The Siege of Trencher’s Farm by Gordon Williams (Adapted for the Screen as “Straw Dogs”) Book Review

Titan Books is coming out with a new paperback release of Gordon Williams’ seminal novel about a man’s limits to civil behavior, The Siege of Trencher’s Farm.  The novel was originally adapted by legendary American director Sam Peckinpah as the movie Straw Dogs in 1971, starring Dustin HoffmanTitan Books is coming out with a new release just in time for the remake from Screen Gems and Sony Pictures, which releases September 16th, 2011, starring James Marsden, Kate Bosworth, and Alexander Skarsgard, from director Rod Lurie.

The book centers on George and Louise Magruder, and their daughter Karen, who have come to the small English town of Dando.  Louise is British, and the trip means coming home for her.   George is a literature professor who is taking the time in England to finish his book on the poet Branksheer, he believes the small English village will be a good place to get away from the city and just write.  Their daughter Karen, raised in Philadelphia as an American, is upset she can’t see her friends, and worried that she won’t be accepted by the local children.

The real story is that George and Louise’s marriage is on the outs.  George is frustrated with Louise for not understanding his career, and for dragging him all the way to England.  Upon arrival, Louise is upset that George seems to care more about his book than for her, and she is beginning to resent him.  Stuck in the middle is their young daughter Karen, who has kept this couple together longer than they would have been on their own.

George is fascinated by the change in culture, he wants to befriend the locals, which he attempts to do at The Inn, the local pub.   He wants to befriend them, but at the same time, George has been told that buying everyone drinks will only make them resent him more, for being a rich Yankee that likes to flash his money around.  So he quietly sits and drinks, trying to find a way to relate to the people.

Meanwhile, Louise grows further frustrated.  She’s frustrated that George thinks Dando is so quaint, and that he can’t see that the rest of the town is mocking and judging him constantly.  The locals see them as rich Americans, regardless of the fact that Louise is British born.  George hears the stories from the locals, the one about Soldier’s Field, where a soldier who had raped a village girl was murdered by locals in the 1930’s, each local taking a turn at the hacksaw that removed the soldier’s head, so each man was complicit, and none of them would talk.   Such is the attitude of the village of Dando.  He also hears the stories about Henry Niles, the maniac child killer with the mental age of 8.

While Louise daydreams about a new life with the local poet, she has lived it for real, cheating on George, mostly due to her frustration with their life, and his refusal to take her bait into an argument.  With Christmas approaching, they must put their differences aside and put on an air of normalcy for the local children’s Christmas party.

On the other side of town, a crew of hospital workers is transporting Henry Niles, the child-killing maniac, who is very sick with liver problems and is being transported back to Two Waters, the mental ward, after recieving treatment for his liver problems.  At less than 100 lbs, he is looked upon as a sick child rather than a human monster.

On the way back to Two Waters, however, the driver hits a patch of ice and can’t slow down fast enough, sending the ambulance tumbling off the road and into a ditch.  Being the only one properly strapped in, Henry Niles is the only one who is awake after the crash.  When he sees the blood, he’s afraid he’ll be blamed, like he was in the past when blood was on the scene of the child murders.  His simple mind doesn’t understand the situation, so he escapes into the cold, having escaped and killed once before, which built his legend as the maniac of Dando.

Louise arrives at the children’s Christmas party with Karen, and attempts to make friends with some of the locals, like Ms. Heddon, one of the more destitute families in the village, who have a failing farm, a mentally disabled daughter, and 4 other children they can barely take care of.  To make matters worse, the father, Tom Heddon, likes his drink and spends most of his time and money at The Inn, where he and his farmer friends are held in check by local community leaders like Bill Knapman and Harry Ware, the owner of The Inn.

Karen manages to befriend Janice, the Heddon’s mentally disabled daughter, at the behest of her mother.  But when Santa Claus is introduced, the mentally ill child is spooked and runs out into the snow.  Around the same time, the overturned ambulance is discovered, without Henry Niles inside.

Quickly, the community panics, knowing the child-killing maniac Henry Niles is on the loose, and Janice Heddon is missing.  George, who was at the Trencher Farm, where they are staying, has decided enough is enough, he will go to the children’s party, so he suits up and makes the two mile trek to the party.

Once George arrives, the hoopla has started, everyone is terrified Henry Niles has come across Janice Heddon and is doing terrible things to her.  The men mount up for search parties, and George makes the decision to leave the party and take Louise and Karen to the relative safety of their home.  On the way back, trying to navigate in the heavy snow, George accidently runs a man over in the drift.  They quickly grab the man and hurry him back to Trencher’s Farm, where they can call Dr. Allsop, the only local doctor, who is attending to Mrs. Heddon, who is already physically frail from her hard life.

Once they arrive at Trencher’s Farm, George realizes that the man he hit was Henry Niles, the child killing maniac that everyone is looking for.   With a partially working phone, George manages to reach Dr. Allsop and the closest police department, which is 8 miles away and has no way into town because of the large snow drift.  Dando, as usual, is left up to its own devices, and its own way of handling problems.

When he learns that George has Niles at Trencher’s Farm, Tom Heddon becomes enraged, grabbing his shotgun and a few local friends, and heads toward Trencher’s Farm, knocking Dr. Allsop out with the butt of his shotgun so they won’t be slowed down.

Once they arrive at Trencher’s Farm, Heddon and his cronies have no plan, except to get at Henry Niles and kill him, while George tries to keep Niles safe until the police arrive, and proper justice can be served.  The rest of the siege focuses on Tom Heddon and his band of locals trying to get at Niles inside the Magruder house, going to major extremes to do so.

Gordon Williams wrote The Siege of Trencher’s Farm in 1969, a seminal year for culture change.  America was still viewed with contempt for their involvement in Vietnam, and their continued socio-economic revolution that was making the country richer than most others.

George is very much a product of America in the late 60’s, he’s extremely liberal when it comes to matters of crime and punishment, being one of a dozen professors that signed a letter to The London Times speaking out against the possible hanging of the mentally deficient Henry Niles.  He doesn’t see the bad in anyone, with an eternally optomistic outlook in regards to other people.   This is what leads him to risk his family’s lives to protect the life of Henry Niles.   Only, at first, he isn’t aware that he’s actually risking anything, he believes that Tom Heddon and the locals are only out for blood because they’re intoxicated and can’t think clearly, but he’s convinced that the police will arrive and diffuse the situation.

It is with the arrival of community leader Bill Knapman that really worries George.  He believes the locals will listen to Bill and go about their way, but instead an accidental tragedy occurs, leaving Bill dead, and turning the pack of men into a roving band of murderers with a heavier thirst for Niles’ blood.  Heddon convinces them all it’s like Soldier’s Field, that if everyone plays a role in Niles’ demise, then they all will be clear of any reprisal from the law or anyone else.

Throughout the siege, George slowly burns from an overly civilized college professor into an instinctual animal fighting for his life.  He devolves, at first thinking in a very ordered fashion, until he finally breaks down and is clawing and smashing with the best of them.  Ultimately, this is all Louise was looking for, much of her resentment was held in the way George dealt with problems, seeing his civility as a weakness rather than a moral strength, like George sees it.  The whole time, Karen sits terrified in her room, especially when the shotgun begins to boom.

George eventually turns on his own civilization, regressing back to his animal instincts on many occassions, just to protect his family.  Ultimately, this is the whole point of the book, to see what a “civilized” man’s breaking point is.  Throught the last half of the book, even when George goes into pure rage, he often still questions the rage, morally pondering his actions as he commits them.

That is the ultimate theme of the book, to find what makes a man a monster.  Is it a missing or hurt child?  Is it men with guns coming to your house?  In the original film, they made it the rape of the Louise character that pushes George to his breaking point.  Here, there are much bigger moral questions, as most of the circumstances rely on happenstance, where a rape is never a confusion of circumstance.  This makes me curious to see what Rod Lurie and his crew have come up with, transporting the setting to the deep south and changing George to an LA screenwriter.  Either way, I’m curious to find out.

I’m glad Titan Books is putting out this new version of an old classic, because I feel it’s one that hasn’t been read enough.  Even after seeing the original film, I wasn’t fully  aware how different it was from the book, or that the book was so good.  The cover on this new version is very slick, featuring the re-imagined image of James Marsden with his broken glasses, the villainous Alexander Skarsgard in the reflection.   Hopefully more people that see the new movie will pick up this release, it’s a treat for fans of the 1971 film or new fans altogether, being different enough from the movie to keep everyone satisfied.


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