William Haywood Henderson
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With a voice as rich, haunting, and beautifully compelling as the rugged landscape his heroine traverses, William Haywood Henderson tells the story of Augusta Locke, a true American pioneer, tough in spirit and achingly human. Spanning several decades across the two World Wars, Augusta Locke provides a window into one woman’s extraordinary life as well as an extraordinary time and place: the American West in the waning days of its exploration.
Gussie Tornig was born in 1903 just outside of Ravenglass, Minnesota, the only child of Leota and Brud. But with her awkward appearance, dark hair, and brown eyes, she doesn’t really look like either of her handsome parents. It seems from the moment of her birth that she is an outsider, even in her own family. Uncomfortable within the walls of her family’s cabin, she spends most of her time outside, tracing the flights of the ravens, and the trail of her deceptive father, whom she discovers with another woman. His betrayal is publicly exposed, and Brud is driven from town.
Gussie and her mother also leave Ravenglass and begin a new life together in Colorado where her mother marries the well-to-do Frank Locke. Frank is stern and devoutly religious and insists that Gussie, now a teenager, be baptized and conform to his rigid expectations. But on the day of her baptism, still soaking wet from being dunked in the river and wearing the exquisite white dress her mother made for her, Gussie runs off, beginning a lifelong journey to find her freedom and her place in the world.
She heads straight into the arms of Jack Fisher, a young man on his way to volunteer in the Great War. In their brief but passionate encounter, Gussie becomes pregnant with their daughter Anne. Jack heads off to war, and Gussie heads north, spending the following years in Wyoming, determined to make her way in the male-dominated West, even with a young child in tow. Known for miles around as a tough hand who’s good with a horse, she drives a rig, carrying supplies across the Great Divide Basin, with Anne always at her side, spending nights together under the stars.
Anne grows up to be strong and independent, intimately familiar with the land but also, through the generosity of a friend, with the world of books and learning. But after seventeen years of living the life her mother has chosen for her, Anne yearns for space and independence and leaves to begin her own journey. Gussie is heartbroken and goes on a desperate search to find her; she soon realizes, however, that she has no idea the direction Anne has taken, and she gives up trying to trace her daughter’s path.
The years pass, the Second World War begins and ends, and Gussie has settled, alone, in the DuNoir Valley, with her own cabin and parcel of land. The people in Gussie’s life have come and gone, but the earth has been constant, and she has often turned to it for comfort. But now, forty years later, her grandson and great-granddaughter have come to find her, and she welcomes them into her home. While the land has been good to Gussie, has embraced her, there is no solace to be found like the touch of a hand, the sound of a voice, especially those of her own family.
With Augusta Locke, William Haywood Henderson has created a moving epic about the American West and an unforgettable portrait of one woman’s refusal to give in or give up, even when faced with the overwhelming obstacles of life alone on the road and the never-ending longings of the human heart.
William Haywood Henderson has taught creative writing at Harvard and Brown and is a former Wallace Stegner Fellow in creative writing at Stanford. He is the author of two novels, The Rest of the Earth and Native. He grew up in Colorado and Wyoming.
Q. You have written two previous novels, The Rest of the Earth and Native, both of which, like Augusta Locke, take place in the American West but have male protagonists. The Philadelphia Inquirer said of Augusta Locke that “Henderson has managed to create one of the most arresting female literary characters in quite some time.” Would you discuss your creation of this immensely appealing and strong female character?
A. In the 1980s, I saw a man working on a windmill below the lower gate on our ranch outside Dubois, Wyoming, in the Wind River Valley. I asked people who it was, and they said it was no man, it was Gussie Anderson. Later, while reading a history of Dubois, I learned that Gussie Anderson had entered Wyoming from Colorado with a child in tow, that she had worked a lot of jobs considered men’s jobs, including driving freight over Togwotee Pass with a wagon and team of horses, and working on road construction crews. So I took the real Gussie as a starting point, with just the bare facts of her life, and tried to explore the life of a single woman with a child in early-twentieth-century Wyoming.
Q. The landscape, so finely crafted and vivid, is an integral part of all of your novels, and serves as much more than a backdrop. Would you discuss your emotional connection to the West?
A. When I lived in Wyoming, I was always struck by the immensity of the landscape and by what an insignificant speck I was in the endless acres. For me the idea of the emotional landscape of the West goes back to this feeling of a tiny character in a huge, natural landscape. Because of all the empty miles, human connections can be fleeting, and then you turn away and head back down the road to your four walls in a valley somewhere. You shut yourself away from the elements, and the elements can be pretty extreme. I think that by default people find themselves turning inside, becoming accustomed to the sounds of their own thoughts. You come to recognize in Westerners that thoughtful gaze toward the horizon, as if they can see beyond the curve of the earth to the next town or fishing stream.
Q. It may be interesting to note that Wyoming is a state known for its progressive history with regard to women’s rights. Wyoming women were the first in the nation to vote, serve on juries, and hold public office. Did these facts play into your decision to place the bulk of your story in Wyoming, and would you discuss what made you chose each state specifically—Minnesota, Colorado, and Wyoming—as your setting?
A. I chose Wyoming and Colorado because they were the actual states in which my inspiration, Gussie Anderson, had lived. The real Gussie was born in Illinois, but I moved my Gussie’s birthplace to Minnesota because of how greatly the north woods differ from Wyoming. I think Gussie Locke sees the West as a refuge from the almost overwhelming lushness of her childhood in Minnesota, where she struggled to decipher the world she lived in without ever being able to rise above the woods and get a clear sense of the lay of the land. In the West, Gussie can see far back along the road she has traveled, and she can see far ahead to where she hopes to arrive, and it gives her both a sense of accomplishment and the feeling that she can actually make plans and see them through. She comes to know Wyoming as well as anyone probably could without being born there, she can find water and shelter if she needs it, and yet she never completely feels at home, because of those fleeting human connections and the wide open acres—she’s continually trying to find a place to live that feels right to her, and maybe no western place will ever feel completely right because it wasn’t ingrained in her from her childhood. Anyway, even if she can see clear to the horizon and beyond, it doesn’t mean that she’s not going to lose sight of those she loves.
Q. You have been compared to the contemporary authors Cormac McCarthy, Annie Dillard, and Larry McMurtry, among others. Two comparisons that also come to mind, but which don’t seem to be mentioned as often, are Wallace Stegner and Willa Cather, especially Cather’s O Pioneers! What do you think of these comparisons?
A. I’m flattered by the comparisons, of course. As I was writing Augusta Locke, I thought a lot about Cormac McCarthy’s Suttree and Willa Cather’s A Lost Lady. I was interested in physical and emotional isolation, and both novels speak beautifully to these topics. When I was first learning to write, I think I was most influenced stylistically by William Faulkner and J. R. R. Tolkien, a strange combination if there ever was one. As for the emotional content of my novels, I learned a lot from reading Walt Whitman and Paul Bowles.
Q. Augusta Locke is filled with a remarkable degree of detail. What kind of research was involved?
A. I read Ravens in Winter and Mind of the Raven, both by Bernd Heinrich, and that got me started on creating Gussie’s childhood in Minnesota; she turned out to be a bit of a raven herself. Seven Half-Miles From Home—Notes of a Wind River Naturalist, by Mary Back, has always helped ground me in the natural world. Lady’s Choice, the letters of a young Denver woman who goes up to Wyoming to teach the children on a ranch, helped me with the social world of remote ranches. I went to the Wyoming State Archives in Cheyenne to dig through the papers and contracts of the road crews from the years when Gussie Locke was working a Fresno scraper. On microfilm I located the period newspapers for each town in which Gussie settles. I’ve found that old maps can be full of great information. And I traveled to the places where the novel takes place and talked to people who knew my inspiration, Gussie Anderson.
Q. Readers who have not read either of your previous novels may not know that you bring in a character from The Rest of the Earth into Augusta Locke, namely Walker Avary: “I like you Gussie. You remind me of me,” Walker says to her (p. 310). Would you talk about your decision to revisit Walker Avary’s character?
A. I was as surprised as anyone when Walker showed up in Augusta Locke. I had to pause a moment to run the math and see if he could still be alive, and then I just went with it. I’d always wondered what had happened to him, and it seemed that the losses he’d suffered in his life would help illuminate Gussie’s own losses.
Q. Other than the young boy who robs her of her money early on, Gussie lives in a world of men, from Jack Fisher to Charlie St. George, who treat her with a good deal of respect (even when they find out she is a woman). The West is often thought of as a place that was inhospitable to women, even dangerous. Were you trying to dispel this notion at all, or do you see these relationships as specific to Gussie’s character rather than representative of women in general at that time and place?
A. I believe that Gussie functions almost without a gender through much of her life—she’s tough, manly, and physically capable. Men admire her skills and work ethic, and most seem to think of her as an equal. In her level of competence and strength, she isn’t at all different from most of the women I knew in Wyoming. The complications between Gussie and men arise most often from the beauty of her daughter, Anne. Gussie sees how men treat Anne, and that forces Gussie to face what she sees as her own lack of sexual appeal.
Q. Gussie comes into contact with very few women throughout the story. Did you see this as an inevitable consequence of the environment she is in or were there other reasons, perhaps, that you chose not to include a lot of other female characters?
A. Because most of her jobs are “men’s work,” Gussie does interact mostly with males. But the characters who most deeply affect the choices in her life are women, such as Leota, Anne, Mrs. Shayd, and great-granddaughter Laurel. Even Dr. Janvier is instrumental in getting Gussie to stop her wandering.
Q. What are you working on next and does it involve any connection to your previous work?
A. I’m working on a new novel set in California and Wyoming. I can’t seem to get away from the West. The novel includes characters from two of my earlier novels.
- At the beginning of the novel, Gussie has returned to Bomber Basin, the site of the plane crash. Discuss the significance of this place to her and why she may have felt the need to return.
- Why do you think Gussie never returns home or ever even tries to reconnect with Leota? “Surely Gussie could go home,” Gussie thinks to herself (p.137). Can she?
- What does Gussie see in Mr. Foster? Why do you think they connect with one another? Mrs. Shayd says that Mr. Foster “pities” Gussie (p. 171). Is this true? Why do men in general seem to connect to Gussie and, in many ways, want to take care of her? (Jack Fisher, Mr. Foster, Mr. Dunn, etc.) How does Gussie view all these men?
- Gussie moves from the lushness of northern Minnesota, with its red pines and lush landscape, to the deserts and ranges of Wyoming. Might this change in landscape indicate what has changed in her? How do you explain Gussie’s deep connection with the land?
- On Armistice Day (p. 183), Mrs. Shayd warns Gussie not to go out to the Armistice celebration, almost as if Mrs. Shayd knows what she herself might do, yet Gussie goes anyway, and then almost loses her daughter. Gussie knows that Mrs. Shayd’s interest in Anne is extreme, so why does she take this risk? How does the historical significance of this day fit into the context of the novel?
- Though she never sees her again, Gussie often thinks of Leota: “In all that wide-open storm, Leota was there with her, traveling, still with her, always. And if Gussie could speak to her mother, she would say, ‘I know. I understand what I’ve done. I did it for you’ ” (p. 193). What does she mean? How does her relationship with Leota affect her relationship with Anne? Why does Anne also leave?
- The novel is filled with so much rich symbolism, but perhaps none more so than the use of the ravens. Discuss their significance in the novel and what they mean to Gussie.
- What is the significance of Gussie’s encounter/friendship with the man Gardelle Jankirk? In thinking about Gardelle, Gussie wonders “if he’d ever find what he was looking for in these mountains.” She could be describing herself. She ponders beginning a relationship with him, “There was room in her cabin for a man smitten with birds.” Why doesn’t she ever marry Gardelle or any of the men she meets?
- When Gussie finally sees Jack Fisher again in 1943, twenty-six years after their first meeting, why doesn’t she tell him about Anne?
- What is Gussie searching for? Does she ever find it? Does it find her?