The Ox-Bow Incident, by Walter van Tilburg Clark (Penguin, 1940 – my dad’s copy, photo attached below) is, I readily admit, a book rarely read these days – at least on this side of the Atlantic; for years, however, it has been a staple text in many American high schools, for the simple and powerful insight it gives into a world where justice and patient inquiry are left behind by anger, retribution and mob rule. It’s as gripping a read as Truman Capote’s fabulous ‘In Cold Blood’, and just as raw.
The weekend before Easter I was visiting my parents in Donegal, and playing a few rounds at the breathtakingly beautiful Ballyliffin golf course, during that spell of great weather we had then. I was accompanied by my Italian friend Roberto, to whom the experience of playing an Irish golf course was entirely new. “They tend not to have sheep on golf courses in Italy,” he frowned, as the sheep meandered about on the links; but he seemed to enjoy it nonetheless.
My parents’ house is stacked with old books and before dinner, to distract myself from all the golf balls I had lost earlier, I rummaged through a few. My dad appeared and pressed an old Penguin classic into my hand. “Read that,” he said smiling, “then tell me what you think.” Well, I read it and thought it superb.
Set in Nevada in 1885, two cowboys mosey into the sleepy town of Bridger’s Wells and quickly settle in at the whiskey saloon. There’s been cattle rustling, and the townspeople are suspicious of everything and anyone. Nerves are jangled and tempers frayed, when suddenly news of a killing at a nearby ranch spills through the swing doors. Despite the uncertainties, the menfolk quickly form themselves into a posse. The aim: to lynch the perpetrators – and so off they set, deaf both to the local judge’s warning that the law should prevail and the opposition of a vocal minority, stated with courage.
The pursuit and capture of three men suspected unfolds with great power and pace, while the character and motivation of each man involved is brought starkly to life. Will any of them have the guts to do it, when it comes to the rope and a tree? Could any one of them live with the consequences of their actions, … or inaction as a passive observer?
In the modern world, this brilliant novel is a reminder of the extent to which we can take the systems of law and order for granted, and how ultimately we must each stay awake and bear witness to truth and justice.
And if you like good old fashioned cowboy stories, you’ll love it.
It’s available on Amazon http://www.amazon.co.uk/s/ref=nb_sb_noss_2?url=search-alias%3Daps&field-keywords=the+ox+bow+incident or can be sourced in a good second hand shop, like Caledonia Books on Glasgow’s Great Western Road. http://www.caledoniabooks.co.uk/ The book was also made into a 1943 Oscar shortlisted film, starring Henry Fonda; and don’t worry dad, I’ll be sure to return it: after all, it’s a good reason to get back over to glorious Ballyliffin.