|For Letty Murphy, the call of the whippoorwill is a representation of an unfilled dream. This sets the tone and the theme for Sharon Sala’s latest novel, set in Lizard Flats and environs in the Kansas Territory, and an interesting departure from her usual offerings. Not only is Whipporwill an historical western but it is also a collection of small vignettes about diverse people over a very short period of time.
Western fiction has certainly popularized the sense of adventure those early settlers felt, but is often short of the reality of hopelessness,
loneliness, fear, and other deprivations suffered by them.
Town prostitute Letty Murphy was orphaned early and since career
opportunities for uneducated, unskilled and impoverished women are nil, she makes her living on her back. Town drunk and town gravedigger Eulis Potter shares with Letty the low esteem of the townspeople. These two
characters are the best-developed ones and the primary ones.
Word has spread throughout the countryside that a preacher from back east is coming to Lizard Flats and the novel switches focus to the many and varied people who will be directly impacted by the preacher’s visit. These include a banker, wealthy business people, widows, fallen women, émigrés, gunfighters, ranch hands, farmers, miners, trappers, children and others.
In the brief insights into these people’s lives, Sala manages to draw
their characters with such a light and deft touch that she elicits every ounce of emotion possible in the telling, utilizing her natural wit and a rare demonstration of rollicking bawdiness to round them out.
Set among these anecdotes, both funny and poignant, is the strong
recurrent and universal theme of the book - that of redemption, in its many guises.
It is affected by the transformation of Eulis into the visiting preacher himself. This is necessary since the real Right Reverend Howe is a womanizing wastrel, who had escaped his last affair by hopping a train bound for the west. True to form, he is in town only minutes before he is in bed with Letty. And there he dies.
Not unmindful of the feverish anticipation the area is experiencing in
awaiting his coming, Letty fears she will be hung for killing him. She
enlists Eulis’s help and they bury the man under a prepared final resting place for someone else. Letty cleans Eulis up and they ready for the next day of Eulis impersonating the preacher, presiding over multiple weddings, a funeral, a christening, etc. These ceremonies represent fulfillment for many of the characters and, in so doing, become the tool of change for Eulis and Letty.
Sharon Sala delivers a moving dramatic view into life in the Kansas Territory, as the barrenness of the environment provides a perfect backdrop for the bereft feelings of so many of her characters in their search for anything that is better than the meager existence they have. This for many is sufficient redemption.