Eighteen-year-old Esther Chambers grew up in Chicago; when her mother dies, however, there is nothing to keep her in the city. She seeks refuge with her father's distant cousin Ferris Pickett, a cattleman in the high desert in Oregon. But things are not as she expected at the ranch. First, Pick asks her to stake a claim (illegal as it turns out, since she is only 18 and one must be 21 to homestead) on a piece of land that includes an important water source he hopes to control. This means she must sleep alone in a small cabin on the claim for six months. Second, she quickly learns that the community of Century is sharply divided between cattlemen and sheepherders.
As Esther becomes engaged with the idea of working her claim, befriends several of Century's more eccentric residents, and enters "an understanding" with the morally ambiguous Pick, the range war escalates through a series of increasingly violent incidents. Meanwhile, despite her promise to Pick, Esther falls for a young sheepmen, putting her in a difficult situation. The climax is ultimately more of an anti-climax, as the community essentially falls apart. An epilogue-esque final chapter ties up some stories and leaves others unresolved.
I had read several positive reviews of Little Century and wanted to like it more than I did, but it often felt like a project in an MFA creative writing program (and Keesey is a first-time author who graduated from the Iowa Writers' Workshop). Keesey's attempts to be lyrical often become overwrought, and the occasional brief chapters written from the perspectives of other characters are a serious flaw in the book's narrative structure.
Even with the blots and cross-outs, she likes the look of her own writing. It is solid. She herself weighs more, having written it.
The buckaroos often sing, and she knows why. The unpeopled distance and the careless cold weigh upon a person, compressing the spirit into a chunk without movement. Any two notes sung together press back and make a space for the tiny soul to warm up and swirl about.