Augusta Locke
by William Haywood Henderson

Published: 2007-03-27
Paperback : 432 pages
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With a voice as rich, haunting, and beautifully compelling as the rugged landscape his heroine traverses, William Haywood Henderson tells the story of Augusta Locke, a true American pioneer, tough in spirit and achingly human. Spanning several decades across the two World Wars, Augusta Locke ...
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With a voice as rich, haunting, and beautifully compelling as the rugged landscape his heroine traverses, William Haywood Henderson tells the story of Augusta Locke, a true American pioneer, tough in spirit and achingly human. Spanning several decades across the two World Wars, Augusta Locke provides a window into one woman’s extraordinary life as well as an extraordinary time and place: the American West in the waning days of its exploration. Gussie Tornig was born in 1903 just outside of Ravenglass, Minnesota, the only child of Leota and Brud. But with her awkward appearance, dark hair, and brown eyes, she doesn’t really look like either of her handsome parents. It seems from the moment of her birth that she is an outsider, even in her own family. Uncomfortable within the walls of her family’s cabin, she spends most of her time outside, tracing the flights of the ravens, and the trail of her deceptive father, whom she discovers with another woman. His betrayal is publicly exposed, and Brud is driven from town. Gussie and her mother also leave Ravenglass and begin a new life together in Colorado where her mother marries the well-to-do Frank Locke. Frank is stern and devoutly religious and insists that Gussie, now a teenager, be baptized and conform to his rigid expectations. But on the day of her baptism, still soaking wet from being dunked in the river and wearing the exquisite white dress her mother made for her, Gussie runs off, beginning a lifelong journey to find her freedom and her place in the world. She heads straight into the arms of Jack Fisher, a young man on his way to volunteer in the Great War. In their brief but passionate encounter, Gussie becomes pregnant with their daughter Anne. Jack heads off to war, and Gussie heads north, spending the following years in Wyoming, determined to make her way in the male-dominated West, even with a young child in tow. Known for miles around as a tough hand who’s good with a horse, she drives a rig, carrying supplies across the Great Divide Basin, with Anne always at her side, spending nights together under the stars. Anne grows up to be strong and independent, intimately familiar with the land but also, through the generosity of a friend, with the world of books and learning. But after seventeen years of living the life her mother has chosen for her, Anne yearns for space and independence and leaves to begin her own journey. Gussie is heartbroken and goes on a desperate search to find her; she soon realizes, however, that she has no idea the direction Anne has taken, and she gives up trying to trace her daughter’s path. The years pass, the Second World War begins and ends, and Gussie has settled, alone, in the DuNoir Valley, with her own cabin and parcel of land. The people in Gussie’s life have come and gone, but the earth has been constant, and she has often turned to it for comfort. But now, forty years later, her grandson and great-granddaughter have come to find her, and she welcomes them into her home. While the land has been good to Gussie, has embraced her, there is no solace to be found like the touch of a hand, the sound of a voice, especially those of her own family. With Augusta Locke, William Haywood Henderson has created a moving epic about the American West and an unforgettable portrait of one woman’s refusal to give in or give up, even when faced with the overwhelming obstacles of life alone on the road and the never-ending longings of the human heart.

Editorial Review

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Bomber Basin

Alone in the granite scoop of Bomber Basin, together on a soft patch of alpine sedges, Gussie Locke and her grandson, Hayden, and her great-granddaughter, Laurel, waited for Jack Fisher. They gathered the remains of their lunch, wrapped up the bread and salami. The orange peels had curled into hard little bowls. The afternoon sounds were sharp and clear, carried on the unfiltered sunlight, the reflections from lake and cliffs, ten thousand feet high in the Wind River Range. ... view entire excerpt...

Discussion Questions

1. At the beginning of the novel, Gussie has returned to Bomber Basin, the site of the plane crash. Discuss the significance of this place to her and why she may have felt the need to return.
2. Why do you think Gussie never returns home or ever even tries to reconnect with Leota? “Surely Gussie could go home,” Gussie thinks to herself (p.137). Can she?
3. What does Gussie see in Mr. Foster? Why do you think they connect with one another? Mrs. Shayd says that Mr. Foster “pities” Gussie (p. 171). Is this true? Why do men in general seem to connect to Gussie and, in many ways, want to take care of her? (Jack Fisher, Mr. Foster, Mr. Dunn, etc.) How does Gussie view all these men?
4. Gussie moves from the lushness of northern Minnesota, with its red pines and lush landscape, to the deserts and ranges of Wyoming. Might this change in landscape indicate what has changed in her? How do you explain Gussie's deep connection with the land?
5. On Armistice Day (p. 183), Mrs. Shayd warns Gussie not to go out to the Armistice celebration, almost as if Mrs. Shayd knows what she herself might do, yet Gussie goes anyway, and then almost loses her daughter. Gussie knows that Mrs. Shayd's interest in Anne is extreme, so why does she take this risk? How does the historical significance of this day fit into the context of the novel?
6. Though she never sees her again, Gussie often thinks of Leota: “In all that wide-open storm, Leota was there with her, traveling, still with her, always. And if Gussie could speak to her mother, she would say, 'I know. I understand what I've done. I did it for you' ” (p. 193). What does she mean? How does her relationship with Leota affect her relationship with Anne? Why does Anne also leave?
7. The novel is filled with so much rich symbolism, but perhaps none more so than the use of the ravens. Discuss their significance in the novel and what they mean to Gussie.
8. What is the significance of Gussie's encounter/friendship with the man Gardelle Jankirk? In thinking about Gardelle, Gussie wonders “if he'd ever find what he was looking for in these mountains.” She could be describing herself. She ponders beginning a relationship with him, “There was room in her cabin for a man smitten with birds.” Why doesn't she ever marry Gardelle or any of the men she meets?
9. When Gussie finally sees Jack Fisher again in 1943, twenty-six years after their first meeting, why doesn't she tell him about Anne?
10. What is Gussie searching for? Does she ever find it? Does it find her?

Notes From the Author to the Bookclub

When you start writing a novel, especially a literary novel, you don't necessarily know what it's going to be about. In the case of AUGUSTA LOCKE, I was fishing around for an interesting character after finishing an earlier novel, THE REST OF THE EARTH. I had been writing about Wyoming, both in historical and contemporary contexts, and I was interested in continuing my exploration of the American West. I remembered a woman I'd met in Wyoming's Wind River Valley. When I first saw her, I thought she was a man-she was fairly rough, she wore men's clothing, and she was fixing a windmill. It turned out that she'd lived a fascinating life: she'd worked men's jobs, raised a daughter alone in the wilds of Wyoming, and at times she'd even passed herself off as a man. She was the perfect character around which to build a novel.

At first blush, it seemed to me that AUGUSTA LOCKE would be a novel about gender, but that didn't end up being my focus at all (or at least not consciously). I gave the character of “Gussie” Locke beautiful parents, and the novel began to explore what it might be like for a normal child to live in the shadow of gorgeous parents. How would the child's perception of her parents and their treatment of her affect her character and desires? And then, to continue the theme, I made Gussie's daughter unusually beautiful, which allowed me to replay Gussie's “issues” through another generation.

Eventually, the plot of the novel came to center on the relationship between Gussie and her daughter, with the dynamics driven by differences in education and appearance. Along the way, the novel also explores the majestic, rugged landscape of Wyoming, the loneliness of that landscape, the different types of characters who drift through Wyoming and try to scratch out a living, and the emotional forces that people face when they choose to live in isolation. I also found myself exploring the “home front” during both world wars, plus the underbelly of Prohibition in the West. I was surprised to find myself following some of these paths, but that's one of the joys of writing fiction-you follow the story wherever it leads you.

Writing this novel was a real journey of discovery for me. The process of creating Gussie and her daughter continually opened me to new ideas and understandings about the history of the West and the struggles of women faced with daunting challenges. I hope you find Gussie's life to be an inspiration. And, of course, I hope I've done justice to the real woman who inspired AUGUSTA LOCKE!

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Member Reviews

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  "Beautifully rich descriptions"by Kathy E. (see profile) 11/18/08

The group agreed that the descriptions were great. You could really feel like you were experiencing the west as Gussie did. As a reader you could tell that Henderson was putting his love of ... (read more)

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