by Arnold Goldman

In Linden on the Saugus Branch Paul did not treat his own boyhood problems directly or extensively, but found an allusive outlet for it in the Alice Townsend story. In A Ghost Town on the Yellowstone there is perhaps surprisingly no personal difficulty for a sixteen year old facing the Wild West, albeit with an older brother in the wings, certainly not the anxiety which Paul had Lester Davis experience in the same time and place in Imperturbe. Young Elliot is all but unflappable, gets on well with a broad range of humanity from men of the cloth to hookers, engineers, Wobblies and Bohunks, and when the overturned stagecoach from Glendive to Sidney crashes, he is present at the origins of his "Ghost Town" in two meanings, "Trembles, Montana," named after the French for its quaking aspens. It is a landscape of "desperate scenery," the expression he would later use for the further west region of the fourth book of his series.

The founding of Trembles powerfully suggests rebirth, and that is how in memory the experience now seemed to Paul, stripped of the anxieties he had given Lester Davis. It was the way of America, then, the fresh start, and the opening scenes enable Paul to associate himself with that kind of America. The minority in Linden is centre stage in Trembles, and all along the Lower Yellowstone from Glendive to Montak. People live in the present not in the shadow of the past, personal or regional. Society does not need to live by rules handed down, or by the iron hand of external authority. It can start again, from scratch. The "bond between the citizens" of Trembles did not require "families related to one another by ties of blood and common experience, and people who had gone to school together." You do not need to be hemmed in by the Linden fathers: you can be fatherless, as a community and an individual, and thrive. The people of the Lower Yellowstone can triumph over crafty bosses who want to extract the last ounce of profit from the drifters and the Bohunks and are not above turning the "Americans" against the foreigners. The joy of this life asserts itself even in a country where ever since the days of tyrannosaurus rex it has always been "[o]ne thing... eating another in that region," and against a climate such as New England does not know - an epic blizzard, arriving on 6 January 1908, provides the climactic challenge in the book, and is lived through with

ingenuity and good will.1

As in Linden, there is in A Ghost Town, amid all the celebratory release, a displacement of young Elliot’s own fears in the presence of the community of Amish-Mennonites and its stern treatment of the beautiful Cora Lentz. Nor is the "ending" as blissful as it was for Alice and Ruth in Linden, but it intimates a broader acceptance by Paul and possibly his earlier self that societies do not necessarily come to reason. Cora finds a set of precious matched sapphires when eviscerating a turkey, but the Elders do not allow her to keep them. The Mennonites sense her wavering, and keep her under close orders. In the end all the schemes of the "Americans" to satisfy the girl’s inner craving for beauty fail. When Cora, like others, is stricken with smallpox, an Amish woman (possibly acting on instructions) induces Cora to scratch off her scabs - "If thine eye offend thee, pluck it out." Cora, to the dismay of the Americans, emerges from her ordeal horribly disfigured. Paul comments:

I thought of the six matched sapphires. I, too, had become mildly obsessed, and stole a look at them whenever I could. That anyone in human form could believe they were evil, or that Cora was wicked, was beyond my comprehension. I had detested Puritans, zealots and crepehangers always, but never with the loathing I felt then toward the Mennonites. I was glad they had been persecuted, and hoped that they would suffer much more.2

Elliot’s involvement with the story (true, enhanced or invented) of Cora is revealed by the expression of his "obsession" with the sapphires, and the last event before he leaves is his hearing of Cora’s joyless marriage to the Mennonite who had earlier deplored his fiancée’s beautiful appearance as a temptation. His is spared we wonder what reaction by the good luck of an opportunity to leave. The story of Cora reinforces Elliot’s view of the rightness of the reasonable, worldly and secular societies of Trembles, Sidney and Glendive, Montana, even as it exposes his lingering fear of the power of its opposite.


1 A Ghost Town on the Yellowstone, 215, 6.
2 Ibid., 308.

This analysis of A Ghost Town on the Yellowstone is taken from Arnold Goldman's biography-in-progress of Elliot Paul. ©Arnold Goldman 2001.

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