The Wind Leans West by August Derleth (1969)
August Derleth juggled a lot of balls in the air during his lifetime. He created the much-loved Solar Pons (arguably the best Sherlock Holmes clone in literature), as well as the lesser known Judge Peck. He co-founded Arkham House, the small press which did much to promote H. P. Lovecraft (to the joy or dismay of current Lovecraft fans, depending on your viewpoint), Clark Ashton Smith, Robert E. Howardand many others, as well as fostering the early careers of modern horror masters Ramsay Campbell and Brian Lumley. His prodigious output of short stories also covered the gamut, from pulp science fiction and horror to "literary" fiction and sly pieces of humor. A distinguished poet, Derleth also promoted other poet through his anthologies and his "little" magazine Hawk and Whippoorwill. He was one of the country's most respected regional writers, detailing the history and people of Wisconsin through historical novels, mainstream novels, juveniles, journals, poetry, and non-fiction. The broad scope of this part of his writing was what he called "The Wisconsin Saga," with an important subset titled "The Sac Prairie Saga" -- Sac Prairie being a thinly disguised Sauk City, Derleth's home town. Whatever field he wrote in, Derleth's love of his native land rang true.
The Wind Leans West is part of the Wisconsin Saga, a book that, on its surface, appears to be a bit of a drag. Here's the first paragraph from the jacket copy:
"This new novel in August Derleth's Wisconsin Saga is less a novel than a fictionalized account of the part played by Alexander Mitchell in the struggle to establish banks and sound banking practices Win the Territory and later the State of Wisconsin. Persuade to come to America from his native Scotland, Mitchell landed in Milwaukee in 1839, carrying a carpetbag containing $50,000, with which to open an insurance business for his employer, the well-known midwestern promoter, George Smith."
To top it off, there's no sex...no violence (well, very little)...and just a small dab of excitement.
Despite all of the above, The Wind Leans West is a cracking good story. Alexander Mitchell is almost too good a protagonist -- an honest man pursuing his dream with a single-mindedness that overcomes the many obstacles in his path. Banks were outlawed in the Wisconsin Territory and most of the banks in surrounding areas were fly-by-night scams that preyed upon their customers. Rather than open a bank, Mitchell opened an insurance company and ran it like a bank, provoking powerful machinations of business rivals and political enemiess. Historical detail and real-life persons are woven seamlessly into the story. Rather than boring, the book is a fast and pleasant read, spiced with a naturalist's detail of the countryside -- its plants and animals, its waters and its fertile fields, and the colors, smells, and sounds that can define a time and place..
This was a good 'un.
I read (and enjoyed) August Derleth's SOLAR PONS series of Sherlock Holmes pastiches. Derleth will always be remembered for founding ARKHAM HOUSE and reprinting H. P. Lovecraft.ReplyDelete
Fascinating x two. Sounds like a good yarn, and it's by the celebrity writer nearest my birthplace, thus fit the "no prophet in own backyard" stigma. To discourage my ambition to write, my dad would mention Derleth as an "oddball" with pretensions of grandeur. Good Lord, but that fits me to a tee!!ReplyDelete
Matt, Derleth was a bit of an oddball, but one with a lot of talent. He wore an opera cape when walking into town. He used the money from his Guggenheim fellowship to have his large collection of newspaper comics bound. He married at age 42 to a 15-year-old girl. He reveled in tweaking the conservative element of his town. Openly bisexual, he would host parties for high school students in his home -- although their was no indications of shenanigans going on during them. He gorged himself on sweet pastries and ignored his health. He would take a month off each year to go into the woods to hunt for morels (which he loved), hanging the morels from his ceiling to keep him supplied for the year. His friends and supporters were many and a number of townspeople would proudly point out when Derleth fictionalized them in his writings. Today the people of Sauk City revere August Derleth as the people in Cross Plains revere Robert E. Howard.Delete
I remember my dad scoffing at the 15-yr-old wife. He stigmatized Derleth for me so deeply I never thought to read him, and that's a shame.ReplyDelete
Your father isn't coming off too well here...Delete
He had his shortcomings, too, Todd.Delete
Living in WI I see his name now and then but never read anything. I had forgotten about the Arkham House founding.ReplyDelete
His attempts to fix Lovecraft pastiches into a quasi-Christian theology are for the birds, but his horror fiction written in his own voice is often quite impressive. And don't forget his labor advocacy...nor his prudishness(!) about certain literary matters by the 1950s. A very odd guy, and complex, to be certain, Derleth.ReplyDelete