Monday, February 28, 2011

Judy Blunt, Breaking Clean

Montana Week at BITS begins with Judy Blunt's memoir of her early life in Montana ranch country. Hers is a far cry from Willa Cather's portrayals of frontier Nebraska. Still, there is something of the same spirit in both writers, each strong-willed, independent-minded, and talented in a world dominated by men.

Each maintains a love of the open prairie, but while Alexandra Bergson in O Pioneers! is able to hold her own and thrive on the land, Blunt is hemmed in and frustrated at each turn, a ranch wife-in-training through girlhood and finally a ranch wife with children of her own.

Physically strong and fearless as any man, she uses hard labor as a way to cope with a life-long belief in the fundamental unfairness of being denied opportunities simply because of her gender. In her thirties, she finally leaves the ranch and starts a new life in Missoula as a divorced mother, university student, and writer.

However, her book is not about the break-up of her marriage or her final decision to leave behind the life she'd been living. It is a carefully remembered recounting of her childhood, youth, and early years as a rancher's wife.

Montana range land, photo by R Scheer © 2011

It's an often turbulent story, where every passage from one stage of life to the next is marked by resistance, dismay, and a sense of deep loss. The people in the circle of her family are captured in fiercely observed detail – especially her mother and father, her sister Gail, her husband John, and John's parents.

The physical world they inhabit is vividly rendered – the character of the arid, prairie land, the seasonal changes, the extremes of weather, the isolation, and the difficulty of making a living out here against the odds. She also captures the constraints of the social world they inhabit, and she articulates clearly the limited possibilities for personal growth and independence where gender roles and social norms are rigidly observed.

Friday, February 25, 2011

Photo-finish Friday: wind farm

Anyone traveling along I-10 from LA to the Coachella Valley in Riverside County is greeted by a rolling sea of these giant wind turbines converting the prevailing west winds to electricity. Giant they are not, when seen against the mountains that make up the San Gorgonio Pass through which the winds blow.

Many people find wind farms something of an eye sore on the landscape. Maybe it's the farm boy in me, but I'm always pleased to see them.

This pic comes from last weekend, when clouds from a Pacific storm still surged along the rim of the mountain ridge along the south side of the pass. It was taken from the end of Two Bunch Palms road in Desert Hot Springs, where the asphalt surface turns to sand just short of a deep wash.

A cold wind was blowing, and lacking sufficient layers (a buffalo robe would have helped), I didn't stay out of the car long enough to get just the right angle. But you get the idea.

Photo finish Friday is the bright idea of Leah Utas over at The Goat's Lunch Pail.

Coming up: Montana Week

Thomas McGuane, Some Horses

Here's a sample of what's coming up starting Monday - Montana Week. I'll be posting reviews of five nonfiction books by Montana writers. Sticking with nonfiction makes the choosing a heckuva lot simpler, since Montana has been well supplied with fine writers of all kinds over the years.

I've already mentioned some of them with reviews of Richard Wheeler's An Obituary for Major Reno, B. M. Bower's Chip of the Flying U, Teddy Blue Abbott's We Pointed them North, David McCumber's The Cowboy Way, Tom Groneberg's The Secret Life of Cowboys, A. B. Guthrie, Jr.'s crime novel Playing Catch-Up, Con Price's Memories of Old Montana, and Larry Watson's White Crosses, which gets in under the wire as a novel by a North Dakota-born novelist writing about Montana.

Today's book (whose title always makes me think of the Rolling Stones' Some Girls), is a well-written and amusing collection of essays by novelist Thomas McGuane. McGuane's fiction can be amusing, too, in a whacked-out way. But this book wants to be no more than a thoroughly entertaining journey into the complex relationship that can exist between human and equine intelligence.

Cutting horse at work, photo by Tomas Caspers
One essay is about rodeo calf-roping and another about mountain trail riding and camping in snow, but most of the essays are about McGuane's experience with cutting horses. Developed as a specialized skill of horse and rider on open rangeland, cutting is the exacting art (and now sport) of separating out a single cow or calf from a herd of cattle.

Given the strong herd instinct of cows, this is no mean feat, and it takes a fine horse, superior training, and a competent rider to do it well and consistently. In these essays, each devoted to individual horses, McGuane invites the reader into this world of nonverbal communication between horse, rider, and cow.

Sidebar note: I made a trip over to Temecula, California, one day to watch timed trials of cutting horses doing their stuff, and it beats a lot of what passes for entertainment these days. (Temecula, I'm told by my neighbor, is an Indian word for a layer of haze along a valley floor, caused by humidity.)

In the hands of another writer, this subject could easily be arcane, technical, vague, or dry as corral dust. But McGuane makes literature of it. The opening essay owes its rambling form and spirit to Montaigne, and all of them are rich with sharply observed details, nuances of emotion, and fascinating character sketches of both people and horses. The only thing dry is McGuane's wry sense of humor. In the essay about a winter road trip with his wife and four horses from Southern California to Montana, I was laughing out loud.

You don't have to be a horse lover for this one. All that's required is a curiosity about animal psychology and the place where it comes in contact with the psychology of humans. Some Horses is available new at amazon and used at AbeBooks.

Image credit: Wikimedia Commons 

Coming up: Montana Week

Thursday, February 24, 2011

Charles Lummis, A Tramp Across the Continent (1892)

My first cross-country trip from the Midwest to Los Angeles was on a passenger jet that took me to LAX. It was 1964. Only eighty years earlier, in 1884, Charles Lummis (1859-1928) made the same journey – on foot. He walked from Cincinnati, Ohio, to LA, a distance of 3,500 miles in 143 days. This book is his account of that jaunt.

The strenuous life. Lummis was not too poor to go by train. He seems to have simply wanted an adventure. Young, newly married, and still in his twenties, he was of that Roosevelt-era generation of Harvard graduates who believed in living strenuously. He and Teddy were, in fact, friends.

Leaving home in September meant that much of his walk would be through snow in high elevations. Though the snow and cold were daunting, and he nearly perished in a winter storm in New Mexico, the worst day, he says, came in the deserts of southern California. There heat and thirst came closest to doing him in.

Charles Lummis, 1897
Content with his own company, he would have traveled the whole way alone except for being joined in mid-journey by a greyhound he called Shadow. Twice he was accompanied by men who stayed with him only a short distance.

Along the way he had hair-raising close calls. In Colorado, he narrowly missed being attacked by a penitentiary prisoner on a work detail. In Arizona, he fell from a ledge while hunting game and broke his arm. In an account grim enough to turn any gentle reader pale with disbelief, he describes setting the broken bone and then gamely walking on, his arm in a sling for the remaining 700 miles.

He carried with him a small rifle, which he traded for a six-shooter once he was in the West among cowboys. Rarely needed for self-defense, the firearms were chiefly for shooting game, edible food being scarce, even when he passed through settlements. An avid hunter, he also took down a seven-point black tail deer, taking a few steaks to eat and shipping the antlers ahead by train.

His route. The first stage of his walk took him across Missouri, where he claims to have spent time in a meeting with Frank James, now retired, and only two years after the shooting of Jesse. From there he crossed the plains of Kansas and Colorado, where he met up for a few days in Denver with his family, who were traveling by Pullman to Los Angeles.

Pike's Peak, Albert Bierstadt (1830-1902)
Next he went south along the east face of the Rockies, stopping at points for some trout fishing and a climb to the top of Pike’s Peak, where it was now winter. All of this without a single purchase from L. L. Bean.

The real challenge began with the trek southwestward to Santa Fe and Albuquerque and then along the Atlantic and Pacific railway through Gallup, New Mexico, and Winslow, Arizona. From there to Los Angeles, he notes, there were only six “towns,” each offering little in the way of accommodation.

Pueblo Indian girl, 1889
Generally, he slept outdoors, even when there was available shelter. Once on the sandy shore of the Colorado River on a side trip to the Grand Canyon, he describes covering himself in the sand warmed by his campfire.

The locals. In the Southwest, he was surprised in his discovery of the little known and seldom appreciated cultures of the Pueblo and Navajo Indians and the Mexicans. Apparently unschooled in anthropology, he knew only the racial stereotypes common at the time. All of that changed when he saw how the native tribes lived and observed their ritual celebrations with elaborate costumes and dances.

He was also taken by the warm, gracious hospitality he received while stopping at old land-grant haciendas. Both experiences had an impact on him that lasted throughout his life. He became an advocate of Indian and Hispanic rights and was the founder of the Southwest Museum in Los Angeles (now affiliated with the Autry Museum of Western Heritage).

Southwest Museum, LA, built 1911
Getting there. In his four months crossing the country, walking sometimes 50 miles in a day, he reports enough adventures to fill a lifetime. In the gaps between them, he meets up with men and women who welcome his company and earn his respect. He also takes the time to share opinions on a wide range of subjects: the railroads, miners and mining, cursing, jewelry making, capitalists, real men, Mexican food, Southwest history, and the Roman Catholic Church in the New World.

Lummis led a colorful life in California, starting out as city editor for Harrison Otis's Los Angeles Times, later editing and writing for the magazine Out West. He was an outspoken critic of U.S. Indian policies and an advocate of preserving California’s old Spanish missions. He got himself into scrapes and suffered illnesses. His personal life was apparently just as adventuresome and contentious as his public life.

Mark Thompson has written a biography of Lummis, American Character, which won a Spur Award in 2002. There’s more about the man here. Copies of A Tramp Across the Continent are available at AbeBooks and free at googlebooks.
Picture credits:

Coming up:  Montana Week

Tuesday, February 22, 2011

Martha Sandweiss, Print the Legend

Anybody who knows John Ford’s The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance knows the origin of this book’s title. And it’s a good choice for an informative and surprising history of photography on the Western frontier during the nineteenth century.

The first surprise is that it took the photograph so long to catch on. Early daguerreotypes could not compete with the colorful and dramatic renderings of Western scenes and events by artists. Photos were typically used only as references for visual accuracy by illustrators, then discarded.

Regarded as having no commercial value, countless daguerreotypes of the West simply “disappeared” for lack of interest by collectors. No one seems to have considered their potential value to future historians.

Daguerreotype, San Francisco Harbor, 1851

Instead, the public flocked to theatres to see “panoramas,” which were the nineteenth century’s version of infotainment. Hundreds of feet long, these painted canvases were travelogues that took viewers across the western territories.

Like over-size scrolls, panoramas were unrolled from one side of the stage to the other, where they were rolled up again. With dramatic narration, they portrayed the West as it might be observed by an overland or riverboat traveler. (A hundred years later, they’d be reinvented as Disneyland rides.)

It was a period of exploration, as Americans took an avid interest in the new lands of the Southwest, annexed to the Union after the war with Mexico. Barely interrupted by the Civil War in the 1860s, expeditions crossed and recrossed the West. Typically, they were accompanied by sketch artists and photographers, whose work would serve future engineering projects – and help secure government funding for future expeditions.

Monday, February 21, 2011

Old West glossary, no. 9

Montana cowboys, c1910
Here’s another set of frontier terms garnered from early western writing. Definitions were discovered in various online dictionaries, as well as Cassell’s Dictionary of Slang, Dictionary of the American West, The Cowboy Dictionary, and The Shorter Oxford English Dictionary (which all get cameo appearances today).

These are from Herbert Henry Knibbs’ Overland Red (1914), Charles Lummis’ A Tramp Across the Continent (1892), and Jack Thorp’s writings from the 1930s and collected in Along the Rio Grande. Once again I struck out on a few. If anybody knows the Old West meaning of “hard flash” or “gravel in the boots,” leave a comment.

argus = a very vigilant watcher (after Argos of Greek mythology, a person with 100 eyes). “Each man was his own argus. He was expected to know his enemies by instinct.” Henry Herbert Knibbs, Overland Red.

bullyrag = to bully, intimidate, harass. “A few Indians came in to trade, and he bullyragged and browbeat them unmercifully.” Charles Lummis, A Tramp Across the Continent.

brush popper = a cowboy who can drive cattle out of thick brush. “Some of these brush poppers as we used to call them, take a lot more chances than any other riders going.” Jack Thorp, Along the Rio Grande.

bushwhacker = an unsophisticated person, hillbilly; originally meaning one who lives in the woods; applied to Confederate irregulars during the Civil War. “A long-bearded bushwhacker came loping along on a little bronco.” Charles Lummis, A Tramp Across the Continent.

canary = a mule. “Often when an animal necked to a burro refused to lead or ‘sulled,’ the little canary would blaze away with his heels at the steer, who wouldn’t be long in obeying orders.” Jack Thorp, Along the Rio Grande.

chromo = a mass produced color image using a lithographic printing process; a chromolithograph. “The altar flared with innumerable candles which twinkled on ancient saints and modern chromos, on mirrors and tinsel and paper flowers.” Charles Lummis, A Tramp Across the Continent.

cold jawed = a horse that keeps his jaw closed and is likely to get the bit in his teeth and run with it. “And if they didn’t take the bit in their teeth, and go cold jawed with you, though full of thorns, scratched and bleeding, you would find yourself still on your horse when the run was over.” Jack Thorp, Along the Rio Grande.

continental cent = a penny coin struck in the early days of the American Revolution and worthless to anyone except a collector. “Of course, on the other hand, it may not be worth a continental cent, but a miner is willing to take his chances.” Charles Lummis, A Tramp Across the Continent.

copenhagen = A children's game in which one player is enclosed by a circle of others holding a rope. “There is nothing like copenhagen or any of the similar old-fashioned raral games of the East.” Charles Lummis, A Tramp Across the Continent.

cut trail = to come across or discover a trail. “‘They cut my back trail,’ said Overland, snuggling down behind the brush.” Henry Herbert Knibbs, Overland Red.

German = a cotillion, a complex dance in which one couple leads the other couples through a variety of figures and there is a continual change of partners. “The evolutions of their ‘grand march’ are too intricate for description, and would completely bewilder a fashionable leader of the German.” Charles Lummis, A Tramp Across the Continent.

Great Eastern = the largest ocean-going vessel in the 19th century, capable of transporting 4,000 passengers around the world without refueling. “He was a gentleman of chronic woes, and in the first hour of acquaintance told me sorrows enough to have swamped the Great Eastern had she tried to carry them all.” Charles Lummis, A Tramp Across the Continent.

irrigate = drink, take a drink. “Come over ’n’ let’s irrigate.” Charles Lummis, A Tramp Across the Continent.

jingle bob = historically, the distinctive cutting of a cow’s ear by early New Mexico rancher, John Chisum; also, a piece of metal dangling against a spur rowel which makes a ringing sound as a cowhand walks, and keeps livestock from being surprised by his movement, especially at night. “His brand was a long rail on the side, while for an earmark he gave the jingle bob, ‘Ear cut so it hangs down like a bell’.” Jack Thorp, Along the Rio Grande.

melodeum = a small keyboard organ. “I was scared it was vi’lets and ‘Gather at the River,’ without the melodeum, for him.” Henry Herbert Knibbs, Overland Red.

map = a person’s face. “He rides about five rods on the cayuse and then five more on his map.” Henry Herbert Knibbs, Overland Red.

off one’s crust = crazy. “Billy’s gone off his crust. He’s ravin’ back there, Brand.” Henry Herbert Knibbs, Overland Red.

Pecos = to dispose of a body in the Pecos River. “The river was known by many as the river of sin, for when a man was killed in its vicinity, he sometimes was weighted down and his body sunk in the stream, hence the saying to Pecos him, or he was Pecosed.” Jack Thorp, Along the Rio Grande.

pomatum = a perfumed ointment for grooming the hair; pomade. “In five minutes he was gone in a cloud of dust, the tatters of the hat on his pomatumed head.” Charles Lummis, A Tramp Across the Continent.

riding chuck-line = said of a cowboy riding from ranch to ranch, usually during the winter months, in search of work; explained further as follows:  “All ranches make him welcome for a night or so, when he again moves on.” Jack Thorp, Along the Rio Grande.

riding Indian = Ramon Adams lists ride a la Comanché, meaning to ride hanging on the side of a horse, as the Comanche did in battle. I’m guessing that’s the meaning intended in this example:  “Some of the old experienced brush horses, depended more in breaking their way through the brush, and you could by ‘riding Indian’ all over them.” Jack Thorp, Along the Rio Grande.

shillalah = a cudgel; club made of hardword (from Irish Shillelagh). “But a forty-four makes a terrible shillalah; and with the crazy zeal which at times catches the least courageous hunter, I clubbed it and ‘waded in’.” Charles Lummis, A Tramp Across the Continent.

single-foot = a rapid gait of a horse in which each foot strikes the ground separately. “Sleek bays with ‘Kentucky’ written in every rippling muscle, single-footed in beside heavy mountain ponies, well boned, broad of knee, strong of flank, and docile.” Henry Herbert Knibbs, Overland Red.

snake weed = Any of various plants reputed to have the power to cure snakebite. “In a land like New Mexico, what with barrancas, arroyos, waste sand hills, timbered land, and miles where there is nothing but snake-weed, it takes upon an average from eighty to a hundred acres to support a cow.” Jack Thorp, Along the Rio Grande.

tile = a hat. “He took of his new silk ‘tile,’ walked forty yards or so toward the river, and set it down – behind the stump of a big cottonwood.” Charles Lummis, A Tramp Across the Continent.

white alley = in the game of marbles, a white marble used for shooting. “I make a distinction between gunman and gunfighter, the former being practically a murderer, while the latter always gave a foe a chance for his White Alley; in short, a gunfighter was not a hired killer.” Jack Thorp, Along the Rio Grande.

Yaqui = an Indian tribe originally in northern Mexico and now also in Arizona. “My Gosh, he can eat! And a complexion like a Yaqui.” Henry Herbert Knibbs, Overland Red.

Photo credit: Wikimedia Commons

Coming up: Martha Sandweiss, Print the Legend

Friday, February 18, 2011

Photo-finish Friday: Waiting for the rain

West Los Angeles, 18 February 2011, 11:00 am

As the song goes, it never rains in California . . . It pours, man, it pours. I'm waiting in the car for my mate to bring coffee for the road from Peets in the mini-mall at Westwood and Santa Monica. Not a place to park in the lot, of course, so it's me and the dog watching this "marine layer" roll in from the Pacific. Heavy rains forecast for LA today and tonight. 
It was still sunny in the desert when we got here two hours later, but that didn't last long. San Jacinto, the mountain across the valley from us has disappeared, all 10,834 feet of it. Outside there is the sharp fragrance of creosote, as the creosote bushes (Larrea tridentata) react to the rising humidity. 
At 5:00 as I write this, I can hear the rain coming down hard now, ringing in the downspouts from the roof. Before long, the washes that come off the incline from the foothills of Joshua Tree will spill over the streets with mud and rocks. But as the storm rolls on in the darkness of the approaching night, we'll settle in with a duraflame on the fire, pizza, and a netflix movie on the Roku. Could be worse.

James Galvin, The Meadow

Wyoming Week concludes with this book about a mountain homestead by James Galvin. Its chapters fall somewhere between vignettes and prose poems, and reading them is like leafing through an album of old photographs. The storyline is made up of the threads of connections to be made between each of the word-pictures.

The book is part fiction, part nonfiction. Galvin refers to himself and his family in some of the chapters, but the person at the center of the book is a neighbor, Lyle Van Waning, who has spent most of his life living near the meadow of the book's title, in the high elevations between Laramie, Wyoming, and Ft. Collins, Colorado.

By today's standards of urban comforts and conveniences, Lyle lives a kind of pioneer existence, isolated much of the year by deep snow, living by his skills as a carpenter and builder, and the proceeds of hay harvested from his meadow. When he can do neither of these, he's in his shop making machinery parts, carved wooden boxes, firearms, and whatever else captures his fascination.

Albany County, Wyoming, photo by Jharp
He is a deeply private and self-sufficient man, who never marries and seems to hold in his heart the strongest connection with a dead sister who committed suicide. (A painting by Clara Van Waning appears on the cover of the book.) Galvin captures in Lyle the kind of fiercely independent spirit that made survivors of those who first settled and thrived in the American wilderness.

There are other men and women associated with the meadow. And their stories are also told, including App Worster and his son Ray, whose family owns the meadow before the Van Wanings, and who lose it during the Depression. We also learn something of a neighboring rancher Frank Lilley, who is dying of cancer, and whose family continues to keep his ranch going.

There's also Ferris, who tries the frontier patience of his neighbors to the breaking point by dumping truckloads of old appliances on his property and denuding his small pasture with over-grazing. Taken all together, The Meadow is told with wonderful precision, a photographic attention to details, and a feeling for a kind of life that survives in spite of isolation and often hostile elements.

While Galvin does not romanticize the lives of his characters, he does celebrate them. There's a heartfelt attachment in this book to the region that is his home, the landscape and changing seasons, and the people who have put down roots there. It's a book for anyone with an interest in the lives of those who adapted to the harsh extremities of the frontier and cherished its stark beauty.  

Photo images:

Coming up: Martha Sandweiss, Print the Legend

Thursday, February 17, 2011

Gretel Ehrlich, The Solace of Open Spaces

Wyoming Week continues with this collection of essays about the Cowboy State, first published in 1985. Reading it 20 years ago, I got hooked on the West and haven't lost interest yet. Ehrlich, from California, was a documentary filmmaker and saw Wyoming with an outsider's eye for detail. Writing about it, she clearly fell in love with her subject.

Her portrayal of the men who work in this environment is very different from the stereotypes of fiction, TV, and movies. She finds cowboys often tender-hearted, quirky, and curiously courtly. Not to be outdone by the men in this world of extremes and hard work, the women she meets and befriends are tough-minded and independent.

Completing her picture are the Native Americans. She portrays them respectfully and with some irony, as they both recover and reinvent a lost heritage.

Autumn in the Bighorn Mountains
Hers is also a personal story. Beginning with the wrenching death of a close male friend, it recounts in her growing love for Wyoming and its people the discovery of a new life. And while her book is no heart-on-the-sleeve display of pain and recovery, one senses at almost every step the healing process that underlies the words.

As slender as a book of poems, this volume of essays calls out to be read slowly and savored, word for word. Meanwhile, the visual imagery calls to mind the sweeping landscapes of John Ford movies. Finally, I don't think there's ever been a book about the West with a more evocative title.

Picture credit:

Coming up: James Galvin, The Meadow

Wednesday, February 16, 2011

John McPhee, Rising From the Plains

Wyoming Week continues today with this book by John McPhee, a writer with the remarkable ability to take a scientific subject (geology) and make it not just interesting but gripping. He achieves this in part by personalizing it and introducing an eminent field geologist, David Love (1913-2002), who takes him and us on a tour around Wyoming, his home-state.

There he describes over two billion years of the geological past as revealed in the cuts along Interstate 80 and in a side trip to Jackson Hole, outside Yellowstone Park. Love, it should be said, is very much a product of his upbringing on an isolated ranch in central Wyoming, his mother educated at Wellesley, his father an immigrant from Scotland who quotes William Cowper and Sir Walter Scott.

Love is independent, old school, hands-on, tireless, scrupulous, and an innovative thinker who made a significant impact over a lifetime in his field. He chose to work for the US Geological Survey after a short period of unhappy employment for an oil company.

I-80 near Green River, Wyoming
McPhee captures his very individual point of view, his dedication to science, and his Western perspective in character sketches and fragments of conversation between them. He has a dry sense of humor, colorful turns of phrase, and a toughness that goes along with long periods of field work and sleeping rough under the stars. He was also a grand-nephew of naturalist John Muir.

The book actually begins with his mother's wintery journey by horse-drawn coach from Rawlins to central Wyoming, where she has accepted a teaching job at a one-room school. It segues between the story of his parents' courtship in the first decade of the 20th century and his travels with McPhee over 70 years later. Finally it devotes a long section to Love's own boyhood, growing up on his parents' ranch, with an older brother, among cowboys raising both sheep and cattle.

Mt. Moran, Teton National Park, Ansel Adams, 1941

The accounts of surviving blizzards and floods that nearly wipe them out, the visitors passing through who may or may not be hunted killers, even an appearance (possibly two) by Butch Cassidy make this compelling reading for anyone with an interest in the early days of ranching in the West.

There's a brilliant section late in the book as McPhee describes Love's fascination with Jackson Hole while he was still a graduate student at Yale. After many years of walking the ridges and summits around it, he was able to develop a scenario of how it was formed over the eons.

McPhee's rendering of this scenario in words is vivid. In the mind's eye, you can see mountain ranges and seas rise and fall in all manner of climates from tropical to ice age, until the topography assumes its present configuration, which is still changing.

Read the book, and you won't see a western landscape the same. There's more about David Love, as he was remembered, here.

Picture credits: Wikimedia Commons

Coming up: Gretel Ehrlich, The Solace of Open Spaces

Tuesday, February 15, 2011

Geoffrey O'Gara, What You See in Clear Water

Wyoming Week continues at BITS with this book of nonfiction about water rights and the struggle over a river. Author Geoffrey O'Gara uses two decades of legal wrangles over control of the watershed on Wyoming's Wind River Reservation to explore two centuries of the collision between whites and Native Americans in the West.

He accomplishes this feat in 300 pages by presenting the story as a human drama, focusing on the lives of individuals, living and dead, each with their own aspirations, history, and personality. On the one hand are the white farmers who have settled legally within the boundaries of the reservation. They have been "reclaiming" arid land with water provided by federally funded irrigation systems.

On the other are the Indians of two tribes, Shoshone and Arapaho. Historically antagonistic, they have been reduced by over a century of conquest, but together they discover a new-found strength to resist the will of state and federal governments. Among them are the college-educated, the young drop-outs, and the old who still remember some of the lost Indian culture.

Fremont Peak, Wind River Range
They are a wide range of people, challenging easy ethnic stereotypes while at the same time representing the social ills that plague the reservations: poverty, unemployment, alcoholism. It is a Dickensian cast of characters.

A third group of key figures in O'Gara's story are the non-Indian professionals whose lives become entwined with reservation residents as the struggle over water rights heats up. These include engineers, hydrologists, conservationists, bureaucrats, lawyers and judges. Endless legal battles and court decisions progressively yield more ground to the Indians, while appeals take the case against them all the way to the Supreme Court. And after $50 million in legal fees, the issues remain unresolved.

The book is organized as a journey upstream, along the river's two main branches, into its headwaters in mountain glaciers. Good idea to take a map of Wyoming along for reference. And a good pair of hiking boots.

Picture credit: Wikimedia Commons

Coming up: John McPhee, Rising From the Plains

Monday, February 14, 2011

Teresa Jordan, Riding the White Horse Home

There's a growing literature of memoirs written by women who grew up on ranches. Wyoming Week here at BITS begins with this fine addition to it. Jordan tells of her family, who for four generations raised cattle in southeast Wyoming, north of Laramie and Cheyenne.

With some irony, it was more circumstance than a love of ranching that kept the Jordans on the land, until the author's father sold the home place in the 1970s. But the love of that spot on earth lives on strongly in the author, and her book is a tribute to it and to her family who toiled there through good years and bad.

She clearly admires the men who labored on horseback raising cattle. She devotes chapters to her grandfather, her father, and the many foremen and ranch hands who worked for them. Fully engaging, too, are her memories of the women and the imprint they have made on herself.

Swan Land and Cattle Company, Chugwater, Wyoming, 1974
Three portraits in particular stand out. First is her mother, Jo, with a warm, generous, and independent spirit, who died suddenly at an early age. Then there's her great aunt Marie, who loved her horses and dogs like the children she never had, and lived happily together with her husband and her husband's best friend. Finally, there's her grandmother Effie, a puzzlingly bitter woman whose wishes for a full life seem to have been frustrated from girlhood because of her gender and social limitations.

There's much in this book to commend it, including a chapter devoted to the calving season and another describing the physically punishing nature of ranch work. Her chapter on her great aunt Marie includes excerpts from her journals, and each chapter is introduced with a photograph from the family album. The book closes with a description of the author's wedding at the community center near where she grew up, an idyllic day poignant for its wholehearted celebration of a way of community life that is rapidly vanishing.

Picture credit: Wikimedia Commons

Coming up: Geoffrey O'Gara, What You See in Clear Water

Friday, February 11, 2011

Photo-finish Friday: Spring in the desert

It's February and the first sign of spring around my house in the desert is this cassia bush that has grown from a little shrub to this big guy. It fared not well, losing branches in the gales of winter until a couple years ago when I went at it with pruning shears. Now it does this graceful dance in the breeze - and keeps growing.

The blossoms produce a richly sweet fragrance, and the bees are thick around them. They're probably just doing what bees do, but they seem dizzy with delirium. A close look, and you may make out a couple at work.

When blooms and bees are done, the branches will grow heavy with little pea pods, first bright green then turning black. As they fall during the rest of the year, they break open and the ground is covered with shiny black dots like poppy seeds.

By then the desert heat is upon us and spring is only a distant memory of pleasant warmth and bright colors, doors and windows left open to the soft flow of air. These are the days, as a desert dweller, you cherish.

Thursday, February 10, 2011

Owen Wister, Lin McLean (1898)

Owen Wiste
This forgotten book is doing double duty as also a preview of Wyoming Week here at BITS, which starts on Monday.  As a favorite western destination of the young writer Owen Wister, Wyoming was the setting for his bestseller western, The Virginian (1902). Before that, it had already appeared in Wister's dispatches for Harper's Monthly Magazine, which found readers eager to read about life on the frontier.

One of Wister's early fictional characters was a cowboy called Lin McLean. Western writer Dane Coolidge observed that a copy of the collected stories, Lin McLean, could be found in almost any bunkhouse across the West in the first decades of the twentieth century. Its hero, an early version of Wister's Virginian, had the same boyish charm and natural nobility.

Though he comes from Eastern stock, he's a son of the plains, a man of homespun character, mostly unschooled, but both fiercely egalitarian and gentlemanly. An excellent horseman, good with a gun, handsome and gallant in his courtship of women, he is respected by all. Generous to a fault, he also takes under his wing a boy who has run away from a home that we'd describe today as thoroughly dysfunctional.

Harper's Monthly, 1895
A series of short stories strung together into a novel, Wister's book is really a romance in a western setting. It is still the time of the open range and frontier towns of Wyoming in the 1880s, an era already regarded as long past, just a decade later at the time of Wister's writing. There are no gunfights or outlaws.

While the book is chiefly a portrayal of an admirable young man, its storyline has to do with the winning of a young woman's hand - two women, actually. Each of them betrays him, one for lack of principle and the other for principles too highly refined.

Altogether, the book is an enjoyable and entertaining read that, besides its occasional quaintness, is fully enjoyable more than 100 years after its writing. Wister has a gift for both humor and poignancy. While the realities of cowboying, homesteading, and working with cattle hardly get a mention, his depiction of the Old West ranges easily from farce to sentiment to the starkly grim.

Little Laramie River, 1905

McLean's visit to Denver at Christmas suggests something of Dickens' London, and the account of a funeral comes as close as anything to black humor. As a precursor to The Virginian, these stories raised many issues that get fuller treatment in the later novel.

There are even glimpses of the Virginian himself, who gets brief walk-ons, with references to his own longstanding courtship of the schoolmarm from Vermont. With both men, Wister did more than anyone to invent the cowboy hero as he came to be known by everyone, from the bunkhouse to the parlor and eventually to the movie screen.

Lin McLean was adapted to film by John Ford in 1918 and retitled, A Woman's Fool, starring Harry Carey. The novel is available free online here and here, and at Abebooks.

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Coming up: Wyoming Week

Monday, February 7, 2011

Will Penny (1968)

I’m never sure what to make of Charlton Heston. The roles he’s played politically and in epic movies are hard to forget when he’s on screen as someone else. Here he’s an aging cowboy who can’t read or write, down to his last few dollars and out of a job. All of this, and then things really go south for him.

Many western fans put this film in their top 10 list, and there is much to be said for it. The look and feel of it, the costumes, firearms, sets, cattle herding show a genuine effort to be authentic. Then there are Ben Johnson and Slim Pickens in supporting roles who had lived the life.

Its portrayal of cowboys is also truthful. They worked hard for low pay and were often drifters. As such, they had to be resourceful and self-reliant. If a man could not get himself started with cattle of his own while he was still young, he would not amount to much. Having little to offer a wife, he would live the rest of his years unmarried and alone.

Given all this, there’s a melancholy tone underlying much of the film, in spite of its lighter moments. Then, when misfortune leads Will Penny’s life to cross paths with another soul at loose ends (played nicely by Joan Hackett), we are suddenly in predictable Hollywood western territory. He is wounded and left to die by a maniacal Donald Pleasance, and she nurses him back to health.

Heston, President of AFI, 1981
The mother of a young boy (Jon Gries, the writer-director’s son), she has been deserted by a husband while emigrating west. She is educated, somewhat refined, the opposite of Will. Still, tender feelings grow between the three of them as they winter together in a line cabin.

This being a western, some violence is required, and what’s eventually played out is a scene that may haunt the imaginations of a certain kind of gun advocate. Will and his adopted family become the victims of a nasty home invasion. The menacing Donald Pleasance and his two grown sons reappear and have to be eliminated before order can be restored.

The action is exciting and full of surprises, many of them welcome. Then, after it all, there’s the denouement, and the degree of honesty in the film has to pass another test. Does Will choose to follow his feelings for this woman and her son, or is he prevented by the fact that he has so little in the way of material assets to offer them?

I’m not telling. You have to watch it to find out.

Heston at Deauville, 1982, photo by Roland Godefroy
Which brings me back to Heston’s performance. I give him credit for taking a role that doesn’t call for winning chariot races or dividing the Red Sea. He makes Will Penny almost an anti-hero in the way he invites mixed feelings in the audience.

Something of a loser, friendless, getting old with no prospects, he is even pathetic at times. Yet Heston’s performance never quite tips into pathos. And the movie ends with a kind of courage Hollywood isn’t always known for.

Here is a short featurette from the DVD in which Heston and Jon Gries talk about the cowboys in the film:

Photo credits:

Coming up: Wyoming Week

Saturday, February 5, 2011

Brad Parks, Faces of the Gone

Four found dead in a vacant lot somewhere in Newark. Shot execution style. A young reporter for the city newspaper goes after the story. All of this in the first handful of pages.

For me, the plot in the best crime fiction has to start simple and then spiral out in enough directions to keep the surprises coming. Since the victims in this case seem to have no connection to each other, the complications come thick and fast.

The cops, of course, have the wrong end of the stick. When the deaths turn out to be drug-related, there’s no cooperation from the feds. Internal politics at the newspaper makes our reporter’s job even more tenuous.

Set all of this in the social fabric of a decaying city, and mire it in the sad agonies of newsgathering in the last days of the traditional newspaper. And you get a heck of a story, and those are the gifts Parks brings to his readers in this first novel.

Carter Ross, our thirty-something protagonist is, like Columbo, a fish out of water. Only the situation is reversed. The waters he navigates are the crumbling inner city and its gang members, drug dealers, exotic dancers, vagrants, drunks, and struggling poor.

Newark skyline, photo by Matthew Trump © 2004

Ever the object of scorn and amusement, he’s the white boy in a landscape of black faces. Meanwhile, his privileged background earns him his fair share of abuse from the old-school newsmen at work. And his straight-arrow pleated pants and button-down shirt get him the eye-rolling disdain of his queer-eye intern, Tommy Hernandez.

The tone of the novel is serio-comic, the seriousness drifting sometimes into the sentimental. Ross gets to feeling his liberal guilt at times, particularly about the hard life of under-class women. Still, getting information from an amply proportioned barroom dancer who does tricks between acts, he more than a little enjoys her company.

Brad Parks
Later, in front of news cameras and not altogether dressed for them, she humiliates him on the street. The relationship between them adds a layer of racial, social, and sexual politics to the novel that may or may not be intentional. But one thing for sure, it’s a bit beyond Ross’s full comprehension.

The comedy is more fully developed and Parks takes greater risks with it. I laughed loud and often through much of the novel. The banter between characters is sometimes sharp and typically at Ross’ expense. More than once he walks away from an exchange wishing he’d come up with a snappier parting line.

Some scenes drift wonderfully into full-blown farce, as when Ross takes some hits from a king size joint to prove to the members of a street gang that he’s not a cop. They are so amused by his haplessness they make him an honorary member of the gang.

The bantering and the humor don’t always work. Also, the red herring Ross falls for near the end is so obvious that you have to assume Parks wants us to see Ross as not the sharpest knife in the drawer.

His constantly frustrated and uncertainly focused libido adds another dimension to his fallibility. Opportunities to bed a willing female editor pass one after another, and even a wet dream is interrupted by the smell of breakfast cooking in the kitchen.

Parks' narrative style harks back, I think, to an earlier school of crime fiction. It doesn’t want to be edgy or hard-boiled. There’s a warmth at the center that may not be to all tastes. It’s best in its observations about the business of newsgathering in a big city. And its contempt for local TV news is deep and scathing.

Parks' experience as a newspaper reporter serves him and his readers well, both for how it informs his story and in the sharp writing itself. Not surprised the novel has won all its recognition and awards.

Photo credits:
Brad Parks, photo by James N. Lum

Coming up: Wyoming Week

Friday, February 4, 2011

Photo-finish Friday: street scene

No, it's not a side street in Baghdad. Anyone who has watched the Oscars on TV until recent years has seen the inside of this building. It's the Shrine Auditorium in Los Angeles.

I walk by here most days on the way to/from my job. This time of year, as I'm heading for my car at the end of the day, it glows in the golden light of the setting sun. This was yesterday, about 5:10 pm. If there'd been a big event last night, the street would have been blocked off and lined with limos.

The Shrine Auditorium bills itself as having the largest proscenium stage in North America and a balcony that seats 6,300. It is operated by the Shriners, a fraternal organization of Masons that funds 22 children's hospitals. No, I've never been inside. I think you have to be invited.

Ryan Taylor, A Collection of Cowboy Logic

Dakota Territory Week concludes with this book by Ryan Taylor, a fourth-generation rancher near the small town of Towner (pop. 867) in north-central North Dakota. In his 20s and unmarried when the material in this book was written, Taylor is a columnist for Ag Week, commenting with tongue in cheek on the ironies and oddities of modern-day ranching.

The subtitle of his book is A Look at the Lighter Side of Going Broke, Raising Cattle, and Living on the Prairie. The 190+ short columns collected between these covers reflect on nearly any subject likely to cross the mind of a thoughtful rancher or farmer while cutting hay, fixing fence, or mucking out the barn.

Will Rogers, before 1900
A frequent theme is the negative economics of balancing the costs of operation against invariably falling farm prices. And he frequently considers alternative forms of income. He weighs in, for instance, on the subject of Rocky Mountain oysters, which if marketed as a high-priced gourmet food, like caviar, could make up for what little the rest of the calf is worth on the market.

We accompany him on trips to farm auctions in hopes of finding an old tractor or hay baler with some life left in it. We consider with him the many uses for vice grip wrenches (which also make great wedding gifts, he argues). There's a discussion of the effect of rainy weather on the many shapes that a hayfield can take as he dodges around the wet spots. There's a rumination on the difficulty of wiping out the evil weed, spurge. And so on.

Readers familiar with the trials and tribulations of making a living from ranching or farming will find the author wryly entertaining. For other readers, his book also offers an insight into a rural frame of mind, its values, beliefs, and concerns, not to mention its politics and somewhat jaundiced view of government, bureaucracy, and city folk.

In that regard, Taylor is a direct descendant of Will Rogers (see above). In his public speaking engagements (he studied mass communications in college), Taylor even does rope tricks. There's more at his website.

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Coming up: Brad Parks, Faces of the Gone

Thursday, February 3, 2011

Adrian Louis, Skins

Dakota Territory Week continues with this novel by Native American poet, short story writer, and former journalist, Adrian Louis. Published in 1995, this darkly entertaining story, set on the Pine Ridge Reservation in southwest South Dakota, presents a harshly comic vision of Indian life.

Louis immerses the reader in a compelling mix of Indian and white cultures and its resulting ambiguities, competing worldviews, and conflicted values. Rudy, the Indian cop, portrays these confusing conflicts beautifully, representing both the law in his tribal police uniform and vigilante justice in his blackface and pantyhose mask.

Revealing other dimensions of Rudy's confusion, Louis explores his relationship to the women in his life. Married and estranged from his wife, Rudy indulges his growing attraction to his cousin's wife, Stella, while he carries on with other men's wives as well.

Tashun-Kakokipa, Pine Ridge, 1891
Meanwhile, afflicted with hypertension, he takes meds that affect his sexual performance. Much of the novel traces the rising and falling cycles of his libido, all of which are unpredictable and seemingly under the spell of forces beyond him. It is no accident that Iktomi, the trickster spirit and shape-shifter, is a central theme in the novel. Appearance and reality, wisdom and stupidity, pride and shame, love and rage are all in a continuing dance for dominance.

Also at the center of the story is Rudy's relationship with his alcoholic older brother, Mogey. While casting an unblinking eye on the devastating impact of alcohol consumption on the reservation, Louis both condemns and forgives those who seek oblivion in the bottom of the bottle. In his hands, Mogey is a wonderful creation.

While there are vague allusions to the grim effect of two tours of duty in Vietnam, Louis doesn't excuse Mogey for choosing his path of self-destruction. Yet through his brother Rudy, the reader can begin to understand the deep love possible for someone unable to resist the pull of despair.

This book is not for everyone, but I like it for what it has to say about the Indian nations - in their own voices and without the moralizing or sentimentality of those who have never walked in their shoes. Also worth watching is the film Skins (2002, available on DVD), which is based on the book.

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Coming up: Ryan Taylor, A Collection of Cowboy Logic

Wednesday, February 2, 2011

Kent Meyers, The Work of Wolves

Dakota Territory Week continues today with a novel set in the reservation and ranchland of central South Dakota. The author, who teaches at Black Hills State University, has written before of small-town life in Minnesota. His collection of short stories, Light in the Crossing, is terrific, and so is his novel, The River Warren.

Sand Lake National Wildlife Refuge, South Dakota
In whatever time it has taken him to put down roots in South Dakota, Meyers has tapped into the world of modern-day cowboys and Indians. The novel cuts deep into the western psyche, its frame of mind, and its values.

A slender plot-line for its 400+ pages, it glows with intensity at each turn. While your desire to know what happens next presses you onward, you pause along with the author to reflect on the thoughts and feelings of the characters. All are pulled into a flow of events that begins with the purchase of a horse and leads inevitably to the burning of a house.

There is humor, suspense, family drama, surprises, ironies of all kinds, a smoldering romance, conflicts, animosity, suspense, farce, triumphs and sorrows in Meyers' novel. And all is woven around a continuing meditation on moral complexity and finally the great difficulty of doing the right thing when there are deep emotions, conflicting points of view, and only degrees of violence and loss to choose from.

There are four young men at the center of this story, two Indians, a cowboy, and a German exchange student. Each bears a legacy of history that pulls them together in the single effort to rescue three horses. Meyers makes them come to life vividly through action, thought, and dialogue.

Around them is another dozen or so characters, just as carefully drawn and revealed through illuminating flashes of incident. And as in his other work, there is the continuing presence of the landscape and the seasons, as summer turns to autumn and snow-driven winter.

It is a multi-layered narrative where ironic parallels multiply and fascinating ambiguities abound. Especially interesting is the characterization of the young cowboy, whose ancestry in American literature dates back to Owen Wister's Virginian. Here is that same set of values, courage, pure-heartedness, and self-containment, 100 years later, set in conflict with a cunning villain. It is moving to learn what has become of him.

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Coming up:  Adrian Louis, Skins

Tuesday, February 1, 2011

Ian Frazier, On the Rez

Dakota Territory Week continues today with Ian Frazier's account of life on the Pine Ridge Reservation, near Rapid City in southwest South Dakota. Opinions differ about this book. I happened to like it. Reading and sometimes rereading its 275+ pages, I felt immersed in a culture as foreign to mainstream white America as life on Mars.

We don't get the easy generalizations to be found in the superficial coverage provided by the news media (and Frazier uses a Tom Brokaw report on NBC, "Tragedy at Pine Ridge," as an example). Instead, Frazier offers a richly complex portrayal of a single community of modern-day plains Indians, the Oglala Sioux.

His book doesn't deny their overwhelming problems, including poverty, unemployment, widespread alcoholism, violent crime, and an alarming rate of highway fatalities. In fact, it explores them at length. But he also demolishes the stereotypes and clichés that prevent Indians from being understood as people with hopes, fears, loves, desires, humor, and all the rest that is human.

He does this in part through an appreciation of historical figures like Crazy Horse and Red Cloud, a profile of AIM leaders, Russell Means and Dennis Banks, and a moving tribute to star high school basketball player Suanne Big Crow. More intimately, we spend time with Le War Lance, a friend of the author for many years, who introduces Frazier to the lesser-known aspects of reservation life and the many residents he knows.

Chief Crazy Horse
Like much New Yorker writing (Susan Orlean's The Orchid Thief comes to mind) Frazier's book digresses at the drop of a hat into subjects that take on a life of their own - the history of Indians in Hollywood movies, for instance, the stealing of the Black Hills from the Indians, an explanation of how to make fry bread, a laundry list of summer visitors trooping through the reservation's one convenience store and café.

And Frazier appears himself as a character in his narrative. At times he's patiently generous and at others a self-conscious and comical fish out of water. For all the social ills he turns his attention to, he is never preachy or openly guilt inducing, and he doesn't diminish his subject with political correctness.

When you turn the last page, the ending seems abrupt and incomplete. But the reason you understand is that the lives of the many people you've met through Frazier go on and the cycles of seasons continue. And you understand why he returns to Pine Ridge again and again. I recommend this book to anyone with an interest in American Indians, reservation life, and Native American social history. Frazier makes them all come humorously, sadly and always vividly to life.

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Coming up: Kent Meyers, The Work of Wolves