“The Iron Orchard: A Novel,” by Tom Pendleton, Texas Christian University Press, 2019, 384 pages, $32.50
Jim McNeely is from the wrong side of the tracks. His father died when Jim was a child. Jim’s dark complexion leads classmates to nickname him a name matching that of Huck Finn’s raft companion.
“The Iron Orchard: A Novel,” by Tom Pendleton, follows Jim McNeely.
Jim is forced from his hometown after his high school graduation after daring to love a girl far above his status. The Depression is at its height. Possessing only his strength and native wit, Jim takes a job with Bison Oil, in barren Central Texas. The job is hard. Jim is a member of a drill crew. His team leader hates Jim, as does the gang’s top hand, a mountain of a man. The two are determined to drive Jim out of the company.
Jim has to succeed. Friends like Dent Paxton and Ort Cooley help Jim stick it out. Eventually, he becomes his gang’s top hand. A quick learner, he acquires skills to run a drilling outfit. He strikes out on his own, starting his own drilling company, becoming an independent wildcatter.
He acquires a wife, and a loyal team of employees. Through square dealing and hard work, he builds a reputation as a successful oilman, and achieves success undreamed of in youth. But his desire to succeed beyond his hometown’s imagining leads him on a pursuit of wealth causing him to betray his principles. Eventually, his empire collapses. Failure is followed by redemption, when Jim returns to his roots in drilling one final well.
“The Iron Orchard,” was originally published in 1966. “Tom Pendleton” is a pseudonym used by Edmund Pendleton Van Zandt Jr., an oilman. Van Zandt wrote about what he knew. Over his career he was a roughneck, a Marine officer (in World War II), a lawyer, banker, and longtime employee of Gulf Oil Company. He wrote “The Iron Orchard” after retirement.
The 2019 republication of this minor classic coincides with the release of a movie version of the novel. Almost forgotten today, republication makes “The Iron Orchard” accessible to a new generation of readers. It is a timeless classic.