Title: The Hanging Tree
Author: Dorothy M. Johnson
Genre: Novella – Western
The Hanging Tree by Dorothy M. Johnson is a novella clocking in at 111 pages which I had to read for class. I have to say this because if I did not have to read it, I would not have continued with this story. We follow our main character Doc Frail who killed a man and then moved on but the guilt of having killed him carries the weight of the story as he’s constantly thinking of the action that will get him hung for murder. He arrives to the gold camp of Skull Creek where he makes money and also practices as the camp’s doctor. The story actually begins when Elizabeth Armistead accompanying her father out west get held up on the coach, her father is killed and she’s left to wander the desert. She becomes blinded by the sun and Doc Frail is the one to attend to her at camp. We follow their story of her refusing to leave her cabin and Doc slowly realizing he loves her.
There are a few things I take issue with this story and the first one is the emotional distance the reader has from the characters. I’m not a great fan of short stories to begin with, I find I just don’t care about the characters at all by the end of it but Johnson had 111 pages to make me give a fuck about Doc and Elizabeth and she failed completely to manifest that emotional connection. Elizabeth’s portrayal, a complete disservice to women in general and was the second most frustrating problem with this story. When we first meet her she’s a lady of fine standing, daughter to a man who has lost his money and they are traveling west for a new start so he can teach children. However, as the story progresses Elizabeth becomes the embodiment of female silliness often written by male contemporaries. I expected more from a female Western writer and I was sorely disappointed.
The blinded Elizabeth is placed in a room to help her recover from her wounds but when Doc tries to get her to walk about the camp to help her recuperate, her trauma at being lost in the dessert overcome her and she faints into his arms and refuses to leave her cabin – FOR OVER A YEAR. She has no idea how the world works, makes stupid choices, is a complete brat for many chunks of the book, then becomes the definition of stubbornness. Johnson attempted to mirror her journey with Doc’s guilt but it failed to a contemporary reader who expects more from a heroine. With that in mind, this piece feels incredible dated, drab and frustrating.
I shall be reviewing more Westerns in the next month as this is what we’re reading in my class so I’m sure you will be hearing me gripe about the helpless female portrayal, Native Indian stereotypes and the hyper-masculinity that was/is quite popular in Westerns.