"The Siege of Trencher's Farm" Book Review
Written by Gordon Williams
1969, 225 pages, Fiction
Released on August 16th, 2011
Arguably one of Sam Peckinpah's best films is Straw Dogs — a movie in which how far the limits of a peaceful man can be pushed before he strikes back. A dark film where even the winners are losers, Straw Dogs has earned its place as a classic in cinema. With the 2011 version recently released, Titan Books has re-released The Siege of Trencher's Farm, the book that inspired both films.
When George, his wife Louise and daughter Karen pull up roots in the United States for a move to rural England, the reasoning is twofold: The first is so George can finish the book he's been working on and he thinks the isolated location of Trencher's Farm is ideal for motivation. The second is George thinks it will make his English-born wife happy to be back in her motherland, thus giving a boost to the couple's rocky marriage.
The locals in Cornwall — the town that's home to where the Magruder family is staying — never really take to George and his uppity ways. It's highly likely that George would never really, truly be liked since the townsfolk are small-minded peasants that think someone will always be an outsider unless they were born in Cornwall. Another reason they don't like — and make fun of — George is because he's American. This can explain the uppity impression the inbreds have where, in reality, George is quite a timid character.
One night, on the way home from a town party, George strikes a man wandering in the middle of the street with his car. Worried for the injured person, he takes him to the farm in hopes of calling for a doctor. He soon realizes that he didn't hit just any person, but rather the town boogie man, Henry Niles, who by a strange twist of fate had escaped the mental institution where he was a long-time resident. To make matters worse, a mentally disabled child is missing and wouldn't you know that the reason Henry was locked up in the first place was fun he had with young children — and I don't mean the rainbows and ice-cream type of fun, I mean the very special episode of Different Strokes type of good times. It doesn't take long for the meanest of the townsfolk to find out who George has shacking up in his house and they show up for a little street-style justice. But there's a problem: George refuses to turn over Henry. A battle ensues.
There is no reason why I should like this book, mainly because there is not one truly likeable character to be found. George is so frustratingly passive you desperately want the locals to beat down his pansy ass. Even when he balls up and starts fighting back for his home and family, it's still very hard to root for him. Too little, too late, Georgie.
His wife Louise is no better. When George is weak, she tries to be strong, but she mainly comes across as a selfish whore. Ironically, I found it easiest to relate to her, though, because her husband is such a pussy. I hate him too and I couldn't imagine living with him and his passive aggressiveness. Because of this, Lousie's annoying, nagging behavior is almost forgivable. Almost.
Karen, the Macgruder's daughter, and the good old boys at the heart of the siege are so two dimensional, you barely care about them. Granted, author Gordon Williams provides a solid enough background for each to show the true motivation of their angry outburst, but the characters are stereotypical at best.
But here's the irony...the high compliment to Williams: As much as I disliked George, as much as I hated Louise, as much as Karen was just there as some sort of catalyst to the attack on the family, as much as I've seen the antagonists in a hundred other books and films, I still enjoyed this goddamn book.
I wanted to punch George in the face as much as the antagonists, but I was compelled by the writing to see if he escaped. Or not. It didn't matter, I just wanted to see what happened next. Williams has this tremendous ability to keep you interested in what happens next, care of characters being irrelevant. That is impressive writing there.
I think the film equivalent of this skill would be a scoreless film like No Country for Old Men. The Cohn brothers are so proficient in their craft that they don't need music to draw emotion from you. Same thing here. Williams is so proficient as a writer, he doesn't need you to care about the characters. You are going to like the book regardless, dammit.
If you're looking for a comparison of the book to the films, you won't find it here. I haven't seen the newest version yet and it's been years since I've seen the first incarnation with Dustin Hoffman and Susan George (although I distinctly remember hating the characters in the 1971 version, too). Besides, this review isn't for Straw Dogs (1971) or Straw Dogs (2011), it's for The Siege of Trencher's Farm, and The Siege of Trencher's Farm is pretty good. Even if the characters aren't.