The Rustler

Written by Frances McElrath
Review by Meredith Campbell

Bittersweet love and tragic range war in 1890s Wyoming enthrall and inform in this tale built upon true facts, the author having been raised on cattle ranches and army posts of the period. Published 1902, the novel earned high praise; however, she never published another. Pity. For she brings to the sweaty, testosterone driven western an educated feminist view of the West.

When Hazel meets Jim, it’s not “love at first sight.” More of an intrigued interest on her part; on his, a wonderment of why he had locked eyes with his boss’s niece, visiting from back East. She notes his “broad shoulders” as he wrestled a cow fallen into a mud-hole. He drops his eyes “bashfully” when, as an invited guest for dinner, he notes how her blue frock flatters her auburn curls and “clear white skin.”

From that proper Victorian beginning the story deviates from formula, becoming a study of how calculated manipulation of another’s heart can bring only pain and, sometimes, shocking consequences. To see if she could, “social actress” Hazel sets out to charm the handsome, shy, “strong” eyed Jim. Texas born and the “best foreman” around, Jim has lived life keeping his thoughts to himself, believing honest ranch work and raising a foundling would suffice for happiness. Hazel draws him into a friendship wherein he bares his soul to her. When he believes she has deceived him, his turn away from decency to embrace outlawry and power takes the story to a strong climax that changes Hazel–forever.