Thursday, November 15, 2018

Spoil the Child

I heard Maude saying her prayers in the wagon, but no sound from ma. I couldn’t say my prayers. Usually, ma saw to it that I did, but tonight I couldn’t say a word aloud. I tried, opening my mouth, but no words came out. I thought them, as much as I could. I tried not to think about pa. Spreading the blanket, I lay down on it, holding the carbine close to me. It seemed a part of pa and all that was left; I hugged it.”

This Howard Fast story follows the trail of a young boy on a Westward Trek who has to grow up fast. While it is well-written and has heart, I was a bit less absorbed in the narrative than in other similar tales.

That may, indeed, be the fault of this particular reader.

The Cloud Puncher

A while before the cyclone season, a man with uncommon bow legs arrived and said people usually called him Parentheses, he didn’t know why. He said he would work for the outfit if we furnished a horse.

The foreman said that was real kind of him, and what kind of a horse would he like.

Parentheses said it made no difference, only he preferred a spirited mount.”

That wry and dry as Texas panhandle dust beginning kicks off William Cunningham’s tall tale that could put any of Pecos Bill’s adventures to shame.

It is brief and full of amiable charm. One can easily imagine this story being told by an old hand leaning against a corral post.

Wednesday, November 14, 2018

The Bride Comes to Yellow Sky

A newly married pair had boarded the coach at San Antonio. The man’s face was reddened by many days in the winds and sun, and a direct result of his new black clothes was that his brick-coloured hands were constantly performing in a most conscious fashion. From time to time he looked down respectfully at his attire. He sat with a hand on each knee, like a man waiting in a barber’s shop. The glances he devoted to other passengers were furtive and shy.”

Another of Stephen Crane’s beautifully observed Western tales. A newspaper sent the journalist on a tour of the West and Mexico and Crane went with eyes wide open and talent blazing white hot.

In this tale, the newlyweds are observed in heartbreaking and heartwarming detail. These observations are coupled with a look at their train’s destination where there is a spot of trouble waiting for their arrival. Both sides of the story are beautifully portrayed.

One wishes the short-lived Crane had more left in his artistic wake, but what is there is evidence of enormous talent.

Tuesday, November 13, 2018

How Lin McLean Went East

“In the old days, the happy days, when Wyoming was a Territory with a future instead of a State with a past, and the unfenced cattle grazed upon her ranges by prosperous thousands, young Lin McLean awaked early one morning in cow camp, and lay staring out of his blankets upon the world. He would be twenty-two this week. He was the youngest cow-puncher in camp. But because he could break wild horses, he was earning more dollars a month than any man there, except one. The cook was a more indispensable person. None save the cook was up, so far, this morning. Lin's brother punchers slept about him on the ground, some motionless, some shifting their prone heads to burrow deeper from the increasing day. The busy work of spring was over, that of the fall, or beef round-up, not yet come. It was mid-July, a lull for these hard-riding bachelors of the saddle, and many unspent dollars stood to Mr. McLean's credit on the ranch books.”

This short story by one of the pioneers of the genre, Owen Wister, is an amiable ramble as we follow the affable Lin McLean through his many side-trips and byways to make it “back home.”

There is a lesson about going home in McLean’s destinations that we might ought to ponder in our own lives. But, again, along the way Wister provides us with many smaller incidences rife with life lived. In the hands of this skillful pioneer character can be summed in a word and the dance of young men and women meeting can be encompassed in a brief passage.

“Mr. McLean's hours were already various and successful. Even at the wolf-dance, before he had wearied of its monotonous drumming and pageant, his roving eye had rested upon a girl whose eyes he caught resting upon him. A look, an approach, a word, and each was soon content with the other.”

The story is an amiable ride with a master at the reins.

Monday, November 12, 2018

Love of Life

He was squatting in the moss, a bone in his mouth, sucking at the shreds of life that still dyed it faintly pink.  The sweet meaty taste, thin and elusive almost as a memory, maddened him.  He closed his jaws on the bones and crunched.  Sometimes it was the bone that broke, sometimes his teeth.  Then he crushed the bones between rocks, pounded them to a pulp, and swallowed them.  He pounded his fingers, too, in his haste, and yet found a moment in which to feel surprise at the fact that his fingers did not hurt much when caught under the descending rock.”

That bit of informed descriptive genius is from Jack London’s story of survival in the Yukon “Love of Life.” London, an adventurous sort and no mere poseur or pretender to life, knew hunger and suffering and struggle in his early days and he brings that vivid in-the-midst experience to stark life in this, rightly, high-regarded tale.

One is slapped in the face in each paragraph with the realties of gnawing hunger, tearful fatigue, and the fragility of propriety in the face of want.

Anyone who has ever been through a bit of a tough time in a grueling outdoor environment will recognize that much truth is to be found here. It may be alien to some who have not stepped outside the confines of comfort, but this story drips with bleary-eyed authenticity.

An absolute classic of what it “feels” like to exist where survival is not so much a choice as a directive from the soul.

Saturday, November 10, 2018

The Blue Hotel

One morning, when a snow-crusted engine dragged its long string of freight cars and its one passenger coach to the station, Scully performed the marvel of catching three men. One was a shaky and quick-eyed Swede, with a great shining cheap valise; one was a tall bronzed cowboy, who was on his way to a ranch near the Dakota line; one was a little silent man from the East, who didn't look it, and didn't announce it.”

Stephen Crane displays his fine ability to paint a scene in a few naturalistic brush strokes in this tale of an industrious hotelier that turns to a rumination on “justice” and how wide the web of accountability just might be.

Whether or not one agrees with Crane’s sting in the tale of his moral, there is much here to enjoy in scenes that feel more like reportage than narrative fiction.

Monday, November 5, 2018

The Red Badge of Courage

That quote is the theme of Stephen Crane’s novel.

What might we do when the chips are down?

What might we do when the heat turns up?

Do we possess the heroic qualities that we would like to think we possess?

Do we possess more cowardly attributes than we would like to admit?

Crane’s brief novel is often inflicted on middle and high-school students, I wager, because of it’s very briefness. I also say “inflict” as the novel, as taught [I suffered through three classes that included it as required reading myself] often is viewed as an anti-war tract.

It is anti-war in the same vein that Robert Leckie’s true account of his experiences Helmet for My Pillow: From Parris Island to the Pacific is anti-war.

Both Leckie’s memoir of true events and Crane’s fictional depiction dwell on an un-romanticized blood and grue version of armed conflict where the “glory” is stripped off the top of the narrative and what valor or courage that claws its way through the mud and blood is all the more valorous all the more marrow-bone inspiring as it comes from a place of truth rather than one pre-packaged as heroism wrapped in flag-draped heroics.

Both books are anti-war in the sense that any human with a compassionate commiserating soul would read of such misery and never wish it inflicted upon another human being. And if such armed action is required, to sit idly by and provide nary a hand in support, be that one’s own skin-in-the-game service or at the very least a return to the days of Victory Gardens where sacrifices were made and bumper sticker phrases of “I Support the Troops” would have been viewed as the weak-sauce that it is.

The true theme of Crane’s novel is: Does our protagonist have what it takes to face what is to come?

In turn, the thoughtful reader is left to ask him or herself: Do YOU have what it takes?

Have a read of that opening quote again, the crux and truth is here: He finally concluded that the only way to prove himself was to go into the blaze, and figuratively to watch his legs to discover their merits and faults. He reluctantly admitted that he could not sit still and with a mental slate and pencil derive an answer. To gain it, he must have blaze, blood, and danger, even as a chemist requires this, that, and the other.”

The proof of life is always in the doing. You find your character, your strengths, your weaknesses when under fire figuratively or literally.

You discover your true self when you do something, anything risky. However, you define risk, whether you are willing to face it or not answers your own question of what you are.

Crane did not write a “war novel” [anti or otherwise.] He asked a universal question of all humans and merely framed it in a brief Civil War tale.

What are the merits of your own legs in the face of risk?

We will only know if we test them.

All the guesses and surmises in the world regarding your bravery, your cowardice are mere suppositions until we test ourselves.

In short Crane’s theme is “Deeds not words define us.”

May we all test our legs often and discover what we are. Until then, all else is a guess.

Spoil the Child

“ I heard Maude saying her prayers in the wagon, but no sound from ma. I couldn’t say my prayers. Usually, ma saw to it that I did, but ...