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Northern Illinois University
Beadle's Half-Dime Library
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Triangles (Interpersonal relations)
Warne, Philip S.
March 20, 1888
Beadle and Adams (1872-1898)
(New York (N.Y.): No. 98 William Street)
The half-dime novel entitled “Lariat Lil, or, The Cast for a Life: a Story of Love and Jealousy” was written by Phillip S. Warne and published by Beadle and Adams in 1888 as part of Beadle’s half-dime library. This quintessentially western story challenges the stereotypical ideas of women in the 19th century West and highlights the disparate views held by men at the time regarding the role of women on the frontier.
After the death of Lil’s mother, her father relocates them to the frontier to benefit her health. There, she learned roping skills and horseback riding, becoming skilled enough to best most men. Enter Bert Brainard: resident tenderfoot gentleman. When Bert arrives in Metropolisville, Colorado, he comes face to face with brief mentions of the famed “Lariat Lil,” but is unable to get any answers at first. When they finally meet at a round-up, it is because Bert defends Lil from the advances of Jim Rankin, rich playboy. From then on, Jim does everything in his power to win Lariat Lil over—and destroy Bert in the process. The half-dime culminates in Jim kidnapping Bert, framing him for robbery and assault, and sending him to his death via log bridge and chasm. Lariat Lil comes to the rescue with her lasso and saves the day, defying gender norms for heroes and securing Bert’s love in the process.
Differing from the typical Western dime novel, gender norms are circumvented and turned on their heads in the story of “Lariat Lil.” While some of the standard tropes are adhered to, others are weakened or displaced altogether. For instance, the main male character is a tenderfoot with no real knowledge of the west and the manners and notions associated with gentlemen from the Eastern states. Bert’s newfound friend, Nate Crosier, keeps tense situations lighthearted with his humor and banter, but does not play much of a role in the plot besides defending Bert’s honor. The typical choice for frontier hero is the cowboy character, but even here, Nate takes the backseat, and Jim becomes the villain—another way that roles are reversed. In typical Western style, the villain would be the outsider or the non-white man. In this case, Jim Ruskin is the anti-hero, but at first glance appears to be a candidate for the opposite. As the story progresses, readers find that Ruskin is possessive over Lil, yet there has been no courtship or any reciprocated feelings on her side. His jealousy and anger lead to injury on Bert’s part, thus creating an enemy of one of the richest and most influential men in the town of Metropolisville, Colorado. His rage goes so far as to influence him to frame Brainard for the theft of Lariat Lil’s father and the assault thereof. The villain of the story then, is the character that many would not expect from a typical western dime novel.
Also defying expectations is Lil herself. Raised in the West, she grew up with the manners and education befitting someone of her station, yet the skills of an established ranch hand. Lil does her best to stand up for herself, but the men in the story (excepting Bert) pay no heed, simply because she is a woman. In the end, it is only due to her instincts and training that Bert is alive and not at the bottom of a chasm. Additionally, Lil and Bert do not have the typical Western love story, where the dainty, feminine woman falls instantly head over heels for the roughened, muscular cowboy. Rather, Bert is instantly intrigued by stories of “Lariat Lil” and he becomes fully smitten at first meeting. Lil initially denies her feelings, but caves as she sees his morals and attitude towards her and her father. With the hero of the story being a woman, this dime novel already circumvents expectations, but taken in tandem with the other twisted tropes and the themes of love and jealousy, this story was unique to Warne for the era.
Phillip S. Warne may not have intended to write “Lariat Lil” in a way that challenges the standard descriptions of gender at the time. It is entirely likely that he simply chose to give Lil a different backstory in an attempt to veer from the norm and sell more dime novels, but in any case, Warne’s depictions of gender roles are questioned. Any assumptions of gender or class are thrown out, replaced by the understanding that women can handle themselves on the frontier. Some generalizations are still in place, but this half-dime novel is an excellent attempt to change the narrative.