The story of Esther Chambers, an orphan who moves from Chicago, Illinois to Century, Oregon in 1900 to live with a distant cousin, is at the center of Little Century, the debut novel from author, Oregon native and Linfield College professor Anna Keesey.
In Keesey’s novel, Esther leaves the Midwest with a grand vision of Oregon as a new frontier of lush lakes and brilliant green beauty. But she’s startled to find her home isn’t the place she imagined. Instead, it’s the harsh landscape of the high desert, a stark terrain she’s startled to call home:
Before her are miles of gray plain roughened with brush, rising into a blurred olive band of vegetation and other bands of smoke and slate blue too far away to be consequential. And beyond these the three rocky peaks Vincent calls the Sisters array themselves in robes of ice. Esther has never imagined a land so fruitless. Under snow is thin, silky dirt, and under that, rock so rough it catches the leather sole of one’s shoe. It is eerie rock; it has flowed from inside the earth through some unnatural crevice, blackening the landscape like Hades’s chariot. The shrubs are plentiful yet parsimonious, flexible but dry. Here and there, like scarecrows with giant heads, windmills brood over the plain.
Keesey explains to Think Out Loud’s Dave Miller, that, like her protagonist Esther, her first introduction to the Oregon high desert made a powerful impression on her. Keesey remembers thinking, “It’s so different [from my home in Dallas, Oregon]. It smells different; it looks different. It’s dry. It’s really spicy.”
“I really felt like I was on a different planet,” says Keesey. “I’ve always been interested in it.”
In Keesey’s novel, Esther finds herself in the middle of a land battle. Her cousin, Ferris Pickett, is a cattle rancher involved in a turf war with sheepherders in the area. He uses Esther’s arrival to secure more land in town, illegally setting her up to homestead on territory that he hopes to eventually add to his land. As Esther gets to know the land, people and politics of the region, she realizes that life in the small town of Century is far more complicated than it first seemed.
“I wanted to get things right,” states Keesey. As she juggled the historical facts with the narrative, Keesey sought to create a compelling but accurate novel. “What I have happen in the book doesn’t have to be likely. It just has to be possible,” she says.
Listen to the full conversation with Anna Keesey on Think Out Loud.