Thursday, February 28, 2019

To Find a Place by Robert Easton

So the hours were used up. At three o’clock the wind blew the fog away and let us see the stars men know who work by night—late stars, somehow brighter and better than the ones you see around ten o’clock when most people go to bed. They splattered through the sky from north to south, dusty and brown, like somebody had run there with a bucket and had spilled them. They looked down and they knew who worked and who didn’t and who owns the world when everything lies quiet. A truck had just pulled away. Dynamite and I stood still in the alley and the voice of the wind came rising through the boards and rails reminding us that man is very small and the earth by night is very long and lonely.
A sumptuously written tale of a young man showing up in an unfamiliar place to take on a new job, to learn the ropes, learn the people. It is rife with the “here’s what it feels like to be the new guy” observations.
And as the above extract demonstrates, Mr. Easton’s craft and deeply-felt observation shows on each page.
On one hand, a slight tale, on the other hand—a work of art. I’m grateful for having read it.

Wednesday, February 27, 2019

The Tallest Indian in Toltepec by Will Henry

“I said get down, Indio,” he smiled. “You do not listen too well. What is the matter? Do you not trust your Mexican brothers?”
Diaz was small in body only. In heart he was a mountain.
A story of the Mexican Revolution, vicious bandidos, and hope amongst native peoples.
The tale opens strong with a grim tone that is in the region of hard-as-nails Elmore Leonard but…
Unfortunately, to this reader’s taste, it takes a turn towards the mawkish as the focus shifts to a child’s perspective. Though the eyes of the young many fine tales have been told, but here the child feels somewhat stiff and a mere stand-in for story exposition.
Strong start, there’s always that.

Tuesday, February 26, 2019

The Wild West 365 by Michael Wallis

This gorgeous book of Wild West history is arranged in 365 entries, one for each day of the year. But where other such books merely tie a “fact to a day” this volume seeks to be something more.
Each daily entry does indeed provide an event tied to the date, as a matter of fact the entry for today’s posting is “William F. “Buffalo Bill” Cody is born in Leclaire, Iowa Territory. 1846.”
And that single line is all you get about the day.
The remainder of the page takes on mini-essay form so that the author can tell a chronological story of the Wild West that starts roughly around 1830 in the January entries and progresses to the 1930s for the December entries.
The mini-essay for February 26, tells the story of “The Rogue of the Rio Grande” Juan Nepomuceno Cortina.
His story of a bit of frontier justice that led to Texas Ranger interaction and the spawning of “Cortina’s War” was one I was unfamiliar with. Such entries leave you hungry for more.
Robert G. McCubbin, as photo-editor, also deserves equal credit for the astounding array of photographs and art in this gorgeous text.
A simply beautiful volume.

Monday, February 25, 2019

Shaft by Ernest Tidyman

Shaft began to pick up its vibrations as he waited for the WALK sign to flash green permission for the crossing. All that up Broadway a few blocks had become a part of him and was waiting for him. He stepped off the curb and moved easily around the grill of a battered Dodge truck, rolling with the contained grace of a solid, muscular man who stays in balance, who can land running or at a halt, poised to run again.
This might seem an odd choice to feature on a western blog, but I was struck by the tone that is reminiscent of both Spaghetti Westerns and Elmore Leonard’s early work.
Private Detective John Shaft is caught in the middle of three warring factions: the police, the mob, and militant black revolutionaries. It feels vey much as if Eastwood’s “Man With No Name” stepped into a modern incarnation of the faction-divided town in A Fistful of Dollars. [Tidyman would go on to become an Award-Winning screenwriter and contribute High Plains Drifter for Eastwood himself.]
Those who only know the character of John Shaft from the films [which do not do much for me] may be surprised at the level of writing in the novel. I am struck that the successful film may have overshadowed how entertaining and well-done the novel is.
Fans of Leonard, Brian Garfield, and perhaps even George Gilman should find much to enjoy in this urban-Western.

Friday, February 22, 2019

The Shaming of Broken Horn by Bill Gulick

As dark came on and the fires burned low, they sat huddled together, their backs against a wagon for safety’s sake, listening to the drums in the Indian village. Mary was frightened now, but looking around, seeing the grim looks on the faces of her menfolk as they balanced their rifles across their knees, she was sure of one thing—her men would act like men if the need arose, and she was proud of them all.
The “shaming” is a serio-comic event that occurs in the course of a wagon train journey. Many of the familiar themes are here: the stoic and wise Westerner, the “too sure of himself” Easterner, the inquisitive young ‘un, the proud and beautiful damsel.
All the elements are familiar, it’s done well, but it has the leftover flavor of watching an episode of Wagon Train. Fans of that TV show should find this enjoyable tale.

Wednesday, February 20, 2019

The Significance of the Frontier in American History by Frederick Jackson Turner

This 1893 work of historical theorizing offered as “The Frontier Hypothesis” has been influential on many historians, authors, and those with a libertarian bent.

I wager those with an attraction to the Western genre will find much food for thought in Turner’s essay.

I am struck by much of significance within it that I offer several lengthy examples below.

“…the most important effect of the frontier has been in the promotion of democracy here and in Europe. As has been indicated, the frontier is productive of individualism. Complex society is precipitated by the wilderness into a kind of primitive organization based on the family. The tendency is anti-social. It produces antipathy to control, and particularly to any direct control. The tax-gatherer is viewed as a representative of oppression. Prof. Osgood, in an able article, has pointed out that the frontier conditions prevalent in the colonies are important factors in the explanation of the American Revolution, where individual liberty was sometimes confused with the absence of all effective government. The same conditions aid in explaining the difficulty of instituting a strong government in the period of the confederacy. The frontier individualism has from the beginning promoted democracy.”

[A contemporary view of Eastern “leadership.”] “’Some of our fellow-citizens may think we are not able to conduct our affairs and consult our interests; but if our society is rude, much wisdom is not necessary to supply our wants, and a fool can sometimes put on his clothes better than a wise man can do it for him.’ This forest philosophy is the philosophy of American democracy.”

“Western democracy included individual liberty, as well as equality. The frontiersman was impatient with restraints. He knew how to preserve order, even in the absence of legal authority. If there were cattle thieves, lynch law was sudden and effective: the regulators of the Carolinas were the predecessors of the claims associations of Iowa and the vigilance committees of California. But the individual was not ready to submit to complex regulations. Population was sparse, there was no multitude of jostling interests, as in older settlements, demanding an elaborate system of personal restraints. Society became atomic. There was a reproduction of the primitive idea of the personality of the law, a crime was more an offense against the victim than a violation of the law of the land. Substantial justice, secured in the most direct way, was the ideal of the backwoodsman. He had little patience with finely drawn distinctions or scruples of method. If the thing was one proper to be done, then the most immediate, rough and ready, effective way was the best way.”

“So recent has been the transition of the greater portion of the United States from frontier conditions to conditions of settled life, that we are, over the large portion of the United States, hardly a generation removed from the primitive conditions of the West. If, indeed, we ourselves were not pioneers, our fathers were, and the inherited ways of looking at things, the fundamental assumptions of the American people, have all been shaped by this experience of democracy on its westward march. This experience has been wrought into the very warp and woof of American thought.”

“The first ideal of the pioneer was that of conquest. It was his task to fight with nature for the chance to exist. Not as in older countries did the contest take place in a mythical past, told in folk lore and epic. It has been continuous to our own day. Facing each generation of pioneers was the unmastered continent. Vast forests blocked the way; mountainous ramparts interposed; desolate grass-clad prairies, barren oceans of rolling plains, arid deserts, and a fierce race of savages, all had to be met and defeated. The rifle and the ax are the symbols of the backwoods pioneer. They meant a training in aggressive courage, in domination, in directness of action, in destructiveness.”

“Besides the ideals of conquest and of discovery, the pioneer had the ideal of personal development, free from social and governmental constraint. He came from a civilization based on individual competition, and he brought the conception with him to the wilderness where a wealth of resources, and innumerable opportunities gave it a new scope.”

“Among the pioneers one man was as good as his neighbor. He had the same chances; conditions were simple and free. Economic equality fostered political equality. An optimistic and buoyant belief in the worth of the plain people, a devout faith in man prevailed in the West. Democracy became almost the religion of the pioneer. He held with passionate devotion the idea that he was building under freedom a new society, based on self-government, and for the welfare of the average man.”

“American democracy was born of no theorist’s dream; it was not carried in the Susan Constant to Virginia, nor in the Mayflower to Plymouth. It came out of the American forest, and it gained new strength each time it touched a new frontier. Not the constitution, but the free land and an abundance of natural resources open to a fit people, made the democratic type of society in America for three centuries while it occupied its empire.”

“When the backwoodsmen crossed the Alleghenies they put between themselves and the Atlantic coast a barrier which seemed to separate them from a region already too much like the Europe they had left, and as they followed the course of the rivers that flowed to the Mississippi, they called themselves “Men of the Western Waters,” and their new home in the Mississippi Valley was the “Western World.” Here, by the thirties, Jacksonian democracy flourished, strong in the faith of the intrinsic excellence of the common man, in his right to make his own place in the world, and in his capacity to share in government. But while Jacksonian democracy demanded these rights, it was also loyal to leadership as the very name implies. It was ready to follow to the uttermost the man in whom it placed its trust, whether the hero were frontier fighter or president, and it even rebuked and limited its own legislative representatives and recalled its senators when they ran counter to their chosen executive, Jacksonian democracy was essentially rural. It was based on the good fellowship and the genuine social feeling of the frontier, in which classes and inequalities of fortune played little part. But it did not demand equality of condition, for there was abundance of natural resources and the belief that the self-made man had a right to his success in the free competition which western life afforded, was as prominent in their thoughts as was the love of democracy. On the other hand, they viewed governmental restraints with suspicion as a limitation on their right to work out their own individuality.”

“The moment you acknowledge that the highest social position ought to be the reward of the man who has the most talent, you make aristocratic institutions impossible. All that was buoyant and creative in American life would be lost if we gave up the respect for distinct personality, and variety in genius, and came to the dead level of common standards. To be ‘socialized into the average’ and placed ‘under the tutelage of the mass of us,’ as a recent writer has put it, would be an irreparable loss.”

“These slashers of the forest, these self-sufficing pioneers, raising the corn and the live stock for their own need, living scattered and apart, had at first small interest in town life or a share in markets. They were passionately devoted to the idea of equality, but it was an ideal which assumed that under free conditions in the midst of unlimited resources, the homogenous society of the pioneers must result in equality. What they objected to was arbitrary obstacles, artificial limitations upon the freedom of each member of this frontier folk to work out his own career without fear or favor. What they instinctively opposed was the crystallization of differences, the monopolization of opportunity and the fixing of that monopoly by government or by social customs. The road must be open. The game must be played according to the rules. There must be no artificial stifling of equality or opportunity, no closed doors to the able, no stopping the free game before it was played to the end. More than that, there was an unformulated, perhaps, but very real feeling, that mere success in the game, by which the abler men were able to achieve preeminence gave to the successful ones no right to look down upon their neighbors, no vested title to assert superiority as a matter of pride and to the diminution of the equal right and dignity of the less successful.”

Tuesday, February 19, 2019

Don’t Squat With Your Spurs On: A Cowboy’s Guide to Life by Texas Bix Bender

Always drink upstream from the herd.
Remember, even a kick in the caboose is a step forward.
Coolness and a steady nerve will always beat simple quickness. Take yer time and you’ll only need to pull the trigger once.
A book of homily, with the above being a good example.
One quote per page makes this fly fast.
Jovial but non-essential.

Monday, February 18, 2019

Mad River Donald Hamilton

Van Houck said, “You sound like your dad. He used to say a gun without a man was a useless hunk of iron; while a man without a gun was still a man.”
I’ll admit I had high hopes for this 1956 novel from Donald Hamilton as I rate his novel The Big Country easily one of the best the genre has to offer.
Here we have a tale of a man unjustly imprisoned who returns to his hometown where he is a pariah. He goes about minding his own business until he is dragged into other’s business and must right a few wrongs and restore his good name.
Much ado is made in the beginning about our protagonist being a knife-fighter as opposed to a gunman, but to be honest this intriguing twist doesn’t amount to much in the end.
The novel starts out with fine promise with swift pace and gimlet-eyed observation but around the middle it seems to lose steam and falls into by-the-numbers formulary structure.
A shame. A talented writer seems to idle in neutral here.

Thursday, February 14, 2019

Blood on the Sun by Thomas Thompson

The thin man laughed, a high wild sound. “Where I come from, punk,” he said to Ted, “you wouldn’t live to be as tall as you think you are.”
A good story from the rock-solid Thomas Thompson. Here we have a man called “Preacher” who is not exactly that. The tale is a bit bifurcated as the fist half is the usual superlative work from Thompson, but it seems to go a bit formulaic in the second half.
It doesn’t stop it from being a good read, but Thompson, being a fine writer, has delivered more.
Here, I measure him against himself.

Wednesday, February 13, 2019

Grandfather Out of the Past by Noel M. Loomis

He looked at her, trying to decide what hunger was. Was it a gnawing in a man’s stomach, or was it a lonesomeness of the heart, or was it, sometimes, a thing that ate a man’s brain from the inside, like that which showed in the yes of Quahuahacante [Dead Hide]?
This book is steeped in Comanche culture, steeped so deeply it resonates with an authenticity that mere Internet searches would put to shame.
As a Comanche-phile myself [I have been learning the language for the past three years] veracity can be found on every page of this tale of a warrior past his prime but still a warrior in his heart and in his ethics.
A mature and authoritative tale.

Thursday, February 7, 2019

A Town Named Hate by John Prebble

Martha Boyd sat in a corner during the town meeting. Now and then she looked across the room to Jason, and once he smiled to her reassuringly, and the smile was a bridge between them across the smoke and the heat and the hate in the room.
A stunner!
A story of a small town with forgotten promise, a long-dead tragedy and a mistake to latch vengeful hopes on.
Insight to burn, atmosphere that seethes, and a plot that boils start to finish.

Wednesday, February 6, 2019

The Captives by Elmore Leonard

Brennan jumped down and rolled Rintoon over gently, holding his head off the ground. He looked at the motionless form and then at Chink. “He’s dead.”
Chink stood with his legs apart and looked down at Brennan indifferently. “Sure he is.”
“You didn’t have to kill him.”
Chink shrugged. “I would’ve sooner, or later.”
“That’s the way it is.”
That passage highlights Dutch Leonard’s easy laconic way with dialogue, postures, small gestures. He spends no time on inner this or subconscious that, and yet his work never feels formulaic. His men and women are fully formed creatures whose lives are expressed in actions or the small gestures that take the place of thwarted actions.
This story was made into a good film, The Tall T, but for my money, the source is smart and rugged head-and-shoulders above even that fine work.
An excellent story.

Tuesday, February 5, 2019

Three-Ten to Yuma by Elmore Leonard

Scallen glanced at the man across the street and then to Jim Kidd. “Come here.” He nodded to the window. “Tell me who your friend is over there.”
Kidd half rose and leaned over looking out the window, then sat down again. “Charlie Prince.”
“Somebody else just went for help.”
“Charlie doesn’t need help.”
Dutch Leonard has been manufacturing smooth, cool, laconic prose since the very beginning of his career. Crime or Western, either way, you’re most likely in for a fine ride.
This classic story is probably familiar to most since we’ve had two film versions of it.
It cooks along well and is marked by Leonard’s spare style and his easy insight into assessing the figure in front of you. Few match him for those moments of reading a character’s make-up in small actions.
A fine story indeed.

Monday, February 4, 2019

The Language of the Railroader by Ramon F. Adams

Fish: To dislodge a tramp from the rods by dragging a piece of metal tied to a string under the car to make it rebound from the ties.
Ramon F. Adams, one of the great historians of the west provides this companion piece to his book Western Words [also reviewed on this blog.]
It is chockful of old railroad and tramp/hobo lingo.
Historians of the Old West, writers, or simply the railroad curious will find much to enjoy in a browse of this fine volume.
Or as a railroader might say, it has its head cut in and never shows the white feather!

Narrative of the Life of David Crockett of the State of Tennessee by David Crockett

  This 1834 volume is a fine glimpse into the mindset of a legend.   What particularly strikes, this reader at least, is the well he goe...