While recovering from the flu, I finally got around to reading a book I’ve heard about for years. If you’re not from Tiffin, Ohio, you won’t have heard of it, and I’m going to wager that most Tiffinites haven’t heard of it either, but I buy and sell books and I live in Tiffin, so I’ve had lots of conversations about local authors and their books. And this one was supposed to be Tiffin’s Peyton Place, Tiffin’s Winesburg, Ohio, Tiffin’s – well, you get the picture. Airing out the dirty linen and all that.

A Shadow of Our Own by Charles O Locke.

Charles Otis Locke was born 29 September 1895 in Tiffin and died 1 May 1977 in Burbank, California. He was born into an illustrious family, but only if you’re up on local history – it all seems to be slipping into oblivion; even the local librarians looked confused and said, “Who?” At the time of our Locke’s death, however, the local paper devoted more space in his obituary to his famous forebears than they did to poor Charles.

I was looking forward to recognizing local landmarks as I read A Shadow of Our Own, but alas, the Tiffin being described (he calls it Eastgate in the novel) was so far removed from today’s Tiffin that I got halfway through the book before finally recognizing the Indian Maiden statue that still stands down by the river. The river wasn’t even recognizable. That downtown was thriving and had actual stores and actual shoppers. Our current one isn’t. Of course the novel is pre-Walmart, way pre-Walmart, published in 1951, but set during the latter years of the war. It focuses pretty much on a disabled veteran who is having trouble fitting back into the real world.

Still though, it was interesting reading about a more vibrant downtown area. I had to work to picture the train station. I mean, imagine a train station where people actually got on and off trains and went places. Yeah. Hard. I had to ask someone to make sure where that would have been.

And I don’t know exactly what real life families he was writing about, maybe you had to be there. Or maybe I was just led to believe it was more scandalous than it is. I believe the hotel was supposed to be the Shawhan Hotel, which is now a nursing home and is hard to picture as a hotel. I kept picturing scenes that took place in hotel rooms as taking place in nursing home rooms, and having to kick that vision out of my brain. I don’t know if there are any old timers around who would remember the details about the book – asking at the library sure didn’t get me anywhere, although they did find a little booklet by Charles Locke, a nostalgic piece about a little mom and pop shop across from some school he went to, long gone when he wrote the piece, so who knows where it was. I sat in the library reading it and it was a very sweet memory, CL can get a little preachy sometimes, and it had a slow beginning, but I was glad I read it. It was published by the family newspaper business, The Tiffin Tribune.

According to his obit, he attended Tiffin Public Schools, and then Heidelberg College (now University), and then Yale, from which he graduated in 1918. He served in the army during the war (this bit is from his obituary in the New York Times) and then worked on the Toledo Blade as a reporter (his uncle’s newspaper). During the 20s he moved to New York and worked as a reporter and rewrite man for the Evening Post and the Evening World. He wrote lyrics for a musical called So This is Paris and adapted Cyrano de Bergerac into a musical. And wrote scripts for radio plays during the 30s.

According to a biography on Goodreads, he belonged to a local theater group (doesn’t say where but his A-T obit says he lived a long time in Boonton, New Jersey, so perhaps it was there) where he wrote, directed and performed, sometimes in his own plays. He also wrote material for entertainers like Fred Allen and Charles Winninger. He did publicity work at Benton and Bowles, who had clients like Bristol Meyers and General Foods (this bit is from fandango). (I am picturing Mad Men, of course, even though it’s publicity and not advertising….)

During World War II, he worked for the Office of War Information. And according to the Times obit, he also wrote for The World-Telegram and Sun, The New York Post and The New York Herald Tribune.

In 1951 his first novel was published, and that was A Shadow of Our Own. In 1957, the novel that he’s most remembered for was published, The Hell Bent Kid. The Hell Bent Kid was chosen as one of the top 25 Western novels of all time by the Western Writers of America (I was unable to find out exactly when this was, James Reasoner says “a while back” in his blog where he did a piece about the book).

Years ago the local library used to have a folder with clippings about local authors and such and I could swear the was a clipping about Locke when one of his books came out that said he was a screenwriter living in California, but that file is there no longer and if I’m rembering the article right, I could find no proof of it.

That being said, Hell Bent Kid was made into a movie called From Hell to Texas, which I’ve never heard of, but I’m not a western movie person. I looked it up and it stars people I don’t know except for Dennis Hopper. People who are western film buffs seem to think highly of the film, for whatever that’s worth. (Meaning my lack of knowledge, not their opinions.)

Charles Locke wrote 2 other westerns, Amelia Rankin in 1959 and The Taste of Infamy in 1960 and out in the world of the internet, that seems to be all he’s remembered for, which is at least more than he’s remembered in his home town, where he doesn’t seem to be remembered at all.

At the time of publication, New York Times critic Charles Poore praised Locke’s ”gift for sketching believable characters, his deep interest in their motives, their devices and desires.” (for Hell Bent Kid) About Taste of Infamy, Poore said he “gives his novel depth and distinction by showing how many different strands of tragic interest go into an ostensibly united act of retribution.”

Open Road Media (from whom I borrowed Charles Locke’s photo) has the three western books available, which you can buy from Amazon and places like that.

I agree with the Times critic that Charles Locke is big into characterization and motivation, which I generally enjoy. Lots of western fans aren’t so big into it, though; you’ll see plenty of people dissing Hell Bent Kid. I read Hell Bent Kid a long time ago and thought it was a really good book (I am not a western book reader, though), so I have been a Charles Locke fan for a good while. In A Shadow of Our Own he can get preachy at times. He has a scene where the veteran confronts a manufacturer who made lots of money off the war. To his credit, Locke strives to stay neutral, justifying both characters, though the manufacturer is only in the book for that one scene. I’ve read other books (all older) in which they are stridently opposed to anyone who took opportunities to profit from wartime manufacturing. We’re all jaded now, though. We don’t care. Made money during the war while our boys were over there dying? Great. I thought that little passage would never get overwith. I was much more interested in the family dynamics, the three children (now grown) who come back to Eastgate to be at the side of their dying aunt.

And the trying to place events and people and landmarks where they would be in modern day Tiffin. I pictured a certain house – I’m sure I’m wrong, but I couldn’t help it, once it popped into my mind I couldn’t get it out. I could not for the life of me figure out where anyone would’ve gone swimming in the Sandusky river. Did anyone ever really do that? Eww. Of course it’s hard to imagine a time before the ugly as hell flood walls were up (he talks about that a little in the book). Yes, there was a horrible flood. Yes, they’re there for a reason. I’m sure they’ve saved lives. But they sure are ugly. He thought they were, too.

My intention is not to review the book, but I guess I should at least give an overall opinion. I liked it, with a few reservations. I almost abandoned it 2/3 of the way through – it was moving too slowly even for me. The Hell Bent Kid was a much better book. But if you’re the kind of person who doesn’t like introspection and character development, you’re probably not going to like either one of them.

If you have some sort of ties to Tiffin, however, and want to experience a little slice of the Tiffin of long ago, yes, definitely. It’s slow moving, and the scandal part (maybe I misunderstood that part) isn’t very scandalous at all, but it’s a nice book, and I think it would definitely rank in the top 25 on a list of novels that have Tiffin as their settings.

(After mine, of course.)