A true-blue Western with cowboys and outlaws so authentic you can smell the gunpowder as you turn the pages…
“McGarrity took great care in reviving the old West with accuracy, citing works on cowboy daily life and important historical characters in his author’s note. Any readers interested in the Western genre will be delighted by McGarrity’s take on harsh frontier life.” --Library Journal
McGarrity says of the sudden popularity of the Western, “I think it’s on the upswing because we need reassuring reminders of something heroic and larger than ourselves, especially in a time when our wars never seem to end, the influence of the rich and powerful never seems to wane, and the vast majority of our citizenry is protected from mandatory national service and sacrifice.”
HARD COUNTRY opens with the death of John Kerney’s wife at childbirth and the murder of his brother on the West Texas plains. Forced to abandon his ranch and leave his son behind, Kerney strikes out to find the murdering outlaws. Follow him west to the post-Civil War territory of New Mexico as he struggles to survive in the face of Apache raids, cattle rustling, hard times and frontier lawlessness. It is both the story of one family’s history as well as the history of America.
McGarrity infuses the tradition of the great Western novel with historically accurate settings and intelligently drawn characters. Drawn from personal writings of pioneers, settlers, cattlemen, and other immigrants who wrote of their experiences, HARD COUNTRY is packed with an honest portrayal of people and the events that set into motion the final closing of the frontier.
As bestselling author David Morrell puts it “HARD COUNTRY is awesome in its scope. There hasn’t been anything like it in quite a while. This is a big story with big characters in a big land,” and bestselling author Douglas Preston writes HARD COUNTRY “transcends the genre, a great and true American novel of the west with immense power, beauty and sweep.” This is a novel that resonates with a hard-bitten, atmospheric reality while celebrating the people and the land of the great Southwest by a writer who knows the land, the people and the law.
A Conversation with Michael McGarrity about Hard Country
As the author of 12 Kevin Kerney crime novels, this book is a departure for you. What inspired you to write Hard Country part one of a prequel trilogy that will follow the Kerney family from the 1870s through World War I?
When I first put Kevin Kerney on the page as the protagonist in my crime novels, I was already imagining his family history back several generations or more. I would conjure up images of his ancestors and speculate about their lives. It helped me define him, and as the series progressed and Kerney grew and developed I knew I would someday have to tell his family’s story generation by generation. I never once entertained the notion of simply writing the back story of Kerney’s life prior to his introduction my debut novel, Tularosa. That seemed too mundane.
Hard Country is in part an epic family saga and in part a true-blue, gun-toting, redemptive Western. How do you describe it?
You’re right that it’s a historical family saga and a Western in the sense of setting and era. The book covers a slice of American history filled with drama and conflict. From the post-Civil War expansion west, the Indian Wars, the growth of the cattle industry, Apache raids, the Spanish-America War, years of devastating drought and lawlessness, periods of economic boom and bust, and the horrors of World War I, readers will hopefully be caught up in the Kerney family’s struggle to survive and endure on one of the most beautiful and sun-blasted landscapes in the West. To my way of thinking, Hard Country is first and foremost an historical novel. What genre best describes it will hopefully become completely insignificant to readers.
What drew people west in the face of so many tremendous obstacles?
What we might view as obstacles and difficulties were often seen by settlers as acceptable risks. Many folks were immigrants attempting to escape poverty. Many were war veterans seeking to build new lives. Others sought riches and power. They were mostly hardy, hardworking, honest, adaptable, intelligent, people, and I wanted to give a fair accounting of them to counter the cliché driven characters that populate so much of Western fiction and film.
What kind of research did you do to enhance and ensure its authenticity?
My research was extensive both in terms of on the ground exploration and historical references and documents. I’ve posted a select bibliography on my website, www.michaelmcgarrity.com that will give you a good idea of what went into it.
One of the richest sources of research came from the personal writings of pioneers, settlers, cattlemen, and other immigrants who wrote of their adventures and experiences in a new land. Many of those books were published privately and were found in restricted southwest research collections, on the shelves of small rural, volunteer-run libraries, or in bookstores that specialized in rare and collectable Western literature and history. They were treasures that helped me bring the world of Hard Country to life.
What element of your research surprised you?
Exploring different versions of historical events sometimes raised questions about what really happened. The recollections of different historical figures didn't always jibe. It made me more and more willing to question “official” history written by the academics. Or occasionally I’d find a strand in some primary source material that raised suspicions about certain aspects of motivation apparently overlooked in other reference materials. It made for some interesting hours speculating about what the truth of the matter
might have been. What I came away with was the rock solid belief that the Western code of standing by a friend no matter what almost always trumped truth.
Your experience as a former deputy sheriff for Santa Fe Country and an investigator for the New Mexico Public Defender’s Office also had to inform Hard Country as well, correct?
They do so mightily. Accuracy and authenticity are vital to good storytelling; otherwise readers get easily pulled right out of the book. I spent a quarter of a century working in the field of criminal justice in one capacity or another and I’ve often said it served as an apprenticeship for my career as a writer. With Hard Country the challenge was learning and integrating what law enforcement in the Southwest was like a hundred or more years ago. That meant gaining insight into the cultural mindset as to how people viewed
the law and justice on the frontier. I learned very quickly that friendship meant more than the rule of law,that most folks were law abiding and civil, and the true test of a man’s character was his trustworthiness.
What other characteristics would you say were part of the new frontier? Why do you think this time period in our history is important to American identity?
Rugged individualism, self-reliance, survival, courage, and resilience played an important part in the expansion of the country. Those traits are now part of an idealized version of whom and what we are, whether true or false. It’s part of a modern mythology.
I also think that physical strength and mental toughness were absolute necessities back in the preindustrial, agrarian world of the great Southwest. We’re a much softer society now. Perhaps we still unconsciously yearn for an identity more directly connected to the land and the rewards of hard, physical
With the popularity True Grit and Justified, the Western genre - or the modern mythology of the Western -appears to be experiencing resurgence. Is it? And why do you think this is?
The Western contains all the stuff of legend and fable about the human drama that holds our interest. The popularity of the genre may ebb and flow but it will live on for generations to come. Right now the Western is on the upswing I think because we need reassuring reminders of something heroic and larger than ourselves, especially in a time when our wars never seem to end, the influence of the rich and powerful never seems to wane, and the vast majority of our citizenry is protected from mandatory national service and sacrifice.
Emma is a strong female character with a fiery independent temperament and a rather “modern” outlook on life that some might find unusual for a woman of that era. Would you say she fairly represents frontier women of her generation?
Insofar that she can hold her own with most men, she is no different from all the women who helped carve a life out of remote and unforgiving places. And much like many contemporary women of the era, she brought a much needed measure of civility, decency, and stability to the raw, untamed land. Her
rebellious streak and unwillingness to be completely bound by convention is somewhat unique for the times, but not unheard of. She’s a real pistol, as we say out west.
What can you tell us about the rest of the trilogy?
One thing I learned from writing Hard County is facing the difficulty of deciding what has to be left out of the rest of the Kerney family saga. There is simply too much local, national and international history that impacts the fifty year span from 1920 to the 1970 that I can’t possibly get it all in. There will be key events that affect the Kerneys: drought, the Great Depression, the arrival of nesters, World War II, the government seizure of the Tularosa, the search for Spanish riches on the Tularosa, and finally Vietnam. Throughout it all the Kerney clan will continue to face hardship, strife and family conflicts, suffer personal losses, and perhaps find love in a world rapidly changing around them.
Michael McGarrity is the author of the Anthony Award-nominated Tularosa, Mexican Hat, Serpent Gate, Hermit’s Peak, The Judas Judge, Under the Color of Law, and The Big Gamble. A former deputy sheriff for Santa Fe County, he established the first sex-crimes unit. He has also served as an instructor at the New Mexico Law Enforcement Academy and as an investigator for the New Mexico public defender’s office.
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