Wednesday, December 31, 2014

Books BITS enjoyed in 2014

Here’s a top-15 list of novels, novellas, and short story collections by writers of frontier fiction reviewed here at BITS this year. Like last year, it’s a mixture of old, not-so-old, and recent. Click through for the full reviews.


After the muddled The Bounty Hunters (1953), Elmore Leonard’s skill as a novelist took a quantum leap forward with this novel. Hombre is a tense western thriller that is also a fascinating study of an enigmatic character. That character is John Russell, the “hombre” of the title. More.

Tuesday, December 30, 2014

Illustrators of early frontier fiction, Maynard Dixon, cont.

Magazine cover, 1904, Maynard Dixon
Last week I blogged one day about the artist Maynard Dixon, with examples of his book illustration for several novels. Today I have gathered some of his illustrations for the western novels of another writer, Clarence E. Mulford (1883–1956), best known as the originator of the character Hopalong Cassidy.

Cassidy had already been portrayed by another illustrator, Frank Schoonover for a story, “The Fight at Buckskin,” first published in the December 1905 issue of Outing Magazine and later appearing as the opening chapter of Mulford’s Bar-20 (1907).

The bunch of Texas cowboys at the Bar-20 comprised the dramatis personae of a series of Mulford novels, following the example of B. M. Bower, who had her own set of recurring characters from a Montana ranch, the Flying U.

Sunday, December 28, 2014


Bus ride
My wife Lynda and I have gone through many a rough patch in 49 years of marriage with a mantra: “We’re resourceful people; think of this as an adventure.” And so when we got my diagnosis of brain cancer a year ago, this new development became a “medical adventure.” That frame of mind has pretty much seen us through so far, including now, as she has sustained a broken arm.

As I said here last week, her broken arm has required us to switch roles as each other’s caregiver. That has meant among other things for me having to use public transportation to get from our house to/from town, the post office, the grocery store, medical appointments—yet another adventure, though not a new one.

Friday, December 26, 2014

Edward A. Grainger, Further Adventures of Cash Laramie and Gideon Miles

As part of his education of a pulp writer, David Cranmer has been reinventing the traditional western over the past several years with his introduction of two deputy U.S. marshals, Cash Laramie and Gideon Miles. The two peace officers work out of 1880s Cheyenne, Wyoming, bringing in malefactors, felons, and fugitives from justice, of which as we know, there were plenty in the Old West.

Both men are admirable in their own ways not to say distinctive in their manner and personal style, as is often the case in pulp fiction. Cash Laramie has acquired a reputation as the Outlaw Marshal, stepping at times outside the precise requirements of his job description to bring undesirables to heel. Historians will recognize in him the thin gray line that separated the lawful and unlawful activities of frontier lawmen whose skill with side arms also qualified them as gunfighters.

Wednesday, December 24, 2014

Christmas wishes

I wish you a holiday season that is mellow as Oscar Peterson's music. May the days bring all you hope for and a new year full of promise.

Sunday, December 21, 2014

Role switch

Snowflake lights for the holiday
This will be short. My wife fell Friday and broke her upper arm. We were at a cabin in the pine woods around Idyllwild, California, celebrating our 49th anniversary. She slipped on a frost-covered porch step. Because the effects of cancer make it unsafe for me to drive, the fire department was called, and she was taken in an emergency unit to a hospital in Palm Springs.

Two wonderful friends who live near us and happened to be home from work not only brought my wife home from the hospital that evening but drove up the mountain to retrieve me the dog, and our car. My wife is passing her second day at home, sleeping OK with arm in a sling and managing the pain with meds.

I’m fortunately coming down off my last round of chemo and have the energy to be chief caregiver—a role I’m happy to take. But being unable to drive, I’m a little less than adequate for the job. Public transportation is sketchy, though I’ve been studying the bus schedules, and getting around is not impossible.  We can have meals delivered from restaurants in town, as long as it’s pizza, pasta, Mexican, or Thai.

A convenience store is located about a 5-minute walk away, so we shouldn’t run out of milk, breador beer, should it come to that. We already know that the hospital pharmacist will deliver prescriptions to the door. And just about anything else can be ordered for next-day delivery from Amazon. Material needs will be taken care of.

Monday morning, I’ll be on the phone to the social worker who is on staff at the Cancer Center, to see what she can do for me to get to my own doctors appointments, as they will be starting up again after the holidays. The irony is that this new development has forced me to become more self-reliant, while at the same time, showing me how interdependent our lives are with others. Even my dog Zoe, who watches us and registers every wave of our concern, is quick to offer loving company.

Meanwhile, a pot of vegetable soup is simmering on the kitchen stove. And so life goes on.

Tuesday, December 16, 2014

Illustrators of early frontier fiction: Maynard Dixon

Maynard Dixon
Maynard Dixon (1875-1946) was a California-born illustrator and painter, whose work often captured the spirit and human drama of the American West. As an artist, he is remembered for his landscape paintings, which capture the scale and grandeur of desert and sky. As a book illustrator, he brought a surge of romanticism to the drama, mystery, and excitement to be found in frontier fiction of the time.

Here are his illustrations from nine novels by various authors. Notice in particular the use of light and shadow to strike a mood and to heighten the intensity of interaction between characters. 

Some are moments frozen, as if movement were stopped by the shutter of a camera--a soldier hurriedly dismounting a horse; a figure striding by in the foreground as two men on horseback exchange words. Some use body posture to portray emotions--a woman tentatively touching the shoulder of a cowboy leaning against the horse she is riding. 

Sunday, December 14, 2014


Another sunrise
Today is Day 3 of the current five-day round of chemo. Yesterday I hardly got out of bed, mostly read, finishing an old public domain novel, Francis Lynde’s Empire Builders (1907), and starting into Edward Grainger’s new collection of Cash Laramie and Gideon Miles stories. My appetite iffy, I “feasted” on saltines, dried fruit, and herb tea during the day. Come evening, there was my very own homemade chicken soup. With cancer, you tend to dwell on these quotidian details.

With the shift in perspective that comes with cancer, I have begun getting more than the usual degree of otherworldly notions. I say this without any wish to be maudlin, but I am reminded with more frequency of the difference between mortality as I’ve known it and what it insists on meaning now. An abstraction before cancer, it has become much more personal. An uncertainty has become a certainty.

Monday, December 8, 2014

The Sons of Katie Elder (1965)

A frequent complaint about westerns is that there are few strong roles for women. Katie Elder, the title character of this John Wayne film would be an exception, except for the fact that she is dead. Her four sons, as the film begins, are gathering for her funeral. As they talk about her, we learn that she overcame all manner of adversities and obstacles and remained proud of her offspring, despite the fact that they have done little to deserve her high regard.

Wayne, the eldest, has a reputation as a gunslinger. One brother (Dean Martin), is a gambler and wanted for murder. The other two (Earl Holliman, Michael Anderson, Jr.) have yet to make a mark in the world, though Anderson refuses to get the college education his mother wanted for him and intends instead to follow in Wayne’s adventuring footsteps.

Sunday, December 7, 2014

Let’s get lost

Rainclouds over San Jacinto
I have thought for a long time that when all is said and done, I would like my life to “add up to something.” And those four words used to mean something, though I can't say just what anymore. I don't mean a CV or resume-style summary of my professional life, which used to be enough for a job interview. (What job would I be applying for now anyway? Good question.). I don't mean an obit page wrap-up either, or a Ralph Edwards This Is Your Life portrayal. So I know what I don’t mean, but whatever I do mean, the idea won't go away.

Maybe this is just a long way around to saying that I've begun to resist being a cancer patient. My days have become increasingly organized around that identity: the MRIs and daily meds routines, the appointments with doctors, the chemo and its side effects, the regime of exercise, physical therapy, meditation, and relaxation videos, while staying positive and getting enough rest. etc. 

Thursday, December 4, 2014

Giles A. Lutz, The Honyocker (1961)

Giles A. Lutz (1910-1982) was a prolific writer, with over 60 western novels published under his own name and a half dozen pseudonyms. During the 1940s and 1950s, he published more than 200 stories in the pulps, mostly westerns, but also sports fiction. In 1962, he received the Spur Award for this novel, The Honyocker, from Western Writers of America.

Plot. “Honyocker” was an insulting term bestowed by cattlemen and cowboys on homesteaders in the far West, who attempted to make a living from subsistence farming on what had at one time been open range. Turning the prairie sod, they were destroying not only free grass for the ranchers. Unknown to them, they were also permanently disturbing a fragile ecology too arid for cultivation of dryland crops that would support a family of settlers.

Tuesday, December 2, 2014

Illustrators of early frontier fiction:
N. C. Wyeth

N. C. Wyeth in his studio, c1903
One of the most vividly dramatic illustrators of novels during the turn of the last century was N. C. (Newell Convers) Wyeth (1882-1945). Born in Massachusetts and growing up on a farm, he descended from a family that first settled in New England in the 17th century and later participated in the Revolutionary War.

Wyeth was gifted as a watercolorist from an early age and studied illustration under Howard Pyle, considered today as the father of American illustration. Pyle taught his students to respect historical accuracy, while adding a romantic flair, traits that became marks of Wyeth's style and surely shaped the imagination of a generation of readers of early frontier fiction.

Sunday, November 30, 2014


Turkey shopping
I have been drifting this week in a kind of fog, drawn in directions that seem of import for a while and then dissolve into something more like aimlessness. Fatigue or the early onset of depression, I can't tell. The oncologist has prescribed an antidepressant, on the recommendation of the Cancer Center's psychologist. The pharmacist tells me it will take two weeks to take effect. I'm not sure what effect to look for. In two weeks without an antidepressant, I would have gone through multiple mood changes anyway, for better or worse. 

Thursday, November 27, 2014

Barbara Angle, Those That Mattered (1994)

Mining is a frequent theme in early frontier fiction, though few writers actually take us into the mines, where the work is done. One notable exception is Mary Hallock Foote’s The Led-Horse Claim (1883). Though miners were fiercely superstitious about women in mines and the bad luck their presence there foretold, Foote sends her female protagonist below ground, to experience a netherworld of darkness and isolation where men toil in the dangerous extraction of gold, silver, or copper.

More common are stories about mining communities and their social life centering on a favorite saloon or among the wives of the miners. Two novels, A. B. Ward’s The Sage Brush Parson (1906) and Mrs. Wilson Woodrow’s The New Missioner (1907) recount the affairs of clergy in their midst.

Monday, November 24, 2014

Western movie themes

A change of pace today at BITS—a baker’s dozen of western movie and TV themes. Click through on any of the titles and give a listen at YouTube. Feel free to mention any you would add to the list.

For this week’s posting of Overlooked Movies and TV, click on over to Todd Mason’s blog, Sweet Freedom.

Image credit:
High Noon poster, Wikipedia

Coming up: TBD

Sunday, November 23, 2014


Morning sky
Change of pace this weekend as I recovered from a four-day “chemo hangover” (fatigue, no interest in food). An apartment mate from undergraduate days who has retired to Palm Springs rode his Vespa over to spend a couple days and nights as a houseguest. My wife, meanwhile, took a much-needed break from caregiving and met up with a friend for some R&R in Los Angeles.

Thursday, November 20, 2014

Robert J. Conley, Quitting Time (1989)

This short novel is a curious cross between a standard western and an Agatha Christie murder mystery. The central character, Oliver Colfax, is something of a range detective, with a license to kill, should he be so inclined. But he’s grown weary of the work that has been his livelihood and is looking to retire from being a gunman for hire. It is, as he says, “quitting time.”

Considering a job for a Colorado cattleman who believes he is the victim of rustlers, Colfax travels to a small frontier town, drawn in part by the opportunity to see a touring theater company perform Shakespeare’s bloody tragedy, Titus Andronicus. Agreeing with the cattleman to find out who, if anybody, is rustling his stock, Colfax gets to work and determines before long that a gang of cowboys at a nearby camp are the only likely suspects.

Monday, November 17, 2014

Five Easy Pieces (1970)

Not many viewers will ever have seen this as having connections with frontier fiction or the western, but they are there. The young Jack Nicholson plays the black sheep of a cultured family of musicians. Trained as a classical pianist, he has long ago left home and lives as a drifter, taking jobs and then moving on, as he explains, to “get away from what gets bad if I stay.”

He is currently working as a roustabout in oilfields not far from Bakersfield, California. He has a live-in girlfriend (Karen Black) with musical aspirations of her own—to be a country and western singer. (There are Tammy Wynette songs on the music track.) His best buddy (Billy Green Bush) is married, but the two men happily drink nights away, or they hook up with a couple of unattached females (Sally Struthers, Martina MacGuire) that Nicholson meets at a bowling alley.

Sunday, November 16, 2014

Ginger, cinnamon, and cardamom

Autumn grasses and blooms
Cancer has me rather knocked out of orbit, and I’m trying to let go of some old behavior patterns that once offered me some stability. Or I thought they did; now it could well be that they were just holding me back. There is a tenseness across the shoulders that’s easing, and I am less in the thrall of worry when familiar reassurances of health, predictability, and order are no longer handy to lean on.

Still, to keep from awfulizing, I fall back at times on an old mantra: “Everything’s working out beautifully.” The alternative is to be constantly anticipating the worst, which robs the present of the strength it gives to live each day for what it’s worth.

Thursday, November 13, 2014

B. M. Bower, Jean of the Lazy A (1915)

Jean and Lite
This was B. M. Bower’s 15th novel, and like her The Phantom Herd a year later, it draws on her knowledge of the movie business. Sixteen-year-old Jean Douglas, the title character, is a no-nonsense daughter of a Montana rancher, Aleck Douglas, who in the opening chapters is wrongly found guilty of murder and sent to prison. With the help of a ranch hand, Lite Avery, she spends the rest of the novel finding the real killer.

Help also comes in the form of a movie company from Hollywood, which hires her as the stunt double for the leading lady of an action-packed western. Able to ride, rope, and shoot with ease, Jean also contributes ideas for making the film more realistic. Before long she is dreaming up scenarios for a Perils-of-Pauline style serial, with herself in the starring role.

Sunday, November 9, 2014


Sunrise sky
A portal I passed through this week has surely been another stage of accepting my mortality, which has continued to be largely an abstraction for me until now. I am beginning to let go of an expectation that I can persist in a routine of reading, writing reviews, and blogging, while actively participating in an online community of like-minded virtual friends.

In recent weeks, as the latest round of chemo has slowed me down again, I have become aware of the effort required to do all that. I have been surprised by a falling off of interest in reading and a diminished ability to write coherently and at length about books and films that I can relate to what has been a focus of my blog—frontier fiction as it originated and continues to evolve and flourish.

Saturday, November 8, 2014

Kim Zupan, The Ploughmen

One reader has compared this novel to No Country For Old Men because of a murderous central character, John Cload, who brings to mind yet another dark work of fiction The Silence of the Lambs. Cload is more than a little like Hannibal Lecter, as he befriends a deputy sheriff who keeps him company from outside his jail cell through long, sleepless nights and escorts him to and from the county courthouse where he is under trial.

The deputy, Valentine Millimaki, has been encouraged by the sheriff to learn what he can about Cload that might help in the trial. But besides a single killing, for which there was a witness, the deputy remains unaware that Cload has bodies buried all over the rough Montana country along the northern shores of the upper Missouri River.

Not more than marginally interested in Cload anyway, Millimaki has troubles of his own. Cload correctly senses that they are woman troubles. As a schoolboy, Millimaki once discovered the body of his mother, who had hanged herself in a barn on the family farm. Now, his young wife has left him, weary and depressed by life in a backwater Montana town.