Thursday, February 27, 2014

Dwellers in the Hills by Melville Davisson Post

Artist: Thomas Moran of the Hudson School, 19th century

I can’t remember how I came to learn about Melville Davisson Post, but something I read somewhere intrigued me (is that vague or what?).  A writer from the early twentieth century, Post is known for preserving the culture of West Virginia at the turn of the last century in his mystery novels. 

His writing has a definite archaic style to it and at first I wasn’t sure I was going to bother finish reading the story.  He is of the “only show never tell” school, which can make it hard at times to figure out what is going on.  Also, I’m really not a fan of writers who think that have to paint every detail of a picture for me.  At one point the first person narrator describes his descent from a mountain on the back of a horse at break neck speed.  I really could not care less how fast the trees whizzed by or how each blade of grass looked, how your horse frothed, or how you felt.  Just tell me that you rode a horse as it galloped down the mountain. That’s good enough for me. I can imagine the rest for myself.

But, at one point near the beginning of the story (I believe it was after the narrator arrived at his destination from the mountain) the characters and the plot provoked my interest.

Quiller, the younger brother of Ward, a cattleman, arrives home to discover that Woodford, a rival of his brother’s is there to claim some cattle that his brother had agreed in a contract to sell to him.  Prices had dropped and Woodford, was demanding the cattle immediately.

With Woodford is Cynthia, a woman who possessed beauty and charm enough to have almost magical powers over Quiller simply because his brother, whom he idolized, adored her.  But here she was, sitting and laughing with his brother’s rival.  Feeling his brother betrayed, Quiller’s admiration for Cynthia is instantly turned to hatred.

Ward is laid up from being thrown from his horse so he is unable to round up the cattle, which are a day’s journey away.  This leaves the job up to Quiller and two ranch hands:  Jud, a giant of a man, and Ump, an old bewizened man with a hunch back. 

Quiller speaks often of his youth and inexperience and at first I imagined him to be a youth of no more than ten or eleven.  As the story progressed I began to gather that he must be a teenager.  This confusion is a result of aforementioned “showing only” strategy.  Since the entire story is told from Quiller’s point of view, the reader has to figure out as best he can what’s really going on from different comments he makes.

Yet, it is not an entirely ineffective strategy because Post does not make Quiller omniscient or objective.  The reader becomes persuaded to believe certain things due to Quiller’s personal prejudices and limited understanding of the bigger picture.  This allows the reader to become as shocked or surprised as the narrator when certain truths are discovered.

After this initial set up begins the story, which is basically a race to get one hundred head of cattle back home in order to sell them before the prices drop, which is why Woodford wants the cattle now.

As challenging as rounding up a hundred cows would be, it is made even harder when Quiller, Jud, and Ump realize that two of Woodford’s men, Lem Marks and Parson Peppers, are ahead of them sabatoging their efforts.  This is the basic outline of the story.  On the way to the cattle and on bringing them back, Quiller, Jud, and Ump have to overcome the hurdles Marks and Peppers throw in their way. 

Even though the formula is transparent, it creates a level of suspense in wanting to know just how the three men are going to get to their cattle and back.  As the story transpires, the reader discovers, through Quiller, that Ward’s accident was due to someone shooting at his horse while he was riding it.  Then the black smith purposely nails corrupt nails into the shoes of their horses to impede their ride and finally, the ferry boat, which is cut loose overnight requires Quiller and the others to force the cattle to swim across a rough river and risk their drowning.

It doesn’t sound very interesting the way I write it, but Post’s descriptive powers do help create a vicarious experience that allows the reader to enter into the story.

The ending is a little strange in that Post seems to randomly throw in the fact that the Civil War is going on, something not revealed until the last paragraph of the book. But then again maybe it wasn’t random.  Maybe it’s supposed to pack a punch and throw the whole story in a new context.  It certainly left me wondering what was really going on after all.

Another aspect of the book is the insertion of old Celtic mythology.  Quiller informs the reader of the lore of the dwarfs, the “dwellers in the hills.”  They made the bridge that the ranch men have to cross at one point.  He gives a little history as to the relationship these hill dwellers had with the people who settled the land.  I’m not sure how the dwarfs fit into the story.  It made me wonder if I was mistaken about the location of the story and if it was not in fact in Scotland.  I suppose the dwarfs made it across the ocean with the Scots who colonized the Appalachian mountains. Perhaps this was a part of Southern culture that I am not familiar with.  I know Southern culture has its roots in English and Celtic traditions from singing to story telling to art.  I just had never heard stories about dwarves. 

Considering the time period Post wrote his stories  I believe that there was more to Southern culture than I realized and can learn a lot from reading his stories.

 Melville Davisson Post


Further information on Melville Davisson Post:

Clerical Detectives

America's Greatest Mystery Writer 


  1. Great commentary on this book Sharon.

    I had never heard of Post. A combination of elements make this sound unique, such as the very detailed descriptions, the Celtic mythology, the slightly unreliable narrator, etc. In my opinion such distinctness is a major part of what makes a book appealing.

    1. Brian: The more I think about the story the more I did enjoy it. One has to get over the antiquated style of writing. I think our modern minds aren't used to it. I can see the story making a great cowboy movie-except you wouldn't have the first person introspection and that is where a great deal of the story's charm lies.

  2. Book Review Request

    “What a delightful book. I will almost certainly revisit this endearing book, and I suspect I shall also remember it well in years to some.”
    ~Lynette Sofras, Smashwords

    Not a good idea to read this in bed when people are sleeping. It is so funny that I was choking down my giggles. It did not take me long to finish this wonderful book. There were no spy stories, magic dragons, werewolves or vampires. There is just Willie growing up during World War 2 with his family.
    I loved this book due to the fact that I could relate to it. As Willie grows up, his viewpoint changes and life changes. The book relates many good stories with moral and family values everyone will appreciate.
    I Don’t Wanna Be an Orange was funny yet touching. I would recommend it to anyone.
    ~ Ailyn Koay

    I Don’t Wanna Be an Orange Anymore
    Hank Kellner

    Growing up in the fictional town of Meadowview, young Willie Watson objects to being required to play the part of an orange in the school play when he is nine and in the fourth grade. But that's just the beginning of his problems. As he continues through elementary school and into junior high school, Willie has to deal with the town bully; Christmas with his relatives; the death of a schoolmate; the loss of his girlfriend; the theft of a fountain pen, and his broken eyeglasses.
    But that’s not all. Willie doesn’t want to eat his peas; take the garbage out; deal with his troublesome kid sister; try to climb the ropes in gym class while his gym teacher harasses him, or have to stay after school until he’s “…old enough to grow a beard.”
    Readers will discover how Willy becomes a member of Brucie’s gang; what happens in the old movie house on Main Street; how feisty old Grandma inspires Willie, and much, much more.
    Included in this book are such chapters as "There Is No Santa Claus," "Oh Captain, My Captain," "The Dog in the Rhinestone Collar," "A Bird's Just a Bird," and "Hey Brucie, Your Sister Wears Long Underwear."
    I Don’t Wanna Be an Orange Anymore contains a wealth of humorous and often touching descriptions of a young boy's fantasies and life experiences as he grows up in a small town many years ago. This coming of age book is suitable not only for young adults, but also for older readers.

    About the Author: Hank Kellner is a retired associate professor of English. He is the author of 125 Photos for English Composition Classes (J. Weston Walch, 1978), How to Be a Better Photographer (J. Weston Walch, 1980), Write What You See (Prufrock Press, 2010), and, with Elizabeth Guy Reflect and Write: 300 Poems and Photographs to Inspire Writing Prufrock Press, 2013). His other writings and photographs have appeared in hundreds of publications nationwide.

  3. Despite your claims otherwise, your description makes this book sound quite intriguing. Though I agree with you on the wordy descriptions - I don't need all those words. I often find myself guiltily skipping over sections like that. :)

    The way you describe the unreliable narrator reminds me of Austen's Emma, which I just re-read. I'm SO familiar with the story of Emma that I know exactly what's going to happen and pick up on all the forshadowings and hints. But I thought it was fascinating how everything was described from Emma's narrow-minded POV. How characters were described as acting in a certain way, for certain reasons. But those reasons, and often the perceived actions, were skewed by Emma's POV. Upon reading the book the first time around, I can see how I might have assumed all of Emma's assumptions were correct. (Honestly, I don't remember. It was a long time ago when I read this book, and that MIGHT have been after I saw the movie.)

    1. Hi Rachel. Thanks for your comments. As a matter of fact, Emma is my very favorite Austin novel. You're right about her prejudiced viewpoint. And it's so very effective. You just want to shake her. Of course, there's satisfaction in knowing she finally sees the light and her poor dear friend marries her good simple farmer in the end. Take care!

  4. I've been reading a few westerns the last few weeks, the book does sound intriguing to me - I often read books I don't agree with, makes me think harder :)

    1. Zohar: Westerns have ever been a favorite of mine, but I am going to read more of Post's books. Even though I'm not used to his style, over all I think they're worthwhile.


I welcome comments from anyone with a mutual interest in the subjects I written about.