Friday, August 27, 2021

Hellbenders: A Traditional Western Novel by Richard Prosch


The locus of the skirmish was an oversize longhorn calf, its wild neck and shoulders straining against a wooden yoke. It was caught between a long hinged squeeze gate, partially broken and weighted down by the vaqueros, and the far side of the chute. One of the straw-hat cowboys swung a glowing iron back toward a caliche block firepit piled high with ash and glowing embers, and the animal’s hip smoked with a fresh brand. Lin smelled the singed fur and burnt flesh even as he noticed the former bull’s male parts, freshly removed, slick and glistening atop a pile on a canvas tarp. Naturally, they’d be saved for frying.

I’m gonna say a few words and then have you read that paragraph again. It is typical of most any I could have selected. It drips with detail without becoming an exercise in what the author discovered in research.

Many in the pursuit of authenticity turn a bit pedantic, a bit “Look what I read in a history book, now I put it in my fiction.” Such practices mar many a historical entertainment.

Bernard Cornwell educates you easily, painlessly and fascinatingly as we follow his Richard Sharpe throughout the Napoleonic Wars—this author does the same, as handily and effortlessly.

The details are offered in easy offhand observations that smack of authenticity, they “feel” as if the character lives where he is as opposed to simply “And then this happened,…and then this…”

In one paragraph we see the struggle, the straining wild neck.

We see and feel the glowing iron that came from the mighty specific and resonant caliche block firepit.

We smell flesh and fur.

We are even called upon to guess at taste as Lin offers the obvious “male parts” meal that is to come.

Have a read of that paragraph again. Notice that it is chockful of detail and yet it blows by like a breeze.

This is a superlative example of the genre.

If I have a quibble with it, it is this—the four words that follow the main title of Hellbenders.

Those words, “A Traditional Western Novel.”

Now as fans of the genre, we’d be liars if we didn’t admit that much of what can be classified as “traditional” is mere plotting and not crafting the world we are to inhabit as we read.

This novel is more than mere traditional, it’s a bit of a time machine.


Wednesday, August 25, 2021

The Aviator by Ernest K. Gann


Now the pilot glanced down at the terrain and knew again a momentary sense of foreboding. Unless the weather was very fine it was always the same through here. The mountain plateau was high and devoid of human trespass. Here the surface of the earth seemed to be made of roughly cast iron. Bold and barren escarpments served the pilots who flew this way as recognizable markers in a rumpled ocean of rock and desert. It was wild country and there had been times when the pilot wondered if it were possible to fear land itself.

Lest one think that a novel that centers around aviation does not belong in the Western genre, allow me to plead its case.

The novel is set in 1928, thusly the early unregulated wild and wooly years of flying. The days of “do it yourself” repairs and often self-taught fliers taking chances in a brand-new frontier.

Here’s historian Paul O’Neil on these early days.

The men and women who flew the Jennies and later the Gee Bees, the Super Solution and the Wedell-Williams racers were direct descendants and, in many ways, the final heirs of the footloose frontiersmen of an earlier century who had crossed the Appalachians and wandered the West; they risked their lives as a matter of course because that was the only way to reach the next mountain range—or to achieve the next aerial stunt—and the prize still seems worth the gamble.”

Or, consider this, the early airmail fliers [“Flying the mails” as in this novel] were required to carry a side-arm, a holdover from the Pony Express days.

Or, consider this, Western filmmaking legend John Ford saw these early fliers as “cowboys of the sky” we see it in later work but none more tellingly than his own 1932 Air Mail which features some spectacular stunt flying by Paul Mantz.

Viewing this film one can easily feel the precursor of the rough and rowdy camaraderie that pops up in Ford’s cavalry pictures.

John Wayne himself made a few flying pictures, most notably, 1953’s Island in the Sky an adaptation of a novel by the very author we are examining today.

To the book itself, at last.

Is it good?

Indeed, this brief novel [148 pages] packs the heart of middle-period L ’Amour and has that same resonance with the land itself.

Upon its release it was described by some critics as a “True Grit of the air.” There is a young girl in it, but the comparisons beyond that does little justice to either novel—both are exceptional and have their own merits.

Spoiler-free: Here we have a disfigured air mail pilot who reluctantly takes a young girl as a passenger on a dangerous run.

What follows has heart, resonance, depth, perhaps a bit square around the edges but the authenticity smooths that squareness with its humanity.

A fine novel.

Tuesday, August 17, 2021

The Searchers by Alan LeMay


“He made a labored calculation, and decided Laurie was twenty-one. That explained why she seemed so lighted up; probably looked the best she ever would in her life. She was at an age when most girls light up, if they’re going to; Mexicans and Indians earlier. A look at their mothers, or their older sisters, reminded you of what you knew for certain. All that bright glow would soon go out again. But you couldn’t ever make yourself believe it.”

While familiar with the classic film the novel was off my radar. That defect has been corrected. While not the classic the film is, the book still is a fine read within the genre and rife with pungent observations as in the opening quote.

We live more as an outsider than we do in the film, experiencing all through young eyes. It is a nice perspective to view as young grows older through harsh experience.

A fine companion piece to a fine film.

A Frontier Phrase Worth Resurrecting: “He Bubbles Pure"

  [Excerpted from our book The Frontier Stoic: Life Lessons from Those Who Lived a Life.] “ He bubbles pure .” ·         Said of a man w...