Gordy Sauer from Missouri publishes his first book, “Child in the Valley”

Western legends still cast a great shadow over the American landscape.

Whispered stories of good fortune and fame, postcard promises of the great outdoors, loud and silent types strutting across movie screens. All still capture the national imagination; and, no matter when or where you live, they all always conspire to sell us a vision of the American dream, a vision for which we are responsible.

Gordy Sauer knows how the West works on a soul. Growing up, the Texas native absorbed all the tales of fate that fell upon the earth like the rays of a midday sun. After reconciling these stories with actual American history, he brought a Reform perspective to his first novel.

“I never wanted to write a western that glorified the West. I always wanted to think of ‘How could I punch holes in the ball?'” Said Sauer, now a resident of Columbia.

Sauer sketches a more complicated picture of the West through the pages of “Child in the Valley,” released Aug.31 via Hub City Press. He will share the book with local readers on Tuesday in a conversation with novelist and Skylark Bookstore owner Alex George.

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Spoil “the child”

"Child in the valley"

“Child in the Valley” rides alongside Joshua Gaines, a 17-year-old orphan who travels from Missouri to California, fleeing his fractured past – and to the prospects of the Gold Rush.

If the West is the “American version of the fairy tale,” as Sauer put it, then Joshua’s story looks like a Grimm Brothers arc. With gold dust thrown in his eyes, he sidesteps failures that might stop another man, trading more and more of his integrity for another chance at prosperity.

The threads of Joshua’s story intertwine with the darkest fibers of frontier life – greed, violence, and desecration of “the other” – until you can’t pull a thread without unroll them all.

While writing, Sauer wondered how readers might react to an initially likable character who gradually wastes the trust built from the first page.

Bending the sympathies of readers to the point of breaking is an infinitely more difficult task than writing a book full of stereotypes, Sauer said – but it rewards audiences with a thornier, more satisfying story.

He knew where this moral decrescendo would take Joshua; his job was to discover and discern the situations that led Joshua to his destiny.

“All of the fiction is built on disruption – it’s this idea that the way you imagine your life is suddenly out of order, and you can never go back to what it was,” Sauer said. “Stories become the act of dealing with this disruption or not dealing with it.”

Redefining success

Sauer’s own background in disturbance panning is at the heart of “Child in the Valley”. He wrote a first novel during and around his graduate years, only to watch it languish.

Counting, clear-eyed, with what he might have called a failure, he rejected the core tenets of the Choose Your Own “Texans” adventure doctrine, he said.

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He trusted himself, not to satisfy someone else’s definition of triumph, but to overcome disappointment. Sauer preached an important sermon in the mirror: he was not a failed novelist, but a writer with an unsuccessful project.

Accepting this reality gave Sauer everything he needed to refresh his imagination and face the new work that has become “Child in the Valley”.

“I feel like a lot of times in my life the way I envisioned success was not how I succeeded,” he said.

Writers mark their success in several ways; endorsing artists who have shaped your own understanding of craftsmanship is a healthy and lasting move, Sauer said. He received a Texas-sized nod from the late Larry McMurtry, author of “Lonesome Dove” and “The Last Picture Show” series.

McMurtry read the book before he passed away in March and offered this blurb: “Child in the Valley is extremely brutal and haunting, far beyond its subject matter. Gordy Sauer has a bright future ahead of him. “

These words, in a way, ensure the success of the novel even before it finds its audience.

“It was a gift. I don’t know what I did to receive it,” Sauer said of McMurtry’s blessing.

A view of the shelves at the Skylark Bookstore in Spring 2020.

“Open the story”

With “Child in the Valley,” Sauer joins a recent generation of novelists – including Anna North and Hernan Diaz – writing what lies just under the scar tissue of the West. These authors revise American history, not to subvert it but to accomplish it.

Their task is to “open up the story,” Sauer said.

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Joshua navigates his masculinity and sexuality in a way that is often excluded from the Western genre and our biggest stories. Sauer was careful not to “impose” contemporary morals on the book, instead dismissing people and scenes that should have populated our westerns from the start.

Today’s writers “create stories that don’t bring in these kinds of characters, but reveal the spaces these characters have always inhabited,” Sauer added, making a necessary and nuanced distinction.

He is fascinated by “the way the West is reshaped when we recognize it,” he said. Restoring real complexity to our myths is, in the end, an act of compassion – for Sauer’s characters and his readers.

“It was an act of trying to bring membership in the West in different ways than we thought,” he said.

Sauer trained to see the West as it is, and was, on a 2017 road trip retracing Joshua’s path along the 1,600-mile California Trail. Listening intently to tour guides and applying his own imagination, Sauer recognized that much of what he saw – from roads to trees – did not exist in the 1840s.

The West today whispers challenges and questions about the landscape fixed in our eyes.

“For me when we were driving it was this constant process of thinking: what is this environment now? What does this mean for the environment? Sauer said. “The way it plays to me now – how could it be made worse if you took away everything you see?” “

Sauer made a path from what he could and couldn’t see who he might have been, what he might have done, if he had inhabited the time and place of his characters. There was “no guide to explain the action and reaction,” he said.

Realizing this allows writers to unite history and fiction, past and present without intimidating their readers. Sauer cares most about his characters being “just themselves” on every page, every moment, he said.

It is only when they respond authentically, faithfully, that we see and know something about ourselves in light of their stories, he said.

The launch of “Child in the Valley” will take place Tuesday at 7 pm at the Skylark Bookstore. Learn more at www.skylarkbookshop.com.

Aarik Danielsen is the News and Culture Editor for the Tribune. Contact him at [email protected] or by calling 573-815-1731.

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