Book Review: Benjamin Capps’ The Heirs of Franklin Woodstock

by Kathy Waller

George Woodstock received the peculiar phone call on his sixty-sixth birthday. . . He let the phone ring twice, then answered, “Woodstock Machine Shop.”

It was Helen’s voice. “Clara called, George.”

“Where is she?” 

“Your sister. She’s out at Woodstock where she always is. Your papa has escaped from the nursing home.” . . . 

“What in the hell does escaped mean? Did you ask any questions? . . .  Have they put up a fence for patients to climb over? Or did he tunnel out? Did he wound any guards? I thought Papa was in a nursing facility.”

“Please don’t be snotty, George. I’m only telling you what Clara said. I said you’d call back.”

According to Best Mystery Novels, mysteries must meet certain criteria: there must be a puzzle; a detective or protagonist who sets out to solve the puzzle; suspects; clues; red herrings; hidden evidence; gaps in information; and suspense.

The Heirs of Franklin Woodstock  isn’t classed as a mystery.  It’s “general fiction.” Literary fiction. It isn’t shelved  in  bookstores and libraries amongst the Christies and the Hammetts and the Chandlers.

Author Benjamin Capps is famous for his award-winning historical fiction, realistic novels set in an Old West lacking the romance of pulp fiction. He didn’t write mysteries.

But based on the criteria laid out above, The Heirs of Franklin Woodstock is a mystery. On page one, the puzzle is laid out: ninety-one-year-old rancher Franklin Woodstock has “escaped” from the nursing home and is missing. And protagonist George Woodstock sets out on the three-hour drive from Fort Worth, northwest to the town of Woodstock, near his father’s seven-thousand-acre ranch, to find out what’s going on. (Clara, the sister who called, is known in the family as “a dingbat.”)

George’s investigation begins in chaos. The sheriff says they don’t usually find missing persons, just bodies they then identify by going through the files. He has two deputies out looking and will call in more searchers–George offers to help with expenses if necessary–but that’s about all his office can do.

At the Goodhaven Nursing Home, George asks the nurse at the front desk if she has a clue as to what his father might have been thinking in the days before he disappeared. She has a ready, and vehement, non-answer:

“I’m trying to bring the charts up for the next shift,” she said. ” . . . Now, sir, I would like to tell you what is charted again and again about Mr. Franklin Woodstock: Stubborn! Will not eat boiled and mashed carrots. Stubborn! Will not accept bath. Stubborn! Will not let aides assist in toilet. Stubborn! Tries to pinch aide or nurse. Stubborn! Will not lay as asked in bed. Stubborn! Pulls out feeding tube. Stubborn! Broke injection needle. Stubborn! Will not swallow boiled and mashed vegetables. Stubborn! Spits out pills.”

Asked the same question, the ward nurse sticks out a hand: “See that thumb? That knuckle! That’s  where a patient bit me. Just bit me on purpose.  . . .  She’s only got about seven teeth and she sunk every of them into my thumb.”

The Director of Nursing speaks more formally, but her only specific reference to George’s father is that a nurse was fired because she was discovered  bringing him food from home–ground broiled steak mixed with mushroom soup and thermoses of cold beer.

At the Woodstock ranch, George finds a haven in the person of Izzy, housekeeper, cook, compulsive gardener, canner, egg gatherer and churner of butter, and mother to everyone, although she’s probably no older than George. Izzy’s son Juan, who’s always gone by the name of Johnny Woodstock, is, as always, doing the practical–heading out on horseback with tenant-cowhands Buck and Slim to search for their employer. Johnny knows the ranch nearly as well as Franklin does.

Then the phone calls begin, and the six-hour round-trips to the airport in Fort Worth to pick up siblings and to try to keep his small machine shop afloat.

So the suspects gather. With plans. And motives.

Walter, a New York businessman with a degree from Harvard Business School, sees an opportunity to subdivide five thousand acres for an exclusive community, “no low-class people.” With his experience, of course, he’ll head up the project. That Chicano Johnny is good enough for punching cows but using a computer and managing a huge enterprise? Maybe he graduated from high school. Walter has also hired a private detective to find Papa, no matter how far he has to go or how much it costs.

Irma and her evangelist son Wilbur propose a different idea: The ranch will become Noah’s Ark, a combination religious retreat that will attract famous preachers, and a place of safety where every resident will be armed, a thousand rounds of ammo for each rifle, seeds, chainsaws, experts who can fix windmills and water pumps, animals two by two . . . because Russia, or somebody, is preparing to drop the Bomb. They’ve thought it out to the nth degree. Papa was a Born Again Christian and would have approved. Wilbur will probably be the first president, receiving a modest salary of $60,000. Irma had suggested $100,000.

Clara seems to want only to spoil her grandchildren, and Clarence, with a Ph.D. in literature and teaching in California, seems only to want to sit up all night with George, sharing several six-packs and talking old times. But Frank, his geologist son, believes the ranch sits on deep oil wells that could be profitable.

During George’s long drives between Fort Worth and the ranch, we learn a lot about Franklin Woodstock. He hasn’t always been “stubborn” or “Born Again.” He’s been a hard worker and a shrewd manager, starting with nothing and acquiring land and cattle, building “the Old Place” and later a large house, adding stock tanks and windmills, working alongside his hands in every endeavor. He has raised a family and sent his children to any school they wanted. When Clara’s grandson, Homer, who is “different,” is expelled from third grade for arguing unintelligibly with the teacher because he doesn’t want to sit down, and then (it is assumed) keeps breaking into the school library and stealing books (which are always returned), Franklin somehow smooths things over and starts building a library in his own home; the break-ins cease. Homer can’t read but seems to think if he could , he would understand what everyone else does.

Franklin Woodstock is the best man George has ever known.

We learn a lot about George, too: a surveyor with the CCC, a navigator who flew forty missions over the Pacific in World War II, an assistant engineer with the U. S. Army Corps of Engineers, a machinist and tool-and-die maker. He’s a man  with a high school education who wants to work with his hands, and he’s good at it. His father respects that and has promised him $100,000 to expand his business–a loan, not a gift. But with nothing on paper, and no witnesses to the promise, George doesn’t know whether he’ll get the money. And he feels guilty for even thinking about it.

He’s also worried that his siblings are behaving as if Papa is already dead. Walter says they can have him declared so. Walter is determined. Who knows what the others will agree to?

Although the active characters are the heirs of Franklin Woodstock, the old man holds the novel together. He’s missing. Is he dead or alive? Will they ever know?

What happened to Franklin Woodstock? There’s the mystery.

There are, of course, clues, red herrings, hidden evidence, gaps in information, suspense–all of the other basic criteria. But it would be a shame to share too much here.

As they say in fourth-grade book reports, if you want to know what happens, you’ll have to read the book.

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A word about the author:

Benjamin Capps was born in 1922 in Dundee, Archer County, Texas.

At fifteen, he entered Texas Technological College in Lubbock but left after a year to work in the Civilian Conservation Corps and then as a surveyor in the U. S. Department of Engineering. As a navigator, he flew forty missions over the Pacific in World War II. He received two degrees in English and journalism from the University of Texas and taught at Northeastern State College in Oklahoma. But teaching didn’t allow him time to write and drained his creativity. He became a machinist and tool-and-die maker before becoming a full-time writer. He lived in Grand Prairie, Texas.

In “Benjamin Capps Papers: A Guide,” (University of Texas Arlington Special Collections), it notes that,

According to Capps, his writing’s aim is to be authentic and “to probe the human nature and human motives” involved in his stories. His works are painstakingly researched for historical accuracy and generally explore lesser known facets of the American frontier. 

Three of his books won Spur Awards from the Western Writers of America. One novel and one work of nonfiction received a Wrangler Award from the Cowboy Hall of Fame and Western Heritage Center. He was the recipient of numerous other awards.

Dundee, Capps’ birthplace, is nineteen miles from Archer City, where Larry McMurtry was born eleven years later. Capps never achieved McMurtry’s fame (or notoriety).

But he’s been counted among writers such as Walter Van Tilburg Clark and Conrad Richter for writing about the Old West with “compelling authenticity.”

James W. Lee, Director, Center for Texas Studies, University of North Texas, calls his Woman of the People “the finest novel ever to come out of Texas.” (Note: Lee is right.)

He also says “Ben Capps is the Texas author whose work will still be read a hundred years from now.”

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Kathy Waller has published short stories and one novella, Stabbed, written with Manning Wolfe. She blogs at Telling the Truth, Mainly.

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Sources:

Benjamin Capps. The Heirs of Franklin Woodstock. Lubbock: TCU Press, 1989.

Spur Award for the Best Western Novel

Texas Archival Resources Online

Encyclopedia.com

Texas Escapes

Within Hours

Book flap and blurbs

Master’s class, “Literature and Lore of the Southwest,” Southwest Texas State University, taught by Dr. Dickie Heaberlin, 1984. Memory and informed opinions of Kathy Waller, student.

Cover image: Amazon.com