Assaying The Mother Lode:
Frederick Manfred's Katherine King

King of Spades, by Frederick Manfred

If we do not consider The Manly-Hearted Woman as one of the Buckskin Man Tales, then King of Spades[1] was the last book written in the series, although the period covered in the novel makes it second-to-last historically. Readers have been disappointed by this conclusion to the series, which some consider one of Manfred's weakest works.[2] Some critics have attempted to explain the book's lack of realism by arguing that it is a deliberate parody of the "dime novel" genre.[3]

Dancing Badger

Author's Note Note

None of Manfred's work is in print. The coming release of a mini-series based on his novel Riders of Judgment may change that.

Manfred himself has spoken lovingly of the book on more than one occasion, always emphasizing the work's personal significance ("I soared higher and dove deeper in that book than in any other," he said in an interview). In his own introduction to the Gregg reprint, he emphasized the "magic" of writing King of Spades: "It was as if I was possessed by a Better Writer, as if some kind of Holy Hand were guiding my hand. This was especially true after Erden appeared on the. scene. Nights when I went to bed I couldn't wait until the next morning to find out more about what was happening" (xi).

My own friendship with Frederick Manfred began upon a disagreement about this difficult, in many ways unlovely, book. As an undergraduate at Colorado State University I discovered Manfred's books and consumed the Buckskin Man Tales as fast as I could get my hands on them. I bought King of Spades–one of my first purchases of a real hardback novel–as soon as it appeared. I read it in one sitting, but was vastly disappointed, even at times contemptuous of the book's failings, until I reached that last, eviscerating question: "When a son's blood is finally spilled, which mother weeps most? The stallions" (304). I recovered from the wallop of that sentence, and I wrote Fred a letter berating him for the novel's weaknesses. My annual Thanksgiving list still includes gratitude that Fred responded amiably to my criticism. We initiated a correspondence and a friendship that I cherish and respect. But I have to admit that I still don't like this book as much as I wish I did, even now, after seven readings and thirty years of living, thinking, gnawing about its edges.

King of Spades is the transitional novel that moves the action of the Buckskin Man Tales from the Minnesota/Iowa region Manfred calls "Siouxland" to the "real West" beyond the hundredth meridian. Scenes take place in Cheyenne, Wyoming, and the bulk of the novel is set in Deadwood, South Dakota, in the sacred Black Hills. The novel also moves the thematic substructure of the series from a biblical to a socio-political base. The novel is programmatic in structure, too self-consciously pulling themes and ideas together. It is a book about love, though no more so than Scarlet Plume or The Manly-Hearted Woman. The prose dances at times, but with the rhythm and rough beat of a frontier clog; sometimes it soars, but those flights are intermittent. It is not a great book–certainly not even among Manfred's best–but it is a rewarding book, and a necessary one, needed to color and complete the mosaic of the Buckskin Man Tales.

Any discussion of the novel's plot must be prefaced with a synopsis, to avoid confusion as characters take on new names and aliases. A few years prior to the Civil War, Magnus King, son of English immigrants Alan and Henrietta, meets, falls in love with, and marries Katherine Rodman while he is in medical school. Their son, Alan Rodman King, is born soon after Magnus sets up practice in Iowa; Magnus delivers the child prematurely by Caesarean section and probably spays his wife in the process. Their marriage falls apart emotionally a few years later, when the boy is still an adolescent. Finally Magnus shoots his wife. He empties a pistol at her, apparently killing her, then is shot himself by their son Roddy.

When the story picks up ten years later, Roddy has assumed the name Earl Ransom, having forgotten his real name and his past. Manfred does not tell us explicitly that Earl and Roddy are one and the same person, but the hints are so blatant that he cannot expect us to fail to grasp the fact. Ransom falls in love with Miss Katherine, the manager of a Cheyenne brothel called the Stinging Lizard, not knowing that she is actually his mother (who, it turns out was not killed). Once again, the hints are too broad to suggest that we are supposed to be surprised when this fact comes out at the end. They become intimate and set up housekeeping. Ransom goes to the Black Hills. Prospecting for gold, he meets Erden Aldridge, a white girl raised by Indians, and falls in love with her. But Erden leaves him after he betrays her confidence about the location of an enormous gold deposit. To his dismay, Kate joins him in Deadwood and they take up where they left off. However, she comes to realize the truth about their relationship and then refuses to make love with him. In a fit of rage, Earl kills her, truly this time, also shooting her six times with a pistol as her father had; and at his trial Magnus reappears in time to identify both lovers. When Earl learns he has been physically intimate with his mother, he commits suicide.

When Manfred speaks of King of Spades he emphasizes the power and beauty of the Erden passages, Earl Ransom's idyll in the Black Hills. The young Erden is a white girl adopted and raised by a Sioux couple after the death of her parents. Her contribution to the novel is to abide in an Edenic fantasy which she shares for a brief time with Earl, an idyllic time when animals trust and help her, and an almost mythic place where she lives in solitary communion with nature. Earl sees her as the virgin he should have remained pure for, spouting Victorian platitudes about waiting for the right woman. His point of view is not necessarily that of Manfred, however. Earl insists on equating purity with sexual abstinence and is deeply embarrassed by Erden's sensual desires; his Victorian morality is a source of tension in their relationship and his Victorian values impel his abandonment of Katherine some time later. Though Erden is an interesting character, particularly for her contribution to the structure of the series as a whole, I would like to examine the other face of the love theme, the damanged beauty of Katherine Rodman King, the unacknowledged heroine of King of Spades and the most feminine, if not the most feminist, white woman in the Tales.[4]

Unlike Erden, Katherine Rodman was brought up in a context of Victorian mores by an aunt whose advice about sex was to "bear in mind that out of this animal passion can rise a mighty and pure love, which is to the other what the delicate flower is to the unsightly tuber," and that "two or three indulgences may be looked upon as within the proper bounds of propriety" (11). She is a rebel against those mores already, at thirteen, already deflowered when her aunt offers her advice. It is tempting, especially with the support of Manf red's own feelings about Erden, to take Katherine as a neutral or even negative element of the plot. If we identify with her husband, Magnus King, then we share his feeling that she is the cause of their marital troubles.

Frederick Manfred

Frederick Manfred

But we are not to identify with him; we cannot. During Earl's trial, Magnus describes his early behavior in Sioux City as insane (29l), confirming our own perception, as we watched the first attack on her unfold, that she did nothing to provoke it. Earl Ransom, Katherine's second husband, and lover of both women, contrasts Katherine with Erden, with Katherine losing on every count. But many of the things he now abhors in Katherine, such as her sensuality, he refuses to see in Erden's character. For all of Ransom's criticism, there is more similarity than difference between the two women, and Katherine is the most sane and complete character in the novel and, finally, the plot's most innocent victim.

The reader is set up to dislike Katherine, especially any reader familiar with her literary antecedents. She is, like Catherine Earnshaw of Wuthering Heights, a creature of passion in a passion-rejecting world. She shows none of her namesake's destructive side, however. More significantly, she bears both the name of and considerable biographical similarity to one of the most unrelievedly evil characters in American literature, Cathy Trask of Steinbeck's East of Eden. Like that Cathy, she goes from a failed marriage concluded in violence to managing a brothel and like her, she makes no apologies for her profession and yet becomes inactive sexually, selling not her own body but the bodies of other women. Like Cathy Trask, Katherine becomes an unavailable mystery woman, without a past or present, without a name, but implicated with the boy who discovers her, in ways that neither of them can anticipate.

But Kate of the Stinging Lizard is not Cathy of Miss Kate's. Her brothel in Cheyenne is different from the whorehouse in Monterey where, Steinbeck suggests, the specialty du jour is depravity and perversion, the norm savage exploitation of both whore and john. Katherine's Stinging Lizard offers a necessary frontier service, the sexual companionship so scarce in a predominantly masculine society. The girls at the Stinging Lizard don't cater to strange tastes, nor are they ruled with threats, blackmail, and cruelty. The Stinging Lizard's girls are forbidden close attachments with their men, but the reason is strictly practical and at least one girl does marry out of the house. Failure to enforce this rule can be blamed for the tragic incident that pushes Kate and Earl together, the killing of Sam Slaymaker and Horses.

Cathy Trask becomes a madam by murdering her benefactor, Faye, after being willed ownership of the house; Katherine King is elected manager by the other girls because of her maturity and business sense. Cathy chooses her profession because it offers an excellent opportunity, to a turn-of-the-century woman who wants to wield power over men and has no scruples: she is a man-hater, and her sensuality is not a healthy physical lust but the vampiric hunger of a succubus. (Steinbeck refers to her as a creature born "without a soul.") Katherine King has amicable relationships with men. She has physical appetites, but she refuses to use her own body for "business."

Ransom disapproves of Kate's establishment in Cheyenne, but he couches his complaints in the simplistic terms of his culture, exercising a prudishness that is in fact just pious hypocrisy. Kate herself emphasizes that her girls choose their life and are treated well, cared for and protected, that they are good, kind women (245). She insists that she has not been a whore herself, and this is confirmed by others. For all the sensuality of her nature–sensuality upon which her marriage was founded, built, and ultimately foundered–she remains celibate during the ten years between her separation from Magnus King and the arrival of Earl Ransom. In her conversations with Earl, she insists that she has only loved one man in her life, and that until she met Earl she had kept herself untouched, in hopes that her beloved would return. Even as she seduces Ransom into giving her his virginity, she talks of her continuing love for her husband (119). In her lovemaking, she relives her intimate conversations with Magnus, even calling the youthful Ransom "daddy husband" and "my King" (120). Later she pensively compares Earl with Magnus, saying nothing, but so clearly thinking of her husband that Earl is jealous (125).

Katherine, like Erden Aldridge, is a sensual woman. Erden has the natural sensuality of the Indian people who raised her; Katherine has come by hers through a recognition and affirmation of needs which her Aunt Agnes, speaking for white, Victorian society, has urged her to repress. Her relationship with Magnus in the first section of the book is love based on sensual desire, and the disintegration of their relationship is caused not by changes in her but by changes in Magnus, dissatisfactions revolving around a series of problems–his accidental sterilization of his wife during the Caesarean, the Oedipal tensions of sharing a small house with a male child, the failure of his career.

Like his own father Alan, Magnus complicates his problems with the consolations of alcohol; and, as in his father's case, Magnus's ship never comes in. His despair finds expression in jealousy over the affection between Katherine and their son Roddy, the boy who will become Earl Ransom. Magnus kills their marriage, though not Katherine's love for him, because his own sensuality has become poisoned and perverted. As their sexual relationship dissolves, he imagines a rival lover and finally, with no evidence but his drunken fantasy, and in spite of the assurance of other townspeople that Kitty is faithful, he shoots her six times, the shots wild and, it turns out, not fatal.

Katherine is a pure, untrammelled female, the first natural white woman in the Buckskin Man Tales, a woman of great potential not only in the context of her marriage to Magnus King, but in the context of the. development of the feminine principle in the Tales, of feminine sexuality lost to the place with the passing of the Indians. Unlike Judith Raveling of Scarlet Plume, Katherine King does not find sex disgusting; like Judith's friend Mavis, she revels in her sexuality, but without Mavis's sense of guilt. The rich affirmative lust that Judith must be led–in fact, bullied–into comes as naturally to the young girl that Magnus married as to the white girl lndian-raised whom Earl Ransom finds in the Black hills. Not Indian-raised, Katherine is enough like the Indians that the Yanktons near Sioux City become her friends. Her midwife is one of them, Gooseberry June, who flees in horror when Magnus performs the Caesarean of Ransom's birth but returns, a few years later, to nurse Katherine back to health after the shootings.

Prior to her sterilization, Katherine partakes of the most basic feminine nature. Her dissimilar eyes serve as symbols of the duality of the primitive female; as she lay in labor, "an old dark mother squirmed in final agony in her brown eye; a fuzzy-legged maiden danced a dance of picnics in her green eye" (19). By destroying her uterus, Magnus cuts off her potential as a mother and makes her only child so important to her that conflict between her and her husband is inevitable. She is a good mother, a better parent than her degenerating husband can be–a man so insecure in his manhood that he can be driven mad by the natural love between mother and son. Having sterilized the mother in Katherine, when he shoots his wife he kills the maiden in her as well. It is no accident that the eye he shoots out is the green one, that of the "fuzzy-legged maiden." and there is more to it than simply leaving the brown "mother" eye for Ransom to destroy a decade later (257).

Magnus tries almost consciously to destroy Katherine as a female. Katherine is attractive to him because of her amorousness, but it is her very sensuality that he chooses to attack and use as a weapon against her, accusing her both of infidelity and of an unnatural affection for her child. The implication is schizoid but clear, and familiar–a sensual woman is evil, but very attractive. Ransom applies precisely the same logic to his feelings about Katherine and Erden; each woman approaches him in simple animal lust, and he responds to each but then feels guilty, sullied by his own lust and repulsed by theirs.

Katherine can't win. Her sensuality is at once her great attraction and her "vice" in both lovers' eyes. Her natural mothering instinct helps drive Magnus mad. There is nothing unnatural in her relationship to Roddy. As her reaction much later demonstrates, when she realizes that Earl is her lost son, she is horrified by their violation of the incest taboo. It is Roddy's father's rage, his growing violence and insanity, that troubles the boy, not Katherine's alleged maternal excesses. After she is dead, having lost both her son and Magnus to his insanity, and then to lose her second lover–that son returned–to the same sick self-contempt, after she has died in a grim reprise of Magnus's attack on her ten years before, when her body lies in a wooden coffin, Exhibit A in the slapstick kangaroo court convened to hang Earl Ransom; then Magnus returns and offers his judgment on the tragedy. But we are not to take his word as authoritative.

He would have us believe that he learned from his pain, which he calls a great teacher. He may have learned and grown, but his understanding of how things were before he shot his wife is still flawed with self-serving misconception. He half-acknowledges, standing by her coffin, that she was not unfaithful to him, that there was no lover in Sioux City, but he qualifies his confession: "I once went off my rocker too. Mentally. Went berserk. In Sioux City. I accused my wife of infidelity. When she probably wasn't guilty at all," he says (291), his "probably" a reluctant admission that there was no evidence against her. He admits to jealousy, but insists there was provocation: "When a son gets over into a father's territory, you know, sits in his armchair at the head of the table sometimes, there's bound to be a clash someday" (292).

Magnus left Katherine after she refused to file charges against him. He set out to find their son, so he could tell the boy "that he never did have a debt of blood against me. Nor I against his mother" (293). Standing unknowingly at Katherine's coffin, his patriarchal arrogance allowed him to "absolve" his son of "guilt" for having shot him to protect the mother he was apparently trying to murder. And he offers more self-serving explanations: "I didn't really want to kill her . . ." He says. "I was a dead shot in those days and . . should not have missed her," (296). And finally, at height of arrogance, he absolves himself of "blood debt" to Katherine, who received no weregild for her suffering. Magnus emphasizes that he has no interest in finding her, the wife who remained faithful to her love for him until she met a young man whose resemblance to Magnus won her heart; he is only interested in finding his son. He offers no regrets for what he did to Katherine, and when he learns that it is she whom Earl has murdered in an insane rage, all he can do is acknowledge that it is not his son but he himself who is responsible for her death. And even this he does not so much in confession as in an attempt to lessen the guilt of their son.

Katherine is as tragic a figure as the novel can offer–totally sane, completely innocent of wrongdoing, and the victim of first her husband's, then her son's madness. Magnus assaults the mother and destroys the loving girl; Ransom finishes the job by killing the mother as well. Katherine's sin of incest is committed in complete ignorance, and she even resists falling in love with Ransom, meaning to remain celibate till she finds Magnus. Seeing her husband reflected in Earl's face and demeanor, she falls in love with this younger version of her husband (she believes Earl to be five years older than he is), loving also the boy he could be if he were young enough to be her lost son. Her lovemaking is a mixture of mothering and child-lust. As she becomes more passionately involved with Earl, she becomes more and more a child, playing with him, calling him "daddy husband." She loves him, as she loved his father, and part of the horror of their last moments together is the recapitulation of the anger and frustration, the drinking, accusations and violence, even the language that accompanied the disintegration of her first marriage.

Earl Ransom is Magnus King's son in the most meaningful sense–his character is shaped by his father's insanity and his life is a recapitulation of Magnus's. Like Ransom's, Magnus' s was a mother-destroying birth. Henrietta King was "torn inside" (4) by Magnus when she gave birth to him, so that she could have no more children, even as Magnus's Caesarean sterilized Katherine. Alan King was a dismal failure who died drunk in a gutter, leaving Henrietta and her son to fend for themselves. Ransom and Magnus are both crack shots. Magnus was twenty-one when he married Katherine; so was Ransom when he took up with her. The most important set of parallels, however, is that which connects the three main female characters in King of Spades–Henrietta King, Katherine Rodman King, and Erden Aldridge.

Henrietta is a stable, hardworking mother, shackled with a pathetic, immature husband whose primary ambition in life is to inherit his wife's family's English title and estate. Upon her death, her son Magnus moves on to marry the thirteen-year-old Rodman girl, a child in everything but sexual awareness, a "honeypot" for his lust, young and passionate–too young to mother a child and too passionate, it turns out, for her husband's taste. Katherine grows as a woman while her husband degenerates into a creature ruled by suspicion and self-despite. By the time Magnus acts on his suspicions and shoots her, she is the mature adult, her husband the petulant child.

When we see her again, ten years later in Cheyenne, she is even more an adult, house mother to a bordello but admired and respected–and coveted–by the men of the town. It is her fast thinking and level-headedness that saves Ransom after he kills a man in the brothel, and the more we see of her, the more we come to admire her maturity and independence. She is the transitional figure of the three women, growing from woman-child to adult, from a white Erden to a new-generation Henrietta. Erden is a sensual child like the young Katherine, trained in her unself-conscious sexuality by her Indian upbringing. Like Katherine, she enjoys lovemaking, for her a normal, essential part of human existence.

Earl Ransom recapitulated Magnus's progress from mother to wife, with the entangling complication that for Earl Katherine is both mother and lover. This is not to say that there is ever a conscious incestuousness about the love affair between Katherine and Earl. He is amnesiac and drawn to her by things we recognize as childhood memories, though he does not: the scent of puccoon perfume, the shape of her foot . Like Oedipus Rex, King of Spades gives the reader immediate warnings–hints is not a strong enough word–that Earl is Roddy, and Miss Katherine his mother,[5] but the information we have unavailable to them, just as we know things, sitting in audience of a Greek tragedy, unknown to Oedipus and Jocasta. Manfred has made the point both in the novel (299) and elsewhere[6] that the thirteen years' difference in their ages would not be apparent. Although Ransom's sexuality is a boyish thing, pure footwashing Platonism mingled with a pathological disgust for physical sensuality, he does not consciously think of Katherine as a motherly creature, nor does she. She perceives herself as younger than she appears to be, and him as older. Even Magnus, seeing the boy ready to hang, think him someone five or ten years older than his son.

It is only when he makes love to Erden that Earl begins to think seriously about the difference in age–not between himself and Katherine, but between Erden and Katherine. Erden is fourteen, roughly the age katherine was shen she gave birth to Roddy/Earl. He and Erden are seven years apart, just as Magnus and Katherine were eight. But nearly twenty years separate the two women,[7] and Katherine suffers the commonplace fate of the older woman when Earl compares them. She gets no credit for being mature, for being an experienced and imaginative lovemate. What matters is a certain tightness in the facial skin, a slackness of the abdomen, a dulling of the color of the hair–in a word, age. Youth and virginal innocence are Erden's virtues, even though Earl's perception of the nature of that innocence is skewed by his Victorian prejudices. He perceives her as "innocent" is spite of her demonstrative sensuality (at one pint, fed up with Earl's insistence on "sleeping as brother and sister," innocent Erden places Earl's hand rather pointedly on her vulva–182).

Love knows no contracts, nor concerns itself with justice; those are matters that duty must attend to. Yet, there is a terrible injustice in Ransom's gradual desertion of Katherine, an injustice we tend to ignore because knowing they are mother and son, we know that their relationship is doomed. And there is a terrible irony in the platitudes of revulsion mumbled by Ransom's judges while he stands condemned for her murder on the hangman's tipsy hogshead: "Any son who has known his own mother carnally–why! such a son can never be expected to love another woman ever," says prosecuting attorney Clifford Maule (298). "He who has slept with his mother has had it all!" "Tilling his father's soil." Ransom, having tasted pleasure with Erden, gives all that the lie in his abandonment of Katherine.

Maule's curse indeed. Poor Katherine. Sinless as Christ himself, who died as she did at thirty-three, she loses her first family in the violence of an insane husband, then is slain by the second man she loved. Known carnally by her son, she was not the "all" of male incestuous fantasy; that son cast her aside for another woman. Having given her all twice, she was rejected by both men, even by the son, who found "soil" he preferred to his father's, for all Maule's platitudes. She deserved better of the universe she lived in. She deserved better than to end as an exhibit at a madman's murder trial, a scarred and mutilated corpse lying ignored while men mutter their worst fantasies and wail over their sins of commission and omission against each other. Katherine Rodman King may well be the only rounded, mature, and complete white female in the entire Buckskin Man Tales, the only worthy counterpart for the heroic Cain Hammett of Riders of Judgment. Like Cain, she is murdered; and like Cain's, her death brings a major theme of the Tales to a dark conclusion. Nothing could prove more graphically than her fate that the West, both in myth and reality, is hard on women.

—Mick McAllister

Essays on Western American Literature Top Book Reviews [mainly]

Go to Powell's Books
Search for copies of
King of Spades at Powells,
your best used book resource.

In Association with