Wednesday, June 6, 2012

Elmer Kelton, The Day the Cowboys Quit

Kelton's novel has many of the elements of pulp western fiction - big ranchers against the little guys, justice at the end of a rope, an honorable hero wearing a sheriff's badge - but he also brings a great deal of insight, experience, and historical background to the task of telling this story. It is enjoyable and full of well-drawn characters and unexpected turns of plot from beginning (a squabble over the brand on a cow) to the end (a gripping courtroom drama).

The title suggests that the book might be a more light-hearted story that focuses on the cowboy strike of 1883, but Kelton's aim is to explore the more complex psychology of the men who live by the Code of the West. The ill-fated strike is over before we are well into the book, and the author focuses on the unexpected and far-reaching results of its aftermath.

Like many books about the West, this one is about loss and the passing of an era. The cowboy way of the open range land is quickly disappearing as settlers move in and towns spring up, the cattle business falls under the influence of venture capital from the East, and rough justice must give way to law and order.

Elmer Kelton
Most enjoyable for this reader is the characterization of its main character, Hitch, a single cowboy in his thirties for whom circumstance, loyalty, and honor lead him out of a job he loves and into harm's way, until he reluctantly assumes a role of no small responsibility and risk in the new social order on the Texas plains. Not the fearless hero of standard cowboy fiction, Hitch has a good many conflicting feelings, he's more diplomatic than quick with a gun, and his actions require considerable courage.

Kelton's rural Texas background and knowledge of frontier history clearly come through in the many details that enrich the tale he tells. He notes a horse's dislike for flapping laundry on a clothesline. The cowboys drink more strong coffee than whiskey. He realistically describes a man's slow, painful recovery from being pistol-whipped. A man angrily observes the terror of a cowboy who wet his britches as he was being hanged for thievery. And there is much about managing cattle on the open range and the complicated, never ending process of ensuring their ownership.

I highly recommend this book to anyone with an interest in the historical West, cowboys, roundups and branding, frontier social history, the landscape of the plains, frontier justice, the Code of the West, and the struggle for political power and shifting alliances in changing times. Kelton's book is well-written, with memorable characters and a fair share of suspense.

Coming up: Marie Manning, Judith of the Plains (1903)

14 comments:

  1. WOW, sounds really authentic! Will check it out.

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  2. Kelton is one of the great ones. He was a guest at one of the pulp conventions years ago and I had a chance to talk with him. The Western Writers of America voted him the greatest western author of all time. He's won the Spur Award 8 times which must be the record.

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    1. I would like to have met him. His memoir, SANDHILLS BOY, is so self-effacing. He devotes much of the story to his courtship of his wife.

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  3. This is one of my all-time favorites.

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    1. I suspect there's a good bunch of us who feel that way.

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  4. Ron, thanks for a wonderful review of Elmer Kelton's novel. I love reading about the Wild West, particularly the historical West, as you mention here, and if it comes with a good dose of entertainment, even better. I'll be looking out for Kelton's books.

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    1. I haven't read a lot of Kelton (there's a lot to read), but I think much of his work is more genre fiction, while based solidly on history. You know you're in good hands with him.

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  5. I've not heard of this one but it sounds like a worthy read.

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    1. Hey, Charles, thanks for dropping by.

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  6. I've read some of Kelton's work, but not this one. I'm going to have to check it out. Thanks for reviewing it, Ron.

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    1. Hi, Matt. It's a good entertaining history lesson.

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  7. This was the first Kelton novel I read. Great review, Ron.

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  8. We will miss you Elmer...one of my all time favorite Western Authours...“A little honest swearin" wipeth away anger and bringeth peace to the soul.”

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