Sinclair, Bertha Muzzy

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SINCLAIR, Bertha Muzzy

Born 15 November 1871, Cleveland, Minnesota; died 23 July 1940, Los Angeles, California

Wrote under: B. M. Bower

Daughter of Washington and Eunice A. Miner Muzzy; married Clayton J. Bower, 1890; Bertrand W. Sinclair, 1906; Robert E. Cowan; children: four

Bertha Muzzy Sinclair moved to Montana as a youngster, where she gained expertise in ranching and acquaintance with cowboys, which she would later use in her novels. Sinclair lived in the West most of her life; she was married three times and was the mother of four children.

Sinclair wrote nearly 60 Westerns from 1904 to 1940. Her use of initials as a pseudonym led many to assume her works were written by a man. In this guise she was probably the first woman, and certainly the most prolific, to write in the genre of the "formula" Western. Chip of the Flying U (1904) furnishes the basic plot for Sinclair's writing and introduces characters for later works. "The Happy Family," the cowboys of the Flying U Ranch, appear in several subsequent novels and furnish prototypes for others. Chip is the first of many young heroes predictably tall, handsome, taciturn, and, by modern standards, remarkably naive about his emotions. Della, the heroine, is petite and dimpled, and has the tiny hands and feet so admired in the 19th century. Their love affair suffers many vicissitudes before it reaches its foregone conclusion, with intimations they will live happily ever after. Later books sometimes offer more violence and villainy, but in most of the novels the happy outcome is predictable.

Sinclair's detailed descriptions of ranch life in the early 20th century make her books attractive. The habits—down to the typical gestures—of the cowboys are well depicted, from the backhand twist the practiced roper uses to catch a calf to the apparently eternal preoccupation of all cowboys with their cigarettes. The men's affection for their horses is an inevitable part of the Western, but, in addition, the actions of horses often affect the stories, with scenes in which the individual characteristics of horses play a major role. Dialogue especially reflects both the Western setting and the period in which Sinclair wrote. When a man declares his love it is apt to be in terms of a card game: "It's my deal…do you want to know what's trump?"

Characterization of males is, on the whole, weak, with one hero almost indistinguishable from another and supporting characters flat. Sinclair's women, on the other hand, are often accomplished and independent, indicating Sinclair's interest in unconventional roles for women. She introduces two women doctors in Chip of the Flying U, for example, in which the heroine is not only a doctor, she is also a crack shot and brave in the face of danger. Housewifely skills assume little importance in other books as well. In The Five Furies of Leaning Ladder (1935), five orphan girls run their ranch in the face of many obstacles; the one sister who is domestic is relegated to a minor role.

The suffering young mother in Cabin Fever (1918), whose little boy has been kidnapped, is much more interesting than the male hero in this mining story. The heroine of The Heritage of the Sioux (1916) is an Indian. She travels a long distance alone to find the man she loves. Later, when she learns the man she promised to marry has betrayed her friends, she kills herself.

Sinclair's books read like early Western scenarios, and with good reason: the uncluttered scenery and rapid uncomplicated actions of her characters lend themselves easily to film. Several of Sinclair's novels were in fact made into movies. Some books, written in the 1910s, in the early days of the film industry, portray the cowboys forming their own film company and making Westerns in New Mexico.

Sinclair brought a fairytale West to life for her readers. In spite of the realism of her descriptions of Western life and specific details of ranch scenes, Sinclair's description of the larger scene is vague and ephemeral. The background, no matter what state is named, is simply "the West," and her books are typical formula Westerns. There are many weaknesses in Sinclair's writing; nevertheless, her stories are fun—warm and full of humor.

Other Works:

The Lure of the Dim Trails (1907). Her Prairie Knight (1908). The Lonesome Trail (1909). The Long Shadow (1909). The Happy Family (1910). The Range Dwellers (1910). Good Indian (1912). Lonesome Land (1912). The Gringos (1913). The Uphill Climb (1913). Flying U Ranch (1914). The Ranch at the Wolverine (1914). Flying U's Last Stand (1915). Jean of the Lazy A (1915). The Phantom Herd (1916). The Lookout Man (1917). Starr of the Desert (1917). Skyrider (1918). The Thunder Bird (1919). The Quirt (1920). Rim o' the World (1920). Casey Ryan (1921). Cow Country (1921). Trail of the White Mule (1922). The Parowan Bonanza (1923). The Voice at Johnnywater (1923). The Bellehelen Mine (1924). Desert Brew (1924). Black Thunder (1925). Meadowlark Basin (1925). Van Patten (1926). White Wolves (1926). The Adam Chasers (1927). Points West (1928). The Swallowfork Bulls (1928). Rodeo (1929). Fool's Goal (1930). Tiger Eye (1930). Dark Horse (1931). The Long Loop (1931). Laughing Water (1932). Rocking Arrow (1932). Open Land (1933). Trails Meet (1933). The Flying U Strikes (1934). The Haunted Hills (1934). The Dry Ridge Gang (1935). Trouble Rides the Wind (1935). The North Wind Do Blow (1936). Shadow Mountain (1936). Pirates of the Range (1937). Starry Night (1938). The Wind Blows West (1938). The Singing Hill (1939). The Man on Horseback (1940). The Spirit of the Range (1940). Sweet Grass (1940). The Family Failing (1941).

Bibliography:

Reference works:

TCA.

Other references:

NYHT (24 July 1940). NYT (24 July 1940).

—HELEN STAUFFER

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