Friday, November 19, 2010

Forgotten books: Bat Wing Bowles by Dane Coolidge

Just about all the books I review here on BITS are "forgotten books," but here's another one. This early novel by prolific western writer Dane Coolidge (1873-1940) was first published in 1913, a decade after its famous predecessor The Virginian (1902). There are many of the same elements in this story: an easterner who's a fish out of water in the West, a rivalry between a man of strong principle and one with none, a close friendship between two men, class differences, and a long-running and much frustrated courtship.

A big difference is that having grown up in rural California, Coolidge knew of the West and ranch life much better than Owen Wister. And he was more interested in representing the actual work of real cowboys - something entirely missing from Wister's novel. Based on his own field research, Coolidge's novels describe the business of working cattle, living conditions on a ranch, and the ins and outs of cowboy culture. He knows, for instance, the three books to be found in any bunkhouse.

Set on the Bat Wing ranch in southern Arizona, this story tells of a young Easterner, Bowles, who falls in love with the daughter of a rancher. Through luck and persistence he manages to prove himself as a cowboy and win her hand. Through him, we learn of the grueling work of rounding up and branding cattle. We experience the difficulty of being accepted into a fraternity of rough-riding men who labor tirelessly, amuse each other with long-winded tales, play practical jokes, get drunk in town, haze newcomers, and just as easily square off into heated disputes and fist fights.

One of the more strongly drawn characters is Gus, a stereotypically grumpy camp cook. Another is Brigham, a lapsed Mormon with grievances about his church that keep him from marrying. There is some humor in all this but little romanticizing. The subduing of an unbroken horse, for instance, is described in brutal detail.

This one is for readers interested in the old West as it was actually lived. Without gunfights, chases, outlaws, Indians, or a mounting body count, he maintains our interest, rings a range of emotions, and keeps things moving along. Available free at Barnes and Noble for the Nook.

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Coming up: Zane Grey, The Heritage of the Desert (1910)


  1. Thanks for discussing this first rate western by one of the better writers of the teens and twenties. I read this novel back in 2002 in the original magazine appearance where it appeared as a three part serial in POPULAR MAGAZINE in June 1, June 15, and July 1, 1913. The original magazine title was ALIAS BOWLES AND THE FAR WEST. I have the habit of often commenting on the stories I read and my note in the June 1, 1913 POPULAR says:

    Outstanding. Coolidge remains a big favorite of mine and this has the usual POPULAR MAGAZINE pretty girl, a rancher's daughter. But she didn't bother me as much as some of the women in westerns. Hardly no violence at all, just a couple of fist fights and no killings. Excellent account of cowboy life, very believable and interesting. Not at all like your typical violent western.

    This issue has a nice fishing cover by top notch artist, Frank Schoonover. It also has a long complete novel by a good writer who is completely forgotten, Francis Lynde plus a very funny baseball story by Charles E. Van Loan, one of the great sport fiction writers. This was the golden age of magazine fiction and illustration art, which lasted right into the 1950's. Our digest fiction magazines are barely hanging on today with very low circulations.

  2. ooh, I've downloaded the Nook Pc application so I'll hop over and pick this one up for it.

  3. Walker, thanks for the comments on this novel. I was delighted when I read this one because I hadn't expected it to be written so close to real cowboy life. There are so many closely observed details in it.

    Charles, B&N seem to be the only online seller with a free downloadable version.