Friday, August 31, 2012

Phil Truman, Red Lands Outlaw: The Ballad of Henry Starr

Review and interview
This must be one of the gentlest western novels ever written about an Old West outlaw. Phil Truman takes the story of bank robber Henry Starr’s life and retells it as a lightly humorous, slightly quirky, and sometimes bittersweet tale of an otherwise decent man who happens to find his calling on the wrong side of the law.

A descendant of Cherokee Indians in Oklahoma, Starr might have lived his life differently. But despite his efforts to earn an honest dollar, his natural gifts inclined him otherwise. Not that he was always lucky, as the opening scene demonstrates. What starts out as a Dalton-style double bank holdup in 1915 gets him shot and arrested. The novel closes with his last turn of bad luck, shot again during another bank job in 1921, this time fatally.

Starr, by Truman’s account, was also unlucky in love. Married three times, he had no trouble charming the girls. But his inability to support them, once wedded, kept his marriages brief.

Character. Calling the novel a “Ballad” nicely describes its overall structure. Like the verses of a long narrative folk song, the story Truman tells is not so much biographical as it is a sequence of dramatic incidents portraying the character of the man.

What neither title nor subtitle reveals is the novel’s wry humor. And much of it comes from Starr’s way of choosing to be amused by any unexpected turn of events. An early attempt at robbing a train becomes a comedy of errors, but while nearly everything goes wrong, the man remains a model of grace under pressure.

Poster for movie about Starr, 1919
He is respectful of others, even as he’s robbing them. He speaks calmly, assuring them that no one will be hurt, so there’s no reason to be alarmed. Determined to be remembered as a professional and a gentleman, he tells them his name while making off with the loot. He even gives a girl a handful of quarters before one departure.

His nemesis in the novel is legendary lawman Bill Tilghman, who had done much to clean up Oklahoma in the years following statehood. Seeming to understand Starr’s basically well-mannered temperament, he treats him with polite regard. He also gets Starr involved in a movie project, reenacting one of his unsuccessful robberies, to show that crime doesn’t pay.

The only real villain of the story is hanging Judge Isaac Parker of Fort Smith, Arkansas. The judge sentences Starr twice to the gallows for the same crime and finally fails to see him executed, by dropping dead himself before a final retrial. Also appearing in the novel is Comanche chief Quanah Parker, who invites Starr into his home one night for a dinner of fresh game.

Wrapping up. Truman chooses as his central character a man who grew up a contemporary of Old West outlaws and lived to a time when bank robberies made use of getaway cars. A fugitive from justice much of his life, he spent only a handful of years behind bars, always winning early parole by being a model prisoner.

You believe as surely as he does that he’ll never break the law again when he’s released, but it’s hard for an Indian and an ex-con to find a steady job. Eventually, a wife and child become a responsibility beyond his means to support, and ill-gotten gains are too temptingly irresistible.

From beginning to end, Starr is a man who learns from his mistakes, but what he learns is not of much use to him. And when his luck finally runs out at the end, he accepts it without complaint. He only asks that he be buried in the new suit he’s just bought, hoping the bloodstains won’t show. The whole novel is like that, its wry humor unforced and always catching you by surprise.

Red Lands Outlaw is currently available in paper at amazon and Barnes&Noble and for the kindle.

Phil Truman
Phil Truman has agreed to spend some time here today talking about writing and the writing of Red Lands Outlaw. So I'm turning the rest of this page over to him. 

Phil, how do you define the “traditional western”?
I grew up in the era of TV westernsGun Smoke, Have Gun Will Travel, Bonanza, Wagon Train, Rawhide, and on and on. So for me a traditional western has, at a minimum, one good guy, one bad guy, a good woman (or a good bad woman—see Kitty, Miss), perhaps some Native Americans, several horses, cows, lots of dust, fist fights, an agreeable amount of gunplay, and preferably some American history.

They’re usually morality plays—good vs. evil, right vs. wrong. Two writers come to mind when I consider the traditional western novel: Louis L’Amour and Larry McMurtry. One is the godfather of the American Western, the other is the Homer. One defines the genre, the other carries it to epic proportions.

Do you think of Red Lands Outlaw as an example of it?
According to the elements I listed above, I suppose Red Lands Outlaw would fit the traditional western category, but my gut feeling is, it’s not. I see it as more of a character study, a biographical morality play, about a man cornered by societal circumstances and making bad choices. Also, it’s my rookie attempt at writing a western, so what do I know. I feel I have a lot to learn from those who write westerns really well.

Belle Starr
Talk about how the story of this novel suggested itself and came to take shape for you.
Part of my my second novel, Legends of Tsalagee—a non-western, mystery, adventure—involves a supposed lost treasure of Belle Starr. While doing research on Belle for that novel, I ran across the account of Henry’s dual robberies of the banks in Stroud, Oklahoma. That fascinated me, so I dug a little more. I used him as a minor character in that second novel, and decided to make his biography my next project for a historical western novel.

Did you have the title from the beginning, or did that come later?
No, I had about fifteen working titles throughout the writing of the book, even ran some of them by friends. Red Lands Outlaw was one of the finalists, but the secondary title, The Ballad of Henry Starr, came to me the day before I sent it off to my publisher. As far as I’m concerned titles are the hardest part of writing a book.

What was involved in your research for the novel?
I’ve found that you can find out just about anything you want to know on the Internet, and some of it is actually factual. One of the reasons I gravitated to writing novels is because you can get away with making up most of what you don’t know. Historical novels, on the other hand, do require a certain responsibility to get most of your facts straight, especially biographical work.

I did a fair amount of scouring old newspaper articles about Henry Starr. The double bank robberies in Stroud, Oklahoma, were well documented, and the movie he made was based on that event. I also found and bought a copy of his autobiography. Interesting, though, that I found several written “histories” with varying accounts of the same events, including names of some of the principals in the stories. So I guess journalism hasn’t changed all that much over the years.

Thursday, August 30, 2012

John C. Bell, The Pilgrim and the Pioneer (1906)

Written by a former U.S. Congressman, this autobiographical book is less a novel as it is a miscellany of anecdotes, travel writing, boosterism, musings, and political rhetoric. In the character of John Campbell, the storyline parallels the career of the author during the years 1874-1878, when Bell was a young lawyer in Colorado.

Plot. Campbell is the “pilgrim” of the story, a tenderfoot from Tennessee, fresh out of law school. Traveling to the gold fields of the Rocky Mountains, he meets and befriends an older man, Joshua Wickham, who was an early Colorado settler and is the “pioneer” of the title. He encourages Campbell to establish a law practice in a succession of mining camps that are growing into towns—Del Norte, Saguache, Lake City.

After a while, they take a long excursion together, first to arid southwestern Colorado, then northward to Salt Lake City, Butte, and Idaho’s Couer d’Alene. At that point, they part company. Wickham travels on to British Columbia, and Campbell returns to Colorado.

Wickham and Campbell
In the final three chapters, the narrative jumps ahead to the year 1900. Campbell, now middle aged, retraces the route of his journey to Idaho, and Wickham, an elderly man, returns to Colorado to find it greatly changed. The old frontier spirit he once cherished is now hard to find. The book ends with a family reunion for Wickham and his grown children.

Structure. At 531 pages, this is a long book to be summed up in just three paragraphs. The action doesn’t come together as a plot so much as a loosely connected series of incidents that illustrate larger philosophical and legal themes. A central thread running through the book is the pioneer Wickham’s philosophy of optimism. He believes that Nature moves at all times toward peace, harmony, and justice.

The unjust and dishonest, he says, are merely temporary impediments in the path of progress toward a more perfect world. For him the glass is always half full. Right will prevail. A skilled arbitrator, he keeps apparently irreconcilable disputes from escalating to litigation. He boasts that his efforts have made courts unnecessary.

Wickham returns a bad horse
Character. In a rough and ready way, the book is a bildungsroman. It tells the story of a young man, Campbell, who gains the courage to be a true public servant by becoming socially conscious and confronting injustice wherever it rears its hoary head.

He starts out as a timid fellow, a tenderfoot in the wild and woolly West. From humble beginnings, he has trusting expectations of a world that is in fact full of predators. The loose behavior of dancehall girls unnerves him, and he’s often the butt of practical jokes.

Nonetheless, he acquires a reputation among the more reputable among his fellow frontiersmen. Known to be unstinting in his efforts to serve his clients, he is soon elevated to the position of county attorney.

Whites and nonwhites. The subject of interracial marriage is a prominent theme in the book. Wickham, we learn, married an Indian chief’s daughter when he was a young man on the frontier. She bore him six daughters, all of whom shame him because they show no mixture of white blood. When his wife dies, he sees that they are married to white men, and he divides up his extensive property among them before leaving.

Susan B. Anthony and the miners
Over the years, Wickham laments that he ever fathered his daughters because he disadvantaged them by giving them mixed blood. Another man faults him for giving his children a “greasy, dumb, thoughtless, unsympathetic Indian squaw” for a mother. He hardly disagrees and comes to believe that it would take generations of infusions of white blood to lift his progeny out of their unfortunate genetic heritage.

Women. Respectability comes at a high price for the women. A young bride is forced by winter weather to overnight in a one-room inn with several men clustered in blankets around the fire. The next morning, they must promise that no one, not even her husband, will ever learn of their unconventional sleeping arrangements. 

There’s one stellar appearance by Susan B. Anthony, who comes to town briefly in 1876. She appeals to the assembled miners to support the personal, property, and political rights of women. The men are won over by her well-reasoned argument that women should be granted equal rights in the Colorado Constitution.

Wednesday, August 29, 2012

The Best Reviews Money Can Buy

A New York Times feature article in the Business section of Sunday’s edition reports of the appearance of a new service industry--providing rave book reviews online for authors needing publicity to boost sales. This development raises a bunch of issues this blogger feels obliged to address. As someone who has reviewed books regularly for more than a decade—hundreds of customer reviews at amazon and lots more here on this blog—I have a few rules about reviewing.

One of them is never to accept compensation for reviews I’ve written. I also routinely turn down offers to write reviews for pay at online publications. The only payment I occasionally accept is a free copy of the book I’ll review, either paper or an ebook. And I don’t agree or offer to write a favorable review in exchange for that free copy or any other consideration.

The reasons for this should be obvious. But apparently they aren’t to a lot of people. So I’m using this space to clarify some of the rules I try to follow when reviewing a book.

When I’m reading a book to review, I read every word of it. Seems only fair. That means not skimming or skipping through or not finishing.

If I make a judgment about something in a book, I clarify it by giving examples. Otherwise, a reader can’t know for sure what I’m saying. “Exciting,” for instance, will mean something different to nearly everyone without a for instance or two.

I don’t use a single standard of judgment. Instead, I evaluate a book against what the writer seems to have set out to accomplish. A historical novel about the West, for instance, should show an effort to be historically accurate. A mystery should really keep me guessing to the end.

I look for “added value.” In a novel, that may be some ingenuity and originality, even if it’s constrained by the requirements of a genre. It could be ironies and unexpected plot turns. Humor. Really, a gift of any kind.

I’m not trying to sell books. Instead, I want the reader to get enough of an idea of a book to decide whether it’s for them or not. If it’s slow paced, for instance, I’ll say so and explain how that works for the story, but I won’t pretend every reader is going to love it.

As a former teacher, I tend to use a review to expose readers to different ways of enjoying fiction. Someone reading just for the storyline can miss a lot of the art that a good writer brings to the craft of storytelling. I think of these as “pleasures of the text” and try to raise readers’ awareness of them.

I don’t believe in giving stars. Never mind that amazon requires them and goodreads encourages them. Someone gives a book five stars, and I’m thinking, “Compared to what?” Similar books? Books currently in print? All books ever written? An ideal book? Some general standard? The current best sellers? The literary canon? The reviewer’s favorite authors? Shakespeare? John Grisham?

I know, stars are important for authors’ sales, but when The Great Gatsby can get a one-star review at amazon, you know they don’t mean much for the serious reader.

I don’t review books I don’t like. For me, four or five stars mean: “Don’t know about you, but I got a lot of enjoyment from this book.” And surveying my reviews at amazon, you’d find almost nothing but four- and five-star reviews. I prefer not to bad mouth a book that wasn’t written for a reader like me in the first place.

To be honest, I just want to help books find the readers they deserve. I don’t bother with bestsellers. They don’t need my help. So you’ll often find me reviewing books that haven’t had their 15 minutes of fame. They may even be out of print. Like introducing two good friends, you believe book and a certain kind of reader would enjoy getting to know each other.

So, no, I don’t take money for my reviews. Payment cancels out all of the legitimate reasons for taking the time to write and publish them. Worse, it destroys the integrity of the reviewer. If Orwell were here, he'd probably add that when words are grounded in falsehood, damage is done to language itself. As writers, we should care about that.

Finally, I’d like people to think, Scheer will be honest with them. He’ll expect you to make your own choices, but you can trust what he says. It's an aspiration not easy to achieve, I know, but like the frontier cowman’s code of ethics, I want my word to mean just that and nothing less.

Image credit: Wikimedia Commons

Coming up: John C. Bell, The Pilgrim and the Pioneer (1906)

Tuesday, August 28, 2012

Run For Cover, 1955

Cast often as a tough guy, James Cagney is full of surprises. In this western from director Nicholas Ray, he plays a thoughtfully patient mentor of a young stranger (John Derek) he meets on the trail. Shot in the mountains of New Mexico and Colorado, the film achieves a kind of visual majesty, while the story it tells is a simple one of love and friendship.

Plot. In a plot contrivance that’s more than a little far-fetched, Cagney and Derek are taken to be train robbers and come into the possession of a company payroll. A posse with a trigger-happy sheriff opens fire on them as they ride to the next town, disabling Derek, whose shattered leg keeps him off his feet for several weeks.

Taken in by a Swedish farmer (Jean Hersholt) and his daughter (Viveca Lindfors), Derek is nursed back to health, while Cagney looks after him and helps out on the farm. Tender affection develops between Cagney and Lindfors, but Derek reacts badly when he discovers he’ll never walk without a limp again.

Cagney is offered a job as sheriff of the town, and he enlists Derek as his deputy. But the young man is not up to the responsibilities given him by the well-meaning Cagney. First he allows the town folk to lynch a prisoner while Cagney is out capturing another wanted man (Ernest Borgnine). Later, he lets Borgnine escape.

John Derek, James Cagney, Viveca Lindfors
A big bank robbery in town finds everybody in church, where one of the thieves recognizes Cagney as an ex-con who was once a prison cellmate. Persuading the citizens who hired him that he’d done time for a crime he didn’t commit, he keeps his job and takes a posse out after the robbers.

The tracks lead to forbidding badlands, and everyone turns back except Cagney and Derek, who turns out to have been enlisted by Borgnine as an accomplice for the gang. In the ruins of an Indian pueblo, Cagney confronts Derek as a miserable excuse of a man and a disgrace to his gender. Then, thinking Derek is drawing on him, Cagney shoots him down.

Saturday, August 25, 2012

Saturday music: Sons of the Pioneers

How many western groups could yodel in close harmony? This video, "Way Out There," was filmed in 1937, when Leonard Slye was about to go solo as Roy Rogers.

Coming up: James Cagney, Run for Cover (1955)

Friday, August 24, 2012

Old West glossary, no. 41

Montana cowboys, c1910
Here’s another set of terms gleaned from early western stories. Definitions were discovered in various online dictionaries, as well as searches in Cassell’s Dictionary of Slang, Dictionary of the American West, The New Encyclopedia of the American West, The Cowboy Dictionary, The Cowboy Encyclopedia, and The Shorter Oxford English Dictionary.

These are from Alfred Henry Lewis’ Wolfville, about life in an Arizona cow town. Once again, I struck out on a few. If anyone has a definition for “bark at a knot,” “kettle-tender,” or “nigh-swing mule,” leave a comment below.

ace high = a poker hand consisting of an ace without a pair or better. “I never yet holds better than ace-high when the stake’s a lady.” Alfred Henry Lewis, Wolfville.

all of a bump = suddenly. “It all of a bump like a buckin’ pony strikes Jaybird that he’s missin’ a onusual chance to be buoyant.” Alfred Henry Lewis, Wolfville.

black snake = a long tapering braided whip of rawhide or leather. “I reaches across an’ belts him some abrupt between the y’ears with the butt of a shot-filled black-snake.” Alfred Henry Lewis, Wolfville.

blanket mate = a working partner, who may share the same bedroll. “The artillery is a case of s’prise, the most experienced gent in Wolfville not lookin’ for no gun-play between folks who’s been pards an’ blanket-mates for years.” Alfred Henry Lewis, Wolfville.

cat hop = in five-card draw poker, a long shot draw requiring two desired cards to make a hand. “Thar’s nothin’ left in the box but beans, coffee, an’ beans. It’s a cat-hop, but it can’t be he’ped none.” Alfred Henry Lewis, Wolfville.

check rack = the tray that hold the chips for a game. “He’s sufferin’ an’ has got to be recovered if it takes the entire check-rack.” Alfred Henry Lewis, Wolfville.

crawl someone’s hump = to attack, assault. “If you insists on pushin’ along through here I’ll turn in an’ crawl your hump some.” Alfred Henry Lewis, Wolfville.

cross-lots = by a short cut (across the fields or vacant lots instead of by the road or sidewalk). “When they can’t find no gate to come at you, they ups an’ pushes down a panel of fence, an’ lays for you, cross-lots.” Alfred Henry Lewis, Wolfville.

curl up = to kill. “The old hold-up is on the mule an’ goin’ hell-bent when I curls him up.” Alfred Henry Lewis, Wolfville.

Green corn dance, Santa Fe, New Mexico
dead card = a card out of play, such as discards, or one involved in a foul, such as falling off the table. “When Peets quits a little thing like consumption an’ shoves his chair back, you’alls can gamble a gent’s health, that a-way, is on a dead kyard.” Alfred Henry Lewis, Wolfville.

frill = fringe. “Four days later we’re in camp by a water-hole in the frill of the foot-hills.” Alfred Henry Lewis, Wolfville.

green corn dance = a Native American ceremonial dance expressing supplication or thanksgiving for the corn/maize crop. “This Colonel of mine don’t get no pianer; don’t round-up no music of his own; but stands pat an’ pulls off reels, an’ quadrilles, an’ green-corn dances to Hamilton’s music goin’ on next door.” Alfred Henry Lewis, Wolfville.

Hawken rifle
Hawken rifle = a black powder long rifle used on the prairies and in the Rocky Mountains during the early frontier days; synonymous with the “plains rifle,” the buffalo gun, and the fur trapper’s gun. “The last I sees of the old man he’s buckin’ an’ pitchin’ an’ tossin’, an’ the females a-holdin’ of him, an’ he reachin’ to get a Hawkins’s rifle as hangs over the door.” Alfred Henry Lewis, Wolfville.

hone = to pine for, yearn after. “Mail-bags packs more grief than joy, an’ I ain’t honin’ for no hand in that game whatever.” Alfred Henry Lewis, Wolfville.

hull = a saddle. “It looks like we’re cinchin’ the hull onto the wrong bronco.” Alfred Henry Lewis, Wolfville.

hunky = excellent, satisfactory, in good condition. “An’ Billy ain’t none back’ard admittin’ he is, an’ allows onhesitatin’ it’s the hunkiest baby in Arizona.” Alfred Henry Lewis, Wolfville.

I’m a Chinaman = derogatory reference to Chinese, expressing surprise and disbelief. “‘I’m a Chinaman,’ says Billy, ‘if it ain’t a kid!” Alfred Henry Lewis, Wolfville.

jim crow = small-time, low-class. “You can gamble thar wouldn’t be no jim-crow marshal go pirootin’ ’round, losin’ no eye of mine an’ getting’ away with it.” Alfred Henry Lewis, Wolfville.

line out = to leave, depart. “I has only time to make camp, saddle up, an’ line out of thar, to keep from bein’ burned before my time.” Alfred Henry Lewis, Wolfville.

lop = to bend. “I nacherally wrestles him down an’ lops one of his front laigs over his antlers.” Alfred Henry Lewis, Wolfville.

marker = something worthy to be compared. “The brotherly views them two gents entertains ain’t a marker to Jim Willis an’ me.” Alfred Henry Lewis, Wolfville.

on velvet = secure, cheerful, enjoying a life without problems. “I’m on velvet; how’s your laigs standin’ the pace, Jim?” Alfred Henry Lewis, Wolfville.

Thursday, August 23, 2012

G. Frank Lydston, Poker Jim, Gentleman (1906)

George Frank Lydston (1858-1923) studied medicine in New York and had a lucrative practice in Chicago, where he was on the faculty of the College of Physicians and Surgeons. He published numerous books and articles on sexual hygiene and sexually transmitted diseases and was a recognized criminal anthropologist. He was also the occasional author of travel writing and some fiction.

“Poker Jim.” Only four of the dozen stories collected in this volume are related to the West. The long title story, “Poker Jim, Gentleman” is set in 1860s California. The narrator, William Weymouth, is a young doctor with a medical degree from back East.

He settles at Jacksonville, a mining camp, on the Tuolomne River. Called to remove a bullet from a man shot in a duel, he meets the “Jim” of the title.  New in Jacksonville, Jim plies his trade as a gambler and brings his Spanish wife and child to live with him.

The doctor meets Poker Jim
A reform movement seizes public opinion in the mining camps, and soon gamblers and prostitutes are forced to leave town. Instead of disappearing like the rest, Jim shows up at a saloon to have one last drink with the regulars before his departure. One man objects to his presence, starts a fight, and ends up knifed and quite dead, while Jim disappears into the night.

Terrible spring floods descend upon the town, and the residents who aren’t swept away take shelter in the one remaining structure, the hotel. Watching the river, they witness a house floating downstream. Inside it is a terror-stricken Chinese man. To everyone’s surprise, Jim appears on the opposite bank with a boat and attempts unsuccessfully to row out and rescue him.

The Chinese man survives, but Jim is drowned. Stunned by his bravery, men of the town gather to bury him. In Jim’s cabin, they find a letter addressed to the doctor, which reveals that Jim was his long lost brother.

Poker Jim leaves the saloon
Character. Jim is an interesting study for an author who, as a criminal anthropologist, believed that criminal behavior was hereditary and that criminals should be sterilized. Jim has come from a “good” family, but he’s been a “rascal” since boyhood. Not just a Huck Finn striking out for the territories, he gravitated to the underworld when he left home and keeps company with a criminal element.

On the run from the law and gambling for a living, he still manages to exhibit qualities of character one doesn’t associate with the criminal mind. He is a man of his word, a defender of the underdog, and dies finally attempting to save the life of a Chinese man. Though branded by a social reforming faction as a corrupter of public morals, he has the courage and noble bearing of a gentleman.

For further heroics, there is Johnny, the young soldier hero of “Johnny: A Story of the Philippines.” A teenage street tough from Chicago, he enlists with the Montana Volunteers and ships off to the Philippines, where he exhibits his true calling as a soldier. Fighting in the jungle, he survives in conditions that send many a lesser man back home. There is typhoid, malaria, and dysentery, not to mention the rapacious fiends, the Filipinos themselves.

Wednesday, August 22, 2012

Richard S. Wheeler, Masterson

The West sucked up men and women from the East for the few decades that it was the frontier, and of those we remember today, most never returned. Some settled somewhere, often California; some kept drifting; a lot simply died there before they got old. Few went back East to productively live on into the Twentieth Century. William Barclay “Bat” Masterson was one of those.

Richard Wheeler finds him in this novel in the year 1919, in what would turn out to be one of Bat’s few remaining years. Plagued with diabetes, he’s hard at work as a newspaperman in New York, where his chief concern is the imminent arrival of Prohibition.

The Old West has long been folded into the pages of history, and of all the men Bat knew back then, only Wyatt Earp seems still to survive. If the Old West exists anywhere at all, it’s on the miles of celluloid pouring forth from Hollywood.

Bat Masterson, in later years
Plot. Wheeler’s novel is structured as a personal journey as the aging Bat packs up with his common-law wife Emma to revisit the West he once knew. It’s not exactly a sentimental journey. Bat is a New Yorker. He hangs out at the Metropole drinking with the likes of Damon Runyon.

The journey west starts as a quest for the truth about his life, since legends seem to have taken over the facts. Legend would cast him as a gunslinger and heroic lawman, with how many men killed? Twenty? Thirty?

In fact, he knows of only one, for sure. And that was defending the life and honor of one of his countless sweethearts. Another man died resisting arrest, but Bat’s may not have been the bullet that killed him. There was some Indian fighting, too, which may have produced some casualties, but the rest is legend, and Bat seems to be the only one willing to accept the fact.

Traveling by Pullman to Dodge, then westward to Colorado, and eventually to California, Bat finds that any embarrassing memory of the bad old days has been obliterated. The brothels, of course, are gone, but even the saloons and variety halls have been torn down. A highlight for him and Emma is meeting William S. Hart, who gives them walk-on parts in a western he is shooting. A visit with Wyatt Earp proves to be unrewarding, as the grumbling old man seems stuck under the thumb of his wife, Josie.

Tuesday, August 21, 2012

Tell Them Willie Boy is Here, 1969

Revisionist, socially conscious westerns from the 1960s tend to show their age, and I was expecting to be disappointed by this one. But this film holds up pretty well, even though it starts out with a couple strikes against it. 

While two of its central characters are Native Americans, the leads in the cast are all white actors, including Katharine Ross who plays a young Indian woman. You also expect the unfortunate events in Robert Blake’s later life to affect his presence on screen. Actually, neither poses much of a problem.

Plot. It is 1909; the setting is Riverside County in the deserts east of Los Angeles. Blake plays a Paiute Indian who kills the father of Ross’s character, when the man interrupts a lovers’ tryst and is intent on shooting Blake. Robert Redford is the local sheriff drawn unwillingly into the manhunt that follows. It is Indian business so far as he’s concerned, and he eventually leaves the posse of white men who are on Blake and Ross’s trail.

Though traveling on foot, the two fugitives manage to outpace and outwit their pursuers. When Blake shoots all of the posse’s horses and one of the men is gravely wounded, Redford rejoins the effort to find Blake.

He discovers the body of Ross, who lies shot to death with a pistol beside her, and it’s unclear whether her death was at the hand of Blake or a suicide. Working alone, Redford finally finds Blake and kills him in what appears to be self-defense. Soon he learns that Blake’s rifle was not loaded.

Joshua Tree National Park, 1917
Themes. So the movie is something of a downer. Its message is about Indians caught between two worlds, their traditional one and that of the white man. Blake dresses like a cowhand, and could pass for one, but he’s an object of contempt because of his race. A product of an Indian school, Ross is torn between her love for Blake and her willingness to adapt to a white world.

Redford’s character is a man of uncertain identity himself. He’s coolly intelligent and is able to second-guess the man the posse is following, but he’s more involved in a stormy love affair he’s got going with Susan Clark. She’s a well-educated doctor who works on the reservation. Problem is, the only interest they have in common is sex. The rest of the time they fight. We don’t much like either of them.

The point of the film seems to be that the Indians are doomed, though the whites who dominate them are far from being more intelligent, humane, or deserving. They are simply better armed and outnumber them. One white character (Robert Lipton) has befriended Blake and pleads with the others not to treat him like a criminal. But his is only one small voice.

Saturday, August 18, 2012

Saturday music: more Bob Wills

From a 1951 TV recording. A great version of this classic song.

Coming up: G. Frank Lydston, Poker Jim, Gentleman (1906)

Thursday, August 16, 2012

George Tower Buffum, Smith of Bear City (1906)

This collection of frontier sketches could aptly be described as creative nonfiction. The fictionalized treatment of fact begins in the opening preface, in which Buffum applauds the American mining industry and its pioneers. Unlike other captains of industry, he claims, these men extract wealth that is “clean and untainted by the despoiling of their fellow man.” Viewers of Deadwood will be surprised to read that even “Uncle George” Hearst gets credit for never having been the cause of human suffering.

The stories Buffum has to tell are chiefly set in various parts of the West, where mining has been the main interest of those men and women to be found there. The yarns are of the kind you’d expect to be told over brandy and cigars in a turn-of-the-century gathering of traveling salesmen. And if Buffum is to be believed, he gathered them while covering a good many miles.

Outlaws. Famous Old West outlaws and the odd lawman are featured, including Curly Bill (Brocius), Soapy Smith, Clay Allison, and Billy the Kid. Bat Masterson also makes an appearance. Breezy, hard-to-believe tales, they are in fact short on historical fact.

As one example, western enthusiast Ramon Adams scoffs at Buffum’s garbled account of Billy the Kid’s arrest in his survey of Old West lore, Burs Under the Saddle (1964). Just about everything presented by Buffum as fact is incorrect, Adams notes, including the absence of Pat Garrett from the story. Two stories about Curly Bill even give completely different versions of how the man died.

The chapter devoted to Soapy Smith stands out over the others in the way it brings the man so vividly to life. Buffum claims to have seen Soapy on a street in Denver in 1879, gathering a crowd as he sells soap with the help of two assistants pretending to be customers. The soap comes wrapped up with money—as much as $100—and Soapy takes bids from the crowd until folks begin to figure out it’s a scam.

In Leadville and Creede, Soapy graduates to the saloon and gambling business. “A professional badman,” Buffum says, Soapy was also a “devoted husband and father.” When a parson arrives in Creede with a letter from Soapy’s wife asking him to contribute to the building of a church, he readily complies. Using his street-barker’s gift of oratory, he raises $300 from the assembled saloon patrons, and puts in another $400 himself.

Hotels. Many of the stories involve the proprietors or employees of various hotels to be found around the West. Most of them are described as repellant, the bed linen rarely changed, the food inedible. Given the proliferation of firearms, they are often also the scene of bloodshed.

A cook by the name of Mother Corbett at Snake River Crossing, Idaho, is known for serving up terrible food. Passengers passing through on the stage line are treated to a cold meal of tough beef, rancid bacon, or goat meat, with hot pepper sauce and biscuits hard as rocks—all for a dollar. When a whiskey salesman has the temerity to complain, she makes him eat serving after serving at gunpoint, until the stage driver begs her to release the man so the coach can depart.

Style. The stories are first-person narratives, basically long monologues. They employ a declamatory style meant to entertain with ironic circumlocutions and elevated word choice, for comic effect. In this example, the narrator describes how the threat of gunplay between two men quickly clears a saloon:

The messenger and the bar loungers made hurried departures, as business matters were getting too exciting and any delay might result in serious personal inconvenience and fatality.

In the spirit of Rex Beach’s collection of animal stories, collected in Pardners (1906), one of Buffum’s sketches is told by a burro called Satan. He tells of being taken on a prospecting trip into northern Idaho, where he discovers a silver deposit by following his nose.

The mine eventually falls under the supervision of John Hays Hammond, who makes a fortune and travels to South Africa. There his meddling in the Brits’ attempts to seize the Transvaal from the Boers lands him in prison with a 15-year sentence. After paying $125,000, Satan tells us, Hammond gets the sentence commuted and goes on to become a world famous mining authority—all thanks to Satan, the burro. Some irony here? Maybe.

The West. Violence, guns, and death predominate as themes in the stories, and together they portray the West as a place where life was cheap and few escaped misfortune. The narration assumes an attitude of detachment, as if reporting on the curious customs of the inhabitants of some colony far from the urban centers of the civilized world.

Rincon, New Mexico, is described as “a city of toughs,” where shootings are common. There are two stores, 50 saloons, two dancehalls, and one hotel. The hotel consists of a single large room with 40 beds. A dollar gets you one of them for a night. The cost if you’re already dead, however, is $5.00, as a traveler learns, who is told that one bed’s occupant is actually a body waiting for a coffin that’s to arrive the next morning.

And such was life in the West.

Wrapping up. George Tower Buffum (1846-1926) was born in New Hampshire, and little else is known about him. Another collection of his stories, On Two Frontiers was published in 1918.

Smith of Bear City is currently available at Internet Archive and for the nook. For more of Thursday’s Forgotten Books, click on over to Patti Abbott’s blog.

Illustrations: From the first edition by F. T. Wood

Coming up: Saturday music, more Bob Wills

Tuesday, August 14, 2012

The Kentuckian, 1955

Not quite a western—the characters never leave Kentucky—this film made a splash in 1955. A Technicolor CinemaScope production, it was Burt Lancaster’s first movie as both director and star. The film introduced TV actor Walter Matthau, as a whip-wielding heavy, and the cast included John McIntire and John Carradine in supporting roles

Montana writer A.B. Guthrie, Jr., adapted the script from a novel, The Gabriel Horn by Felix Holt. Bernard Herrmann wrote the score, and Irving Gordon’s “The Kentuckian Song” was covered by several recording artists. It was a big hit for The Hilltoppers.

Plot. Lancaster and his young son (Donald MacDonald) are traveling on foot through the Kentucky woods with their dog, headed for Texas. They make it as far as the home of Lancaster's brother (John McIntire), where they meet a young woman (Dianne Foster), who is an indentured servant to Matthau, an innkeeper.

Dianne Foster, Burt Lancaster, Donald MacDonald
Lancaster pays off what Foster still owes to Matthau so she can join them. But he has to go to work in his brother’s tobacco business to raise the money for the fare on the riverboat that will take them west.

A schoolteacher (Diana Lynn) takes a shine to Lancaster, and with pressure from her and McIntire, it looks like Lancaster is going to stick around and forget about Texas. During a brutal fight between Lancaster and the trouble-making Matthau, Lynn realizes that Foster is also sweet on Lancaster. Realizing also that the boy has his heart set on Texas, Foster gamely steps aside.

Lancaster raises the money he needs at a roulette table, but travel plans are interrupted by a couple of enemies, intent on settling an old blood feud. In a suspenseful finish, there are gunfire and casualties before Foster and Lancaster are able to put a stop to them. Man, boy, and pretty young woman are then free to leave Kentucky.

Lancaster, directing
Themes. The storyline is tried and true Hollywood Americana. It offers a sunny, family-friendly 1950s mythology about westward expansion and frontiersmen in buckskin. No big surprise that Holt’s novel had appeared as a Reader’s Digest condensed book in 1952.

The early 1950s also saw Walt Disney’s revival of the folk hero Davy Crockett. That TV series made Fess Parker and Buddy Ebsen famous, and coonskin caps were everywhere. In 1955, three versions of  “The Ballad of Davy Crockett” were in Billboard’s Top-10 charts.

It was a time when the HUAC had cleared the communists out of Hollywood, and an Army general was in the White House. The Cold War had nervous folks building bomb shelters. Another movie about a simple, pure-hearted, and self-reliant frontier hero surely helped many sleep better at night.

The story is not without its dark side. Matthau with his whip plays a mean-spirited man, though he’s not nearly so menacing as the two thugs who show up to kill Lancaster. As a portrayal of outright evil, they are thoroughly creepy. They seem capable of the most heartless and mindless cruelty. Real bogeymen.

Yet all ends happily. Even Matthau has to pay his dues. And Lancaster’s boy learns to blow the cow’s horn they’ve been carrying since scene one. After confronting his dad with giving up the dream of going to Texas, his resounding belt from the horn shows that he has become a man in his own right. It's another national myth, which connects the leaving of boyhood with departure westward.

The novel, published 1951
Wrapping up. This is an enjoyable film with a lot of talent both in front of and behind the camera. Shot mostly on location, the wooded vales of Kentucky are warmly captured by Ernest Laszlo’s widescreen cinematography. For screenwriter A.B. Guthrie, Jr., the script was a notable follow-up to his adaptation for the film Shane (1953).

Lancaster directed only one other film, twenty years later, The Midnight Man (1974). MacDonald, who very ably plays his young son, worked onscreen briefly afterward, mostly on TV. Dianne Foster followed The Kentuckian with a busy TV career into the 1960s. Diana Lynn had previously appeared in numerous films and had frequent screen roles on TV in the 15 years following this one.

American painter Thomas Hart Benton painted a portrait of the characters of the film, which can be found online at the LA County Museum of Art website. The slightly daffy but sweet “Song” from The Kentuckian can be heard at youtube. Bernard Herrmann’s majestic score for the film is available at amazon on CD.

The film is currently available at amazon and netflix. For more of Tuesday’s Overlooked Movies, click on over to Todd Mason’s blog.


Coming up: George Tower Buffum, Smith of Bear City (1906)

Monday, August 13, 2012

Old West glossary, no. 40

Here’s another set of terms and forgotten people gleaned from early western stories. Definitions were discovered in various online dictionaries, as well as searches in Cassell’s Dictionary of Slang, Dictionary of the American West, The New Encyclopedia of the American West, The Cowboy Dictionary, The Cowboy Encyclopedia, and The Shorter Oxford English Dictionary.

These are from Frederick Thickstun Clark’s In the Valley of Havilah, about the fortunes of an itinerant family in the California gold fields; Lewis B. France’s Pine Valley, about prospectors in the mountains of Colorado; and Alfred Henry Lewis’ Wolfville, about life in an Arizona cow town. Once again, I struck out on a few. If anyone has a definition for “whiskey chip,” “soup on ice,” or “turn a split,” leave a comment below.

allow = to say, concede, admit, believe, be of the opinion that. “I don’t allow Billy’s got the nerve to marry this yere Marie.” Alfred Henry Lewis, Wolfville.

apple grunt = a dessert of baked apples and biscuit topping, served upside down. “They were eating their dessert,—the ‘apple grunt’ which Maude Eliza had eulogized the day before.” Frederick Thickstun Clark, In the Valley of Havilah.

beef = to slaughter, knock down. “‘I knows men,’ Jack remarks at the close, lookin’ wistful at Enright, ‘as would beef him right yere an’ leave him as a companion piece to that compadre of his you downs.’” Alfred Henry Lewis, Wolfville.

bombazine = twill fabric of a silk or cotton and wool blend, usually dyed black for mourning wear. “She performed the service in a bombazine gown and a check apron, with the solitaire brilliantly holding a red ribbon about her neck.” Lewis B. France, Pine Valley.

bulge in/out = to intrude, assert oneself, get busy doing something. “After awhile the sharp who’s dealin’ for ’em goes on with them petitions I interrupts as I comes bulgin’ in.” Alfred Henry Lewis, Wolfville.

cheese it = stop it, be quiet. “’I don’t make no promises I can’t keep—what is it?’ ‘That you will quit gambling.’ ‘Cheese it, Hank Ballard.’” Lewis B. France, Pine Valley.

chop = to stop. “Oh, chop on yellin’ ’n’ let’s hear!” Frederick Thickstun Clark, In the Valley of Havilah.

clapboards = wainscoting. “Within five years from the time Mrs. Herrick disposed of the clapboards and carpets, the Colonel had put behind him fifteen years at least and excited no interest.” Lewis B. France, Pine Valley.

clatter = a time, each. “The kyards begins to come two at a clatter at faro-bank.” Alfred Henry Lewis, Wolfville.

corn-fed = plump, substantial, good-looking. “It shore strikes me now, when years is passed, as some marv’lous how a han’some, corn-fed female like Tucson Jennie manages to found a fight with Dave over this yere towerist woman.” Alfred Henry Lewis, Wolfville.

cuddy = small room, closet, or cupboard. “In that cuddy, with the uppermost log lying a foot or more above and across him, was the baby.” Lewis B. France, Pine Valley.

Grace Darling, c1839
Darling, Grace = an English woman (1815-1842) who in 1838, along with her father, saved 13 people from the wreck of the SS Forfarshire. “As Grace Darling she smooths the fever-heated pillow of the Crimea.” Alfred Henry Lewis, Wolfville.

dead work = unproductive work. “The ‘dead work’ had not been confined to Golddust and Pine Valley Bar; it embraced the Colonel’s mining interests.” Lewis B. France, Pine Valley.

drag a lariat = to interfere. “She’s not to go draggin’ her lariat ’round loose no more, settin’ law an’ order.” Alfred Henry Lewis, Wolfville.

“Dying Ranger, The” = a traditional cowboy song. “S’pose we-alls gives him ‘The Dyin’ Ranger’ an’ ‘Sandy Land’ for an hour or so an’ see.” Alfred Henry Lewis, Wolfville. Listen here.

fin = hand, arm. “‘Workin’ with your fins,’ says this Wilkins, ‘is low an’ onendoorin’ to a gent with pride to wound.’” Alfred Henry Lewis, Wolfville.

flitch = a side of bacon, or halibut steak. “It was a laugh not born of, though it might have been fed upon, flitch and potatoes, and hence was not irritating.” Lewis B. France, Pine Valley.

forty drops = alcohol (40 drops equal ½ teaspoon); “Forty Drops,” a popular 1890s rag tune. “We’re all in the Red Light takin’ our forty drops, an’ Sam Enright brings up this yere Wilkins.” Alfred Henry Lewis, Wolfville.

from the jump = from the beginning. “It’s cl’ar from the jump he ain’t meant by Providence for the cattle business.” Alfred Henry Lewis, Wolfville.

Saturday, August 11, 2012

Saturday music: Bob Wills

Take me back to Bob Wills. One of his signature songs.

Coming up: Old West glossary, no. 40

Friday, August 10, 2012

Larry Sweazy, The Coyote Tracker

Review and interview
Larry Sweazy’s new Josiah Wolfe novel is equal parts western and murder mystery. Wolfe, as Sweazy fans know, is a Texas Ranger and a good, decent man, at a time when the Texas Rangers were not universally admired among Texans. By this stage of the game (#5 in the series), he is carrying around a good bit of personal history and plenty of complications in his life.

The novel takes place entirely in the bustling capitol of Austin, where Wolfe currently has a home, far from his origins in rural Texas. The single parent of a young son, he is torn by the demands of his profession that keep him from being a full-time father. Grieving the loss of his wife, he has begun a tentative relationship with a young widow.

Plot. A fellow Ranger is wrongly arrested and jailed for the murder of a prostitute, and Wolfe has two days to save him from the gallows. Suspense builds as the clock ticks and Wolfe hunts for the killer, getting or not getting cooperation from various Austin residents and piecing together clues that don’t add up.

Turns out there is not one prisoner but two, and a daring rescue of the second one leads to an outburst of action involving grenades, a fire, and a moving train. The murder is not solved until the last cards are played at a public trial, while the gallows and a crowd wait outside the courthouse to dispose of the man found guilty.

Character. Like other western writers, Sweazy evokes an imagined West that has points of similarity to the modern world. Part of this is due to the urban setting of this novel. Wolfe, in his sleuthing, leaves Austin city limits only briefly. He also has a self-awareness that is recognizably modern.

Wolfe is a troubled hero. He seems particularly affected by self-doubt, regrets, and misgivings. These make him introspective in ways we don’t usually associate with the western hero, though Sweazy’s portrayal of the man is thoroughly believable. They also make Wolfe’s undaunted courage and dedication to what’s right all the more admirable.

Austin, Texas, 1873
He can be tender hearted and is still shaken by what he lived through on the Civil War battlefields. As just one example, the disciplining of his young son triggers uncertainties and confusion. He may say he believes in spare-the-rod-spoil-the-child, but like a modern-day father, he worries that it may teach the wrong lessons about the uses of force.

Those moments in the novel make Wolfe not only a three-dimensional character. He wins the sympathy of readers who know the dilemmas of parenthood and thus identify with him. Meanwhile, the minefield that a romantic attachment can quickly turn into is reflected in his courting of the young widow.

Going public with their relationship, they invite the scrutiny of respectable folks in town, and they walk a fine line where chasteness and decorum are expected. Sweazy pushes the envelope in describing the degree of intimacy the two yearn for and achieve only at rare moments.

Storytelling. Sweazy relies on the standard formulation of the murder mystery in telling the story. Wolfe, his point-of-view character, makes the rounds interviewing folks who are likely to have answers to his questions. One of the many pleasures of the novel is the anticipation of his meeting them and the kind of people they turn out to be.

As one example, there’s the madam of a high-end brothel. She is an albino woman, with a sharp business sense, and able to quickly size up a man. Vulnerable, yes, but she will not be intimidated, not even by the sheriff. She knows too much and can leverage what she knows to hold her own in a hostile social environment. In another twist, she also manages the brothel as a kind of women’s shelter.

Dialogue between Wolfe and the secondary characters is often sharp and full of unexpected turns. As Sweazy’s characters talk, they come fully alive on the page. The Texas spring weather plays another role in the story, rapidly changing as the story progresses. Austin itself is a character, often described as being in the throes of feverish modernization, including the destruction of a swath of inner city to make way for a new railroad.

Wrapping up. The Coyote Tracker is a masterful page-turner full of suspense and surprises. It demonstrates the skill that has won Sweazy an appreciative following and numerous awards and recognition. He can be found online at his website. The Coyote Tracker is currently available in both paper and ebook formats at amazon and Barnes&Noble.

Larry D. Sweazy
Larry has generously agreed to spend some time at BITS today to talk about writing and the writing of the Josiah Wolfe novels. So I'm turning the rest of this page over to him. 

How would you define the “traditional western”?

I think the “traditional western” is still rooted to the origins of the genre. Good against bad in a lawless society, where justice has to be served in the end if there’s a crime (think of the justice in Shane). I always strive to honor those origins, but I like to put my own spin on them with characters that act, and talk, in unexpected ways, but thoroughly, human ways.

In the book, you acknowledge a good many resources related to the Texas Rangers. Who, if any, are the actual historical characters that appear in this story?
Captain Leander McNelly is starting to play a larger role in the Josiah Wolfe books. I think he has appeared in all of them except the first, The Rattlesnake Season. I’ve always been fascinated by McNelly, with how much he accomplished in his life given his health problems. His story still persists because of his strength and fortitude. Governor Coke and General Steele are historical characters that play roles, too.

But probably the most surprising character in this novel that is based on a real person is Blanche Dumont, the high-priced madam. Of course, I took a lot of literary license with her in comparison to real life, but she was a madam in Austin, who was rarely seen, but extremely powerful. I wondered why she was secretive, and my imagination led to me think that maybe she was an albino. I couldn’t find any evidence of it, and since I don’t write strict historical fiction, I went with the idea. I think it added a unique layer to her story.

In writing a series like this with a single continuing character, how does all that back-story affect your writing of the current one?
It’s becomes a little difficult to bring all of the back story forward so a first time reader to the series can grasp the emotional foundation of all of the characters, and so a long-time reader isn’t bored to tears.  But that’s the fun of it, too.  I try to find circumstances that will naturally evoke the back-story, like in this book, with it taking place entirely in the city.  It was easier to reflect on outside incidents that had happened.    

In what ways, if any, has the character of Josiah Wolfe evolved for you over time?
Josiah is an amazingly complex character who continues to struggle against right and wrong, when to kill and when not to, and how be a family man when the potential for loss constantly surrounds him.

I think that kind of struggle will continue on as he ages and attains more wisdom and experience. In our time, he’s relatively young, 33, but in his time, when the life expectancy was 55, he’s well into middle age, so there’s that to consider, too.

Do you have any rules of thumb about how much actual history to include in a novel like this one?
I really like to base the a good portion of each book on an actual event. This book was less of that, and more of a mystery, but the coming of the railroad and the boom in the city of Austin was extremely important to me, so I used those events almost as another character.

Did anything about the story or the characters surprise you as you were writing?
Most of the characters were from somewhere else, so there’s not as much regionalism in Austin as one would think. The city was a magnet for emigrants, so each character brought a little different perspective about the city, and to Texas itself, than I anticipated. The West was a big melting pot, but I think the perception of Texas is a little different, like it’s almost like its own country… That continues to surprise me.