Proffitt (Manchester Bluff, 2011) highlights forgotten aspects of local and national history in his second competent work of Civil War–era fiction.
In July 1867, narrator John Demsond, a Confederate cavalry veteran, alights from a train in Abilene, Kan. There, he meets Jason Alexander, a man formerly of Lincoln’s War Department whose father, John T. Alexander, is in the burgeoning cattle business. The family’s plan to drive longhorns from Texas to New York for meat packing has been hampered by outlaws’ and Native Americans’ stealing stock and by the disappearance of one of the hands, not to mention the malicious rumors about their cattle being sick. Demsond recently lost his job with the railway, so he volunteers to go down to Texas to investigate. Over the next decade, Demsond grows further embroiled in the Alexanders’ fortunes, and the rise of the cattle industry becomes a story of mysterious disease transmission, government corruption and corporate monopoly. From obscure historical footnotes, Proffitt has created an impressive backdrop. Enjoyable cameos from real-life figures such as Gen. Custer and Cornelius Vanderbilt add verve to what can seem at times like a tedious chronological survey. Unfortunately, more intriguing Reconstruction incidents (like the Great Chicago Fire, the financial crisis under President Ulysses S. Grant, the Tilden-Hayes election debacle and the Pacific Express train disaster) are often skimmed over in favor of less absorbing material, especially the rather dry proceedings of the 1868 American Convention of Cattle Commissioners, which are documented to an unnecessary level of archival detail. Ultimately, the cattlemen’s tale might have worked better as nonfiction—a group biography or a portrait of one of the major towns (Alexander, Ill., or Kansas City, Mo., the country’s new livestock center). Demsond is a particularly flat character, not compelling enough to warrant the choice of first-person over third-person-omniscient perspective, a viewpoint Proffitt nonetheless frequently employs to chronicle meetings of government conspirators. Solid descriptions of city filth and slaughterhouses don’t redeem dull dialogue and a peculiar reliance on ellipses. The ending, though strangely abrupt, prepares for the final book in this proposed trilogy.
An average story on an impressive canvas.