Set in Oregon in the early years of the twentieth century, H. L. Davis’s Honey in the Horn chronicles the struggles faced by homesteaders as they attempted to settle down and eke out subsistence from a still-wild land. With sly humor and keenly observed detail, Davis pays homage to the indomitable character of Oregon’s restless people and dramatic landscapes without romanticizing or burnishing the myths.
Originally published in 1935, Honey in the Horn reveals as much about the prevailing attitudes and beliefs of H. L. Davis’ lifetime as it does about the earlier era in which it is set. It transcends the limitations of its time through the sheer power and beauty of Davis’ prose. Full of humor and humanity, Davis’s first novel displays a vast knowledge of Pacific Northwest history, lore, and landscape.
In a note at the start of the novel, H. L. Davis writes, “I had originally hoped to include in the book a representative of every calling that existed in the State of Oregon during the homesteading period–1906-1908. I had to give up that idea owing to lack of space, lack of time, and a consideration for readers. Within the limits set me, I have done my best.” This note, a sort of thesis to the novel, works well to prepare the reader. You should not expect to find a story driven by the plot, but by the characters. So much so that they plot often becomes secondary to the characters, going out of its way to create situations for the protagonist to meet new and different types of people around Oregon. It is a sort of role call of the Oregonian people at the start of the Twentieth Century, with a vaguely disguised plot attached.
The story ostensibly follows Clay Calvert, a shepherd at the start of the story, as he accidentally helps his uncle escape jail and must go on the run, moving across Oregon with various migrant workers and homesteaders, in the meanwhile running into just about every other sort of person imaginable who has set down roots in the state. He meets farmers, killers, mechanics, steamboat captains, and people hoping to get rich in any way imaginable. As soon as the reader starts to become familiar with one group of people Clay is interacting with, he up and joins another. And at several points within the novel, Davis goes out of his way to list the cast of characters (each with a small paragraph of backstory and description) that Clay will be interacting with over the next few chapters. As soon as you’ve just about forgotten a character from earlier in the book, however, Clay manages to run into them again hundreds of miles and in a different direction than they left each other. However, many of these characters, whose stories are only told in a few sentences here and there, provide more interesting stories than Clay Calvert’s story. Clay’s story is more of a vehicle to tell everyone else’s story.
Davis describes the former blacksmith who discovered his new wife was stealing money to pay for her children from a previous marriage. The smith decided he didn’t want to pay for someone else’s kids with his hard work, so he gave the smithy to his wife and left to herd cattle. Another man worked as an axman until he made enough money to follow the traveling carnivals around the state, spending his money until he had run out and had to go back to cutting down trees. Clay meets a Union soldier who spent most of the war shooting people he didn’t like, regardless of what color their uniform was. Clay travels with a man who used to be a hired gun for the mining companies, and meets another man who would get so caught up in the revival fervor that he couldn’t keep a job or a farm on account of dropping it all to follow revival tents across the country.
Through the second half of the book, the plot and characters all move in a similar direction, as people across the state, whose farms and businesses have failed in various ways, begin to travel in large caravans on the roads, looking for work and for a new home. Farmers overcrowd and overwork the land, forcing them to move onwards in search of greener pastures. Small towns are cropping up, hoping the railroad will come their way and make back the money the land developers have spent to create the town. There is a growing restlessness among the people in the novel, and the thought of the railroad, that drives the last half of the book. The wild, unexplored, unmarred places are being tamed, explored, and worn out. The state is on the verge of a sweeping change, a civilization of sorts, with the railroad binding together cities and towns. The age of the small homestead farmer is slowly disappearing, and the people whose farms and money have disappeared are gathering and forming communities and families as they travel around the state, looking for their next home or way of life.
Davis describes the state as being in “upheaval,” and the people are traveling, homesteading, failing, and traveling again. It is in a very real sense the physical embodiment of Manifest Destiny on the last frontier of the West Coast. The last wild places in the country are being tamed and wrestled into submission, and the people Davis describes in his novel are the ones he believes are capable of doing it. Being, as yet, the only Pulitzer Prize winning novelist to hail from Oregon, he also describes the landscape and scenery in gorgeous detail, evoking beautiful and nostalgic pictures in the imagination of a place that, if it still exists today, exists only in patches.
“I killed a man at Gettysburg. I bored him right through the heart, and then I went over to make sure I’d downed him good. He was the colonel of my regiment, and a stuck-up damned nincompoop, and I killed him to save somebody else the trouble. I didn’t bother the rebels. What the use shootin’ a lot of men you’ve got nothing against when there’s plenty on your own side that ought to be shot? Kill off the men you don’t like, no matter what side they’re on, that was the principle I always stuck to. I’ll bet I had more fun out of a battle than anybody else in it. Come to that, I may have done more to put down the Rebellion, too. I killed a power of damn fools, I can tell you that.”
Why you should read it:
While the plot is lackluster at best, the wide variety of interesting characters and their colorful backstories more than make up for the shortcomings. The scenery and settlers (and the settlers at times seem part of the scenery, being so connected with the land) are gorgeously described and brought to life.
Currently reading: Gone With the Wind by Margaret Mitchell