Thomas Eidson, St. Agnes' Stand (London: HarperCollins, 2004), 186pp
"I'm going to tell you about a miracle." (pg. 186).
At its core, St. Agnes' Stand is a straightforward classic western. Its characters operate on that simple, honest morality of the frontier - where you do what feels right, what allows you to retain respect for yourself, and where respect is more important than admiration. The main character, Nat Swanson, is the embodiment of this: the classic Western hero, who "didn't look for trouble... but [who] never looked away, either." (pg. 79). He helps Sister Agnes and her group because of his simple code of morality. He could flee easily from the Apache siege, but chooses to help because his conscience would not allow otherwise: "he could leave them, but he could never escape them." (pg. 62). The other characters also have this morality, even the white men who pursue Nat after he killed one of their friends in a fair fight: "They weren't cold-blooded killers. They were simply men who stood up for friendship." (pg. 185). If there is one mis-step by the author, it is that the Apaches' morality is not as coherent. They commit some reprehensible depravities in the course of the novel, but by the end I get the feeling Eidson wants us to respect their meeting with Swanson's group as reconciliation, as a clash between two codes of morality which are not all that different in the end. It does not convince and is perhaps the only weakness in the novel.
Indeed, the novel itself is a great piece of storytelling. The pacing is good and the language is clean and bracing, so that I read the entire book in one sitting without once feeling bored or fatigued. Some of the plot pivots seem improbable, such as the outstretched arms of the nun on page 86 and the stormy waves on page 166, and Swanson has that Hollywood-movie-trope tendency to keep fighting and shrug off even a broken arm, a bullet in the leg, etc. But the events never make the reader scoff and they don't veer into deus ex machina territory, although it does occasionally teeter on the edge. Eidson leaves it ambiguous about the hidden power behind the course of events; one may see God's hand in the group's 'miracle' of deliverance, but His hand never moves clumsily or obviously, and one can enjoy the novel whilst swatting It away (as I chose to do). Overall, the story is a classic throwback western when men were men and the world was black and white, not shades of gray. It makes for a quick, pleasing and refreshing story which I would recommend.