Synopses & Reviews
Gil and I crossed the eastern divide about two by the sun. We pulled up for a look at the little town in the big valley and the mountains on the other side, with the crest of the Sierra showing faintly beyond like the rim of a day moon. We didn't look as long as we do sometimes; after winter range, we were excited about getting back to town. When the horses had stopped trembling from the last climb, Gil took off his sombrero, pushed his sweaty hair back with the same hand, and returned the sombrero, the way he did when something was going to happen. We reined to the right and went slowly down the steep stage road. It was a switch-back road, gutted by the run-off of the winter storms, and with brush beginning to grow up in it again since the stage had stopped running. In the pockets under the red earth banks, where the wind was cut off, the spring sun was hot as summer, and the air was full of a hot, melting pine smell. Rivulets of water trickled down shining on the sides of the cuts. The jays screeched in the trees and flashed through the sunlight in the clearings in swift, long dips. Squirrels and chipmunks chittered in the brush and along the tops of snow-sodden logs. On the outside turns, though, the wind got to us and dried the sweat under our shirts and brought up, instead of the hot resin, the smell of the marshy green valley. In the west the heads of a few clouds showed, the kind that come up with the early heat, but they were lying still, and over us the sky was clear and deep.
It was good to be on the loose on that kind of a day, but winter range stores up a lot of things in a man, and spring roundup hadn't worked them all out. Gil and I had been riding together for five years, and had the habit, but just the two of us in that shack in the snow had made us cautious. We didn't dare talk much, and we wanted to feel easy together again. When we came onto the last gentle slope into the valley, we let the horses out and loped across the flat between the marshes where the red-wing blackbirds were bobbing the reeds and twanging. Out in the big meadows on
both sides the long grass was bending in rows under the wind and shining, and then being let upright again and darkening, almost as if a cloud shadow had crossed it. With the wind we could hear the cows lowing in the north, a mellow sound at that distance, like little horns.
It was about three when we rode into Bridger's Wells, past the boarded-up church on the right, with its white paint half cracked off, and the houses back under the cottonwoods, or between rows of flickering poplars, every third or fourth one dead and leafless. Most of the yards were just let run
to long grass, and the buildings were log or unpainted board, but there were a few brick houses, and a few of painted clapboards with gimcracks around the veranda rails. Around them the grass was cut, and lilac bushes were planted in the shade. There were big purple cones of blossom on them. Already Bridger's Wells was losing its stage-stop look and beginning to settle into a half-empty village of the kind that hangs on sometimes where all the real work is spread out on the land around it, and most of the places take care of themselves.
First published in 1940, this is the classic novel of American frontier life and mob violence that powerfully explores the conflict between justice and primal human nature.
Reading Group Guide
Set in 1885, The Ox-Bow Incident is a searing and realistic portrait of frontier life and mob violence in the American West. First published in 1940, it focuses on the lynching of three innocent men and the tragedy that ensues when law and order are abandoned. The result is an emotionally powerful, vivid, and unforgettable re-creation of the Western novel, which Clark transmuted into a universal story about good and evil, individual and community, justice and human nature. As Wallace Stegner writes, [Clark's] theme was civilization, and he recorded, indelibly, its first steps in a new country.
1. Many consider The Ox-Bow Incident to be the first serious Western novel in American literature, and Clark's novel wholly overturns many of the conventions of the typical Western or "cowboy story" (in which conceits like shoot-outs, the triumph of good over evil, and the figure of the cowboy hero tend to loom large). Discuss the ways in which Clark transforms stereotypes about the West.
2. How do you understand the events leading up to the novel's culminating moment, the lynching? What are the causes of the lynching as these unfold throughout the work? Is the train of events Clark delineates anywhere reversible?
3. Discuss the frontier society described by Clark. What impressions do you glean of the way life was lived on the frontier? What seem to be some of the distinguishing features of frontier life? Are there aspects of life on the frontier that came as a surprise to you?
4. The mob, and ideas about mob violence, figure centrally in the novel. What, for Clark, is the mob?
5. Discuss the importance of the physical environment for Clark: landscape, weather, the way land is experienced. How does Clark put the physical elements to work in his book? How important are these to his story and to the novel's overall effect?
6. Clifton Fadiman called The Ox-Bow Incident "a mature, unpitying examination of what causes men to love violence and to transgress justice." Discuss what seem to you to be the causes of violence and transgression in Clark's treatment of these themes.
7. While his novel takes place in the West, Clark's ultimate subject, according to Wallace Stegner and others, is nothing less than civilization itself. In what ways, allegorical or otherwise, does The Ox-Bow Incident say things about civilization writ large, in your view?
From the Trade Paperback edition.