‘The Ox-Bow Incident’: Novel set in 1885 has something to tell us in 2022

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(Graphic by Marshall Sunner | Collegian Media Group)

Over winter break, I sort of got into a Western phase. I started watching the new show “1883,” finished watching the classic “Lonesome Dove” and read Walter Van Tilburg Clark’s “The Ox-Bow Incident.” Of course, that third point is most important for a book review segment. So, let’s dive in!

The story takes place in 1885 around the town of Bridger’s Wells in the western United States. Two cowboys — Art Croft and Gil Carter — ride into the town’s saloon after spending the winter in a cabin. They find everyone on edge as cattle rustlers have been stealing cattle. Suddenly, a boy rushes in telling everyone that Drew, one of the biggest ranchers around, has been killed and some of his cattle have been stolen.

As they question him, inconsistencies come up in his story, and some people think they should first visit Drew’s ranch to verify the claims. Nonetheless, they form a mob that is unsanctioned by the sheriff and, after much debate, ride off to find the men responsible.

What ensues is the battle over following the perceived majority or having the courage to go against it.

Although the book was published in 1940 and takes place in 1885, its themes of law and order, mob rule and standing up for what is right still hold true today. In a world where differing opinions are often shot down and to go against the perceived majority is perilous, there is a lot this story can tell us. After putting the book down, I couldn’t help thinking about many examples in today’s world where it seems people do things because others are doing them or because they want to be “included.”

Of course, my thoughts then turned inward to the too-many-to-mention examples of little to no courage on my part that rose to the surface of my mind. Clark’s story is one that undoubtedly will bring out this response for those of us who have sometimes faltered in the face of challenges.

Timewise, it’s a shorter story taking place over less than two days. In fact, it might not take you much longer than that to read it. Don’t let that deceive you, however, as the story’s complexity will make you think about what Clark is saying long after you place the book back on the shelf.

While it makes you regret the times you did not stand up for what is right, it might embolden you to do just that going forward. I think the best stories make us confront ourselves and grow as people. If that’s the measure of a great book, this one more than fills the bill.

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