both Robert Taylor, Jr.'s wispy Loving Belle Start (P. 169) and Speer Morgan's robust Belle Starr (1979) have already given intense attention to Belle-as-beleaguered-mother. But Leaton spins out the tale with piquant chronological gaps, with the voices of contemporaries (à la documentary-film), with strong dramatic scenes. And, while most serious Western-recreations have centered on the debunking of legends, this well-honed, cinematic, credibly-peopled novel--like Marcy Heidish's The Secret Annie Oakley (1983)--puts the emphasis on an unsentimental appreciation of independence and feminine grit.

Pub Date: March 22nd, 1984
Publisher: Knopf