Thursday, March 31, 2011

FFB: Bob St. John, On Down the Road

Written and published in 1977, this is a great book about rodeo, with something like 250 photographs of rodeo cowboys in action, many of them in color. But it's not just a picture book. The author Bob St. John is a sports writer, and he covers the subject with the kind of depth you expect from good sports writing. 

His specialty is getting up-close and personal with the greats and near-greats of the sport. Thirty-some years ago, that meant men like Larry Mahan, Donnie Gay, Jim Shoulders, and Leo Camarillo.

He travels with them from rodeo to rodeo, sitting up with them in motel rooms late at night, listening to their stories, and capturing their personalities in the way they talk, tell jokes, even sing songs.

It’s a time capsule of a period when traditional rodeo was getting more like show business, but it was still not far from its roots. St. John pays plenty of attention to the events and the action in the arena, including the work of the rodeo clowns. There’s also a great deal more about what goes on behind the scenes, as he portrays the lives and personal histories of the men and women who "go on down the road."

This book is out of print. Used copies can be found at amazon.

Coming up: Francis Lynde, The Taming of Red Butte Western (1910)

Wednesday, March 30, 2011

Willard Wyman, High Country

This novel sets out to be a character study about a man who lives and works as a packer in the mountains of Montana and California. Ty Hardin takes his first job leading a string of mules in the Swan Range north of Missoula. He’s a teenager with no trail experience and only an aptitude with animals.

It’s 1937, and from his first boss, Fenton, he learns a love of the mountains that is next to mystical. Lifted there high above the everyday concerns of everyday folks, he is at home. His quiet strength, work ethic, and finely tuned skills eventually make him a legend among his peers.

Character. A character study succeeds to the extent that it finds ambiguities and complexities in its subject. Since no one is perfect, it shouldn’t be surprising to reveal a weakness or fault. But Wyman’s portrayal of Ty tends to be worshipful, and where his halo may slip a little, it’s easily excused.

Wyman celebrates a kind of character we associate with traditional Western values. Ty represents an ideal of individualism and self-reliance that also honors a code of responsibility to others. He may pass an evening at the town brothel or fly into a rare rage when another man insults his dance partner. But he has been stripped of every bit of human meanness.

Monday, March 28, 2011

Martha Sandweiss, Passing Strange

This is a story of eminent geologist Clarence King (1842-1901) and the secret he kept from even his closest friends – that he led a double life. A white man from the upper classes, he had met, married, and fathered children with an African American woman.

Ada Copeland, born into slavery in Georgia, knew him only as James Todd, a black Pullman porter, whose work kept him away from home for long periods. The thoroughly researched book Sandweiss has written about them is a fascinating portrayal of post-Civil War social history.

It uses a personal story to illuminate almost a hundred years of race relations in America and the shifting legalities of the color line. Most amazing was King’s ability to pass in 1888 as a black man. In spite of his skin color, he need claim having only one black ancestor. Such was the one-drop test of white racial purity.

Clarence King, director USGS, 1879-1881
Success and distress. Were it known, of course, Clarence and Ada’s union would have scandalized not only his upper class social world, where his closest friends included John Hay and Henry Adams, both prominent figures in Washington. It would have been a blow to the professional prestige he had attained.

By the age of 30, he had been recognized as a brilliant surveyor of the mineral resources of the now-opening West. After successful expeditions well funded by the federal government, he proposed and, in 1879, was named head of the U.S. Geological Survey.

It was a secret marriage that lasted only a dozen years. King died short of his sixtieth birthday of tuberculosis, revealing to his wife only his real name but little else. A promised trust fund for herself and four children never materialized, as King died penniless and in debt.

The irony of his life was that he was the sole supporter of yet another family: his aging grandmother, his mother, and half-siblings, one of whom was in an institution for the mentally ill. While a highly respected scientist, he was unable to convert his expertise into a commercial enterprise, and he was the victim of failed investments.

Meanwhile, he kept up appearances in the social whirl of New York and Washington and was much admired for his intelligence, his wit, and a kind of Gilded Age manly grace. It was only a continuing flow of loans from his friend John Hay that kept him afloat. After he died, it was John Hay who secretly continued to provide for Ada and her children.

Pullman porter and passenger, 1880s
East vs. West. Early western novelists complain almost in unison about the corrupting influence of the civilized East. King, who spent time in both East and West, held the belief, along with other western writers, that western life was much healthier.

Its chief benefit was the absence of stress produced in an urban environment. The challenge of roughing it also helped a man recover his manhood. The so-called “camp cure” helped men toughen up who otherwise languished and succumbed to anxieties while confined in the congested cities of the East.

King thrived on the western expeditions, though he stopped short of giving up all his creature comforts. Instead of clothes suited to the open air, he dressed in his finest and kept a servant at his side – always a young black man. He also professed to being charmed by the women of color he found in the West, who seemed sensual and voluptuous by comparison with the stiff, shallow white women of his class back East.

King lived in residential hotels. Fifth Avenue Hotel, 1886
Color lines. King was of the opinion that a true “American race” would result from racial blending. The bitter differences between North and South that followed the war would be resolved in the growing dominance of the racially diverse West. (He called this process “amalgamation.” It was a neutral term already being replaced by “miscegenation,” a slur-word devised by racial purists.)

From a family of staunch abolitionists, King saw the growing anxiety around racial intermingling take the form of segregation and anti-miscegenation laws. These had their proponents in the North as well as the South. His own children in New York were barred for a time from attending a whites-only school.

Reading Sandweiss’s account of these years, it’s easy to recognize assumptions about race and color that show up in early western novels. Written for a white audience, they are often flagrant in their racial prejudices and stereotyping. Crossing the color line happens rarely, though with melodramatic effect, as in Zane Grey’s Heritage of the Desert (1910), where the hero falls in a big way for a half-breed woman.

King used Brooklyn Bridge to cross to Ada's home (1892).
Wrapping up. Sandweiss is a historian. She stumbled across this story in her other research and not until looking at census records did she (or maybe anyone) discover that King had kept his marriage secret by passing for black. A major undertaking, the book has four pages of acknowledgements and 45 pages of notes, plus an extensive index.

As a personal story, her book has a strong emotional pull. Today, when the secret lives of public figures are cause for one exposé after another in the press, reading this story is something different. It is finally unutterably sad.

By all accounts Clarence King was a principled man who lived for others. Cherished by his friends, admired and respected in his profession, he was undone by a world that denied him the simple right to marry and live openly with someone he loved.

His is also an object lesson in the psychological toll of living a double life. The emotional stress of maintaining a façade in both his lives, while confiding in no one, required him always to be living a falsehood. This daily undermining of his own sense of personal integrity, compounded by duties, obligations, and financial problems, finally broke his health. He suffered both mental and physical breakdowns.

John Hay (1838-1905), by John Singer Sargent
His is a telling story to set by that of a contemporary, the flamboyant Charles Lummis, another champion of racial equality (his biography reviewed here recently). Still, Lummis never let the ill opinion of others stand in the way of his own self-indulgence. Though married, he seems to have easily excused his sexual indiscretions.

Meanwhile, the door was open to one and all at his home, where he loved to entertain and play host to the celebrities of his adopted hometown, Los Angeles. He was a self-styled public figure in a city that seems always to have thrived on publicity.

King seems almost innocent by comparison. To have a home, it had to be in secret, where not one of his many friends was ever entertained. There was no blending here of his public and private life. To have the private, intimate life he yearned for, he had to become a stranger to all who knew him – and arguably to himself.

Martha Sandweiss is also the author of Print the Legend, reviewed here recently. Passing Strange is available at amazon and Abebooks.

Image credits: Wikimedia Commons 

Coming up: Willard Wyman, High Country

Friday, March 25, 2011

Richard Leacock (1921-2011)

Richard Leacock, 2009, photo by Teemu Rajala.
I am writing a few paragraphs today in memory of Richard Leacock, the British-born documentary filmmaker who died this week in Paris. Leacock was a pioneer of a kind of film making called cinema verité, or direct cinema. When hand-held 16mm cameras and fast film made it possible to shoot real-life unstaged, unscripted, as it happened, he was there reinventing the genre.

One summer in the 1970s, I took a filmmaking course from him. A few years yet before camcorders, he had us using a synch-sound system that he had developed using Super-8 cameras. I made a little film about a flea market. It’s on a reel of videotape that’s probably still around here somewhere in a closet.

We watched a lot of documentaries that summer, too, and I thank him for opening my eyes to this form of storytelling. Maybe more than anything, he made me aware of the camera’s presence in any shot of a film, as well as the editor selecting and placing each of those shots into a particular sequence.

TV reality before reality TV. In the early days of American TV, people like Richard Leacock were making documentaries that are now considered classics of realism. They were the original reality TV, and much more deserving of the term than the crap that goes by that name today.

Photo, Michael J. Owens
Documentary has evolved beyond cinema verité, though Frederick Wiseman still works in that style and honors the tradition. Philip Gröning’s Into Great Silence (2006) is another powerful example. Meanwhile, the Maysles Brothers’ Grey Gardens (1976) has had renewed life as a stage play and as an HBO movie.

What this all makes me think of is the over-mediated world we live in. There’s always someone telling us what we’re supposed to see and hear, interpreting events for us. [Insert Anderson Cooper here or just about anyone else with “news.”]

Leacock simply followed people with a camera and a sound person and captured whatever there was to be seen and heard. He didn’t ask questions; he didn’t explain what we were seeing. There was no music track to cue emotional reactions.

If reality was ambiguous, then so be it. He trusted us to make our own sense of his films, think for ourselves, and come to our own conclusions. Watching this kind of documentary, you have to pay attention. This is an ability that is diminished by disuse. His films show us that there’s more for our eyes and ears at any moment of a day than we can hope to understand in a lifetime. We need to be reminded of that. Often.

The video below begins with a sequence from Leacock’s 1964 film Republicans – The New Breed. It’s followed by a TV interview in 1973 in which he talks about his early years as a filmmaker. This is the man I remember. (The sound is a little out of synch, but it's worth ignoring that.)

Photo credits: Wikimedia Commons 

Coming up: Martha Sandweiss, Passing Strange

Photo-finish Friday: Signs and portents

This road sign in Riverside, California, turned out to be prophetic. The news came on Tuesday. I seem to have a torn rotator cuff, which accounts for a sore shoulder I've had for six weeks.

The physical therapist says he thinks we can get back to normal again without surgery. So doing the prescribed PT routines is my new religion, along with ice compresses and arthritis strength Tylenol. Wish me luck with this.

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

Thursday, March 24, 2011

Frederick R. Bechdolt, The Hard Rock Man (1910)

Poster, 1890s. Artist, Edward Penfield
Here’s another forgotten book from 100 years ago. This one, by Frederick Ritchie Bechdolt (1874-1950) seems to have begun as a short story “The Hard Rock Man,” appearing in The Saturday Evening Post in November 1908. Then a serialized novel named after its main character, Tom Morton, was published in The Saturday Evening Post, May-June 1910. That same year, The Hard Rock Man came out in hard cover.

Bechdolt was a prolific writer, with more than a hundred stories and novels in various genres, starting in 1906 and lasting into the 1940s. He had an education from the University of Washington, and in his early years worked as a journalist for newspapers in several Western cities.

Maybe I’m just going tone deaf, but these early novels set in the West seem as well written as many books today. The Hard Rock Man has a nice balance of character and action, and it brings a little known world to life. It also has something to say.

Iron Mountains, Washington. Farwestern photo by Gregg M. Erickson.

Character. Like other novels of the period, it wants to say something about the growth of character in a man. In this case, the man is a young Irish immigrant, who has fetched up in the mountains of the Northwest, working on a railroad tunnel project.

Modern immigrant literature, like Dinaw Mengestu’s novel, The Beautiful Things That Heaven Bears, questions the myth of the melting pot. It embraces America, but with mixed feelings. Bechdolt’s Tom Morton represents the more traditional immigrant story.  He quickly adapts to the New World, rising gradually from a lowly unskilled laborer, shoveling muck at the mouth of the tunnel, to boss of operations.

He accomplishes this chiefly out of sheer physicality. He is big, strong and fearless. When five fellow workers gang up on him, he beats the crap out of them before stopping a bullet that hardly wounds him. Graduating to jobs with more responsibility, he eventually is in charge of one of the heavy drills pounding into the hard rock inside the tunnel.

Wednesday, March 23, 2011

Robert Olmstead, Far Bright Star

As I read this book, I thought of the many pulp fans and writers getting their “education” here in the blogs. Olmstead uses the dark material of pulp fiction and remixes it as chilling poetry. Think of a meeting between Jim Thompson and Ambrose Bierce.

Set during the Mexican Revolution in 1916, the novel centers on a detail of mounted American soldiers in northern Mexico. Once again the U.S. Army is in full force south of the border. This time they are after Pancho Villa, following the rebel leader’s nasty cross-border raid in Columbus, New Mexico (which you can read about here).

At the opposite end of the spectrum from flash fiction, Olmstead writes with the deliberate patience of a raptor waiting for a kill. The slow unfolding of the story reflects first the stifling heat under the desert sun and the blinding boredom of the soldiers’ routine – then the moment by moment grisly fate that awaits them.

Pancho Villa Expedition, infantry columns, 1917
Plot. In the single day that much of the novel takes place, Napoleon Childs is the commanding officer of a detail of mostly inexperienced men. Their job is to find and kill a half dozen wild cattle to be slaughtered for Army rations.

Childs is as hard-boiled as they come. He knows nothing but the life of a career soldier and has an easy contempt for any man whose courage is less dependable than tempered steel. He’s well aware that there are few men like himself. The one exception is his brother, who serves with him. The bond between them is one of blood, muscle, and undying loyalty.

On the day in question, it is Napoleon’s luck that the men under his command include three unseasoned and poorly disciplined men. Only one other is a hardened soldier he can count on. The fifth is no more than a boy.

Far from camp, they discover that they are being surrounded by enemy, and after a long pursuit through a whirling sandstorm, the men make a stand in a canyon. The violence that ensues is described at the same slow-motion pace, and it is horrific. You soon get your fill of it, and yet it is far from over.

Napoleon is taken captive, fully expecting to die in an ordeal of humiliation and torture. And rest assured, I’m glossing over the details. Olmstead’s is an imaginative world of extremes, yet thoroughly grounded in this one. It is pulp fiction with real rather than stylized violence.

Monday, March 21, 2011

Mark Thompson, American Character

Charles Lummis (1859-1928) was a corker, a Los Angeles resident who became a household name, long before there was a Hollywood. He achieved that honor by walking from Cincinnati to LA in 1884, and writing it up for the newspapers as he went. A blogger without a blog.

A while ago, I wrote up his account of that trip, A Tramp Across the Continent (1892). Today is a review of a Spur Award winning biography of the man by another LA writer, Mark Thompson.

Character. The early western, as I’ve come to understand it, was a story about American character. It emerged in the Progressivist Era of the Teddy Roosevelt years. It found in the already mythic West the conditions that produced men and women of moral strength and physical stamina.

The word “character” has another almost opposite meaning. We use it for someone whose behavior is so out of the ordinary, it’s comical. Whether you laugh or not depends on how highly you regard true eccentrics.

Charles Lummis, 1897
Charles Lummis seemed somehow to exhibit both kinds of character. He had the courage to take on bureaucrats and corporate interests in the fight for Indian rights and the preservation of the historical Southwest. It helped that Teddy Roosevelt was a personal friend, but Lummis would have gone on fighting anyway. He had the tenacity of a pit bull.

He was also something of a clown, dressing in a Spanish-colonial style outfit and sombrero. He built his own house, El Alisal, out of the boulders from a dry arroyo that runs between Pasadena and what is now downtown Los Angeles. He entertained there with dinner parties that drew folks as varied as John Muir and Douglas Fairbanks.

A man who seems to have had a vast appetite for public attention, he commanded the center ring of a self-made three-ring circus. Married more times than most people knew of, he was also a flagrant philanderer. He kept a life-long diary that included a record of sexual congress with each of his wives and countless mistresses.

A hopeless workaholic, he rarely slept, driving himself until he was physically too ill to go on. He was also a voluminous letter writer and editor of Out West, a magazine with Chamber-of-Commerce aspirations when he came aboard. Then under his guidance it became a high-pitched screed for his preservation projects and ongoing battles with the Bureau of Indian Affairs.

Friday, March 18, 2011

Photo-finish Friday: Chase

One morning this week, we were at a cactus farm on the outskirts of town, where we had this view of the mountain ridge across the valley and what looked like a weather front in the sky. The winds of March have been blowing here for days. The photo captures that unsettled desert mood.

Then a few moments after I took this pic, there was the distant sound of sirens growing steadily closer. And along the two-lane strip of paved road running behind me there came a speeding pickup truck with a mile-long string of police, sheriff, and CHP units in hot pursuit. Like a scene from Thelma and Louise.

The online news later in the day reported that the chase went on for over an hour at speeds up to 100mph, passing through a half dozen local towns scattered along the Coachella Valley. Pictures from the scene showed a driver and passenger arrested. We amused ourselves on the way home imagining the excited conversations among law officers over lunch that day.

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

Josh Peter, Fried Twinkies, Buckle Bunnies and Bull Riders

Rodeo Week concludes at BITS with this book about pro bull riders and the multimillion-dollar business that has sprung up around them. Professional bullriding has morphed from what used to be a feature rodeo event into a cross between NASCAR and the WWF.

Sports writer Josh Peter follows the 2004 PBR tour that crisscrosses the U.S. and ends with the finals in Las Vegas, drumming up excitement and suspense as he goes. He brings to life the widely divergent personalities of the riders. These range from seasoned champion and family-man Adriano Moraes and the stereotypical drinking, cussing Justin McBride, to the withdrawn, almost spookily religious Mike Lee.

Among them are a diversity of others, including rookies, old-timers hoping for a comeback, and competitors from countries as far away as Australia and Brazil. We learn that one out of 15 rides results in injuries requiring treatment, and Peter devotes a fair share of pages to the sports medicine room.

Adventurous foodie tries a Fried Twinkie
Meanwhile, we follow the drama of big business as differences between the men who run this show create a number of behind-the-scenes conflicts. There are firings and the threat of a boycott by riders who feel they are being under-appreciated by their employers. 

Peter's revelation of corporate and investor maneuvers will enlighten fans familiar only with the glitz and glamour of the sport and the men who are its stars. The book also describes the stock growers and investors who raise, train, buy, and sell bulls. 

There's even a side trip to Brazil, where we visit the ranch Moraes has bought with his winnings. Fans will enjoy the DVD documentary, Rank, which is a compelling record of the 2004 season finals, focusing on Moraes, McBride, and Lee.

Fried Twinkies, etc. is available at amazon and AbeBooks.

Photo credit: Wikimedia Commons

Coming up:  Mark Thompson, American Character

Thursday, March 17, 2011

Baxter Black, Hey, Cowboy, Wanna Get Lucky?

Rodeo Week continues at BITS with this “forgotten” comic novel. It’s humor in a jugular vein (as it used to be said of Mad Magazine), as well as a whole lot more. If you have an interest in rodeo cowboys and their life on the road between those hoped-for 8 seconds of adrenalin in the arena, this book is primarily about that. Exaggerated, you bet, but compared to the yarns told by real rodeo cowboys, not too far fetched.

First published in 1994, cowboy poet Baxter Black’s story of two cowboy pals tells of their summer on the rodeo circuit. They travel all over the western states, with hopes of winning enough money to make it to the national finals.

Their adventures partake of that particular brand of American humor that lies between guts-and-glory and the human comedy. For rodeo cowboys there is a fine line between fearlessness and foolishness. Few sports make failure not only ignominious but dangerous (being thrown and getting not only a faceful of dirt but broken bones as well).

Besides an enjoyable tale of going on down the road, Black's book is also a story about friendship. His two cowobys are different enough to play off each other's strengths and weaknesses, but they're no odd couple. Their devotion to each other, their companionship on the road, their late night talks attempting to make sense of the world they inhabit – not to mention their encounters with porcupines and "wild women" – all of it is an entertaining celebration of being best pals.

Hey, Cowboy, Wanna Get Lucky? is available at amazon and AbeBooks.

Coming up: Josh Peter, Fried Twinkies, Buckle Bunnies and Bull Riders

Wednesday, March 16, 2011

Ty Phillips, Blacktop Cowboys

Rodeo Week continues at BITS as author Ty Phillips follows a handful of champion steer wrestlers on a year's round of rodeos. In his book he focuses mostly on 23-year-old Luke Branquinho from Los Alamos, California. Branquinho, in 2004, went to the National Finals and finished first, with over $193,000 in overall earnings.

And that is the book in a nutshell. Readers follow along as Luke, his brother Casey, best friend Travis Cadwell, and a colleague Marc Jensen crisscross the West to compete at dozens of rodeos.

The steer wrestling itself and the competition get almost as much attention as the long-distance rig driving, poker playing, carousing, beer drinking, junk food eating, gambling, pot smoking, cell-phone talking, and the idle conversations, story telling, boredom, practical joking, raillery, tomfoolery, and high jinks that fill the time between rodeos and rides.

Luke Branquinho, National Rodeo Finals, 2004
The book is an honest effort to recreate the experience of being on the road with this fraternity of men in their twenties and thirties. Living out dreams of rodeo glory, they pit skill against luck in the arena. Meanwhile they struggle with disappointments and deal with physical ailments that range from colossal hangovers to serious injuries. Theirs is also a story of  building friendships that qualify as a rough-and-ready kind of male bonding.

You won't find much padding – no history of steer wrestling, no side-trips and detours into related subjects, and very little character study or analysis of the sport itself. It's pretty much play-by-play – whether behind the scenes or out in front of the crowd.

The book ends in a 40-page account of the ten-day Finals in Las Vegas. It's a quick read, with a 16-page section of great action photos and thumbnail portraits of the cowboys featured in the book. All told, it fills in those long gaps between those rides into the arena to throw oneself bodily at a four-legged moving target.

Blacktop Cowboys is available at amazon and Abebooks.

Photo credit: Wikimedia Commons

Coming up: Baxter Black, Hey, Cowboy, Wanna Get Lucky?

Tuesday, March 15, 2011

Cyra McFadden, Rain or Shine

Rodeo Week at BITS continues with a daughter’s memoir of her father, the larger-than-life rodeo luminary, Cy Taillon. With his golden voice and gentlemanly manner, he invented the persona of the rodeo announcer. And he won the devotion of rodeo cowboys and fans from San Francisco's Cow Palace to Madison Square Garden from the 1940s to the 1970s.

Not surprisingly, what this story reveals casts the man in a somewhat different light. Before fame finds him, he’s the hard drinking, gambling, womanizing ne'er-do-well who married the author's singer-dancer mother after a one-day courtship. Following the rodeo circuit out of a home base in Montana, they fought and loved each other passionately, a Scott and Zelda of the Western plains, and then broke up.

Following a spectacular crash at an air show in Great Falls in 1946, at which Cy used the microphone to calm the startled crowd, he became the hero he was destined to become. Assuming a life of propriety with a new devoted wife and two new sons, he was finally launched in the career rodeo people remember him for. Meanwhile, his first wife languished in a miserable second marriage, and his daughter grew up, loving her absent father deeply while stubbornly unwilling to come to terms with the man he had become.

Thanks to the University of Nebraska Press for reprinting this great memoir. It offers a fascinating window into the world of the rodeo circuit, at least as it once was. For rodeo-going readers, it does much to explain the evolution of the role and persona of the rodeo announcer and the elevation of rodeo cowboying into a kind of gallantry.

It's also an entertaining story told by an author with a gift for both sentiment and satire. With her eye for the absurd detail, she can unerringly find the irony in an often rueful story. The many family photos are also an excellent addition to the book.

Rain or Shine is available at amazon and AbeBooks.

Coming up: Ty Phillips, Blacktop Cowboys

Monday, March 14, 2011

W. K. Stratton, Chasing the Rodeo

Rodeo Week at BITS gets underway today with an introduction to the history, the personalities, and the meaning of this sport as it's evolved over the past century. Stratton, a journalist based in Austin, Texas, with roots in Oklahoma, comes by his "kicker" credentials fairly enough. His mother was a cowgirl in her own right and his father a rodeo cowboy who went on down the road and never came back.

Stratton's book is a personal journey, a search for an understanding of the romance of rodeo. For him, it’s the appeal of risk-taking and the call of the wild in the soul. It’s the love of a past that can be recaptured for a moment in a beautifully executed ride on a bucking horse or bull.

And his book does much to reclaim the essentials of a pastoral ritual that has been compromised by commercialism, corporate sponsorships, and marketing that positions it as an extreme sport.

Stratton covers some familiar ground for anyone familiar with rodeo history, but many stories deserve retelling. For example, that of George Fletcher at the 1911 Pendleton Roundup; the first bulldogger, Bill Pickett; and the death of champion bull rider Lane Frost. 

Grand Final Review, Pendleton Roundup, 1911. Click here to see larger pic.

Then there is an account of the first rodeo "cowgirl," Lucille Mulhall, and of Indian cowboy Will Sampson, who played Chief Bromden in One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest (1975). In Prescott, AZ, he has occasion to recall at length the rodeo film Junior Bonner (1972), already reviewed here.

There is a wide array of other personalities who find their way into Stratton's book: Justin McBride, Will Rogers, Tom Mix, Willie Nelson, Jack Kerouac, Ben Johnson, Theodore Roosevelt, Buffalo Bill Cody, and evangelist Susie Luchsinger.

He gets closest to the sport itself in conversations with all-around champion Jesse Bail and bullriding champion Freckles Brown. The first chapter account of Brown's famous ride on Tornado at the National Finals in 1967 just takes your breath away.

Finally there is the search for the story of Stratton's absent cowboy father, which rounds out the book with more than a little poignance. I loved this book and recommend it to anyone curious about rodeo, the fascination it holds for both fans and participants, and its place in American popular culture.

Chasing the Rodeo is available at amazon and AbeBooks.

Picture credit: Wikimedia Commons

Coming up: Cyra McFadden, Rain or Shine

Sunday, March 13, 2011


In recognition of the long-awaited appearance on Kindle of Cranmer and Ash’s Beat to a Pulp, Round 1, I’m posting this link to my review of this entertaining collection here at BITS a while ago. The review starts thus: 

Pulp fiction is un-American – in the best sense of the word. It sticks its finger in the eye of our over-idealistic national myths. It questions the myth of progress and the myth of the American Dream. Along with one of the characters in Cranmer and Ash’s Beat to a Pulp, Round 1, it insists that things are “going to hell.”

For more in that jugular vein, your attention is directed here.

Coming up: Rodeo Week

Saturday, March 12, 2011

Rodeo Week, Junior Bonner (1972)

It’s Rodeo Week starting Monday at BITS – reviews of five great books about rodeo. Today I’m giving y’all a heads up with a review of not a book, but one of the best movies ever made about rodeo.

I’m calling it best, maybe, because it starred two of my favorite actors, Steve McQueen and Robert Preston. True to the spirit of rodeo, it’s also a comedy. Surprisingly, it was directed by Sam Peckinpah, who was hardly known for his light touch.

Junior Bonner was one of those movies that fell "under the influence" of the early 1970s. It came in that aimless trough between Easy Rider (1969) and Jaws (1975), when Hollywood was willing to let filmmakers try about anything to hang onto a youthful audience. It was a period also more than a little challenged by the post-Vietnam years of national bafflement.

The movie grabs for this mood from the opening credits, with kinetic split-screen images showing in slow motion a disastrous ride on a bull. These are intercut with shots of McQueen driving a mud-spattered and beat up white Cadillac convertible, towing a horse trailer. Altogether it’s the picture of a man down on his luck.

Pendleton Roundup, 2004. Photo by Bobjgalingo.
Then we get a vision of an American West exhausted and resold as suburban housing developments of so-called rancheros (never mind that "ranchero" in Spanish means rancher). The marketing involves busloads of prospective buyers shepherded by young women in cowboy hats and hot pants.

McQueen's rodeo cowboy, Junior Bonner, returns to the home place outside Prescott, Arizona, to find heavy equipment operators fiercely tearing up the earth and anything that gets in their way. He stands there in his Lee jeans, western shirt and straw cowboy hat, surveying a land laid waste. Like the mood of the country at the time, the scene portrays a promising future that has seriously run aground somewhere.

But after this downbeat start, the movie becomes a kind of romantic comedy. We meet Bonner Senior (Robert Preston) rising from his hospital bed with a dream of prospecting in Australia. He’s also making a last attempt to win back his wife of many years, played nicely by Ida Lupino.

Calf roper, Pendleton Roundup, 2004. Photo by Bobjgalingo.
There is plenty of farce, including Preston and McQueen riding a horse through backyards and getting hung up on a clothesline, a comical barroom brawl, and a punch that sends a man through a front porch window. The rodeo itself is a rapid montage of graceless falls from rough stock played against turkey-in-the-straw music.

Meanwhile, Junior, as an aging, stove-up bull rider, is the calm at the center of this storm. Preston clowns, Lupino frowns, Joe Don Baker fumes, and Ben Johnson grins and cracks jokes. There’s even a girl with an eye on Junior. But he is untouched by it all.

McQueen does what he does best, reflecting a quiet cowboy reserve. Though the West is no more, Junior continues to represent a long line of western heroes holding true to the cowboy code of generosity, individualism, and toughing it out when the going gets rough. Before all is said and done, he gets the girl, but not for long, because true to form, he has to get on down the road.

Picture credits: Wikimedia Commons

Coming up: W. K. Stratton, Chasing the Rodeo

Friday, March 11, 2011

Photo-finish Friday: Sign of the times

Here in LA, we've been watching gas prices go up around town like a rising tide. I snapped this on an evening this week at the corner of Sepulveda and Santa Monica Blvd. You can pay more in some places if you like.

Four bucks a gallon is a bargain, I know, if you're in Europe. But in a congested city with a poor excuse for public transportation, the alternatives to driving are limited. So you ride the tide.

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

Thursday, March 10, 2011

Sam Brown, The Big Lonely

I picked up this western novel from 1992 at the recommendation of Richard Wheeler, who knows his western writers. Sam Brown, the jacket flap says, is a working cowboy who makes his home in Adrian, Texas. That’s in the northern Panhandle, mid-way between Amarillo and Tucumcari, New Mexico.

This novel, in fact, takes place there, in the Canadian River basin, just north of the Llano Estacado. The year is 1887. There’s plenty of action in the novel, but it also wants to consider some ideas about what it was to be a working cowboy in those times.

You don’t expect a western writer to get “existential,” but Brown ventures fearlessly into that territory, starting right from the title. The novel is about loneliness and what that feels like to a man whose occupation has made him a drifter.

Story takes place on the state line west of Amarillo
Male bonding. A man’s co-workers can be a palliative, and the central character, Casey Wills, has three cowboy pardners at the novel’s beginning. They’ve spent a long summer on roundup, working for the XIT.

They are a congenial unit of camaraderie, disguising their emotional dependence on each other with constant bantering and teasing. No matter what one says, another has a snappy comeback as self-defense and to keep the other in his place.

Meanwhile, when one gets in trouble, it’s all for one and one for all. Which is how they all end up in the Tascosa jail before they’ve had a chance to spend their summer wages. And all of that goes to pay fines for disturbing the peace and cover damages to a saloon where they’ve been in a brawl.

So by page 40, they are broke, winter is coming on, and only Casey and his pal Josh are still employed. They’ve been hired on by the XIT to man a line camp. Their friends Johnny and Ab are let go, and there is a quick, unsentimental goodbye as they part.

Wednesday, March 9, 2011

How to write like Zane Grey (cont.)

Thanks to readers who offered thoughts on Zane Grey’s popularity after my last post. If Grey had been one of the first western writers writing for a western-starved public, I’d be ready to agree with Walker Martin. Being first would have given him a head start on all the competition.

But with the success of Riders of the Purple Sage in 1912, he was really coming from the back of the pack. There were 20-30 other western novelists by that time. Some of them had already published several novels with established publishing houses.

Melodrama. Elisabeth observed that Grey’s novels are heavy on the drama, if not melodrama. I’d definitely agree with this. Of all the early writers I’ve read from this period, the melodrama is the defining feature of his storytelling.

And his kind of melodrama seems particularly heavy-handed. To be fair, it is youthful and maybe idealistic, but in the way that young people can be way over-serious. He writes from what seems to me an adolescent view of the world – big emotions and big scenes, but no irony.

Monday, March 7, 2011

How to write like Zane Grey

The success and popularity of Zane Grey continues to puzzle me. Reading the opening chapter of his novel The Drift Fence (1933), I stopped after the opening chapter to consider why I had little desire to read farther. So I have to wonder why the man's writing had the opposite effect on his legions of fans.

Surely contemporary western writers of the 1920s and 30s must have wondered the same thing as they tried to emulate him. Studying this book, they could well have derived the following rules for writing a compelling first chapter:

1. Introduce lots of characters and a couple place names in the first paragraph. This will get the story started off with a bang and give the impression that there's lots going on.

2. Write in short, choppy sentences. Some readers can process only one detail at a time.

3. Make your main character a sixteen-year-old. That way you don’t risk telling the story through someone smarter than your reader.

4. Provide all the exposition through dialogue. This is another advantage of a young point of view character. Everything has to be explained to them, so it’s easy for the reader follow.

5. Have characters speak in a drawl. This adds amusing local color.

6. Introduce a hopelessly stupid character. This will show the superior intelligence of the central character even though they know little themselves.

7. Keep it generic. Don’t confuse a reader with details and specifics that might challenge their vague ideas of geography and history.

8. Keep it simple. Your characters should all be recognizable types. Readers don’t want to be reminded that humans are infinitely complex.

9. Mix in some multi-syllable words. Using words that your characters would not use themselves shows off your vocabulary. Words like: insidious, imminence, wherefore, affirmative, nonchalant, and so on.

10. Feel free to over-dramatize. Don’t say, “When he was done talking, no one spoke.” That's too matter of fact. Say, “His ominous reasoning had a silencing effect upon his hearers.”

I could go on.

The irony is that in spite of all this, Grey became a hugely successful and wealthy writer. His novels were best sellers, with sales of 100,000 copies and more. Many were made into movies. Today he is one of the few remembered by the general public as a writer of westerns.

You might expect that his contemporaries wrote no better. Reading early western fiction, the great surprise to me is that so little of it seems dated. The writing is typically fresh, sharp, interesting, well crafted.

Apparently, even today, these aspects of craft somehow don't matter much to the average reader. For me, you can’t have a well-told story without them. Anyone out there attempting to do both, whether they find a big audience or not, has my complete admiration.

Photo credit: Wikimedia Commons

Coming up: Sam Brown, The Big Lonely

Friday, March 4, 2011

Photo-finish Friday: Banksy was here

On a walk through Westwood last weekend from Trader Joe's, I came upon a cluster of what seemed to be UCLA students in the entryway to an alley. They were in a state of mild excitement, their attention directed to this graffiti - which I first took as someone's attempt to mimic a Banksy, the British street artist.

"Is Banksy in town?" I asked the kids, and they filled me in. It was in fact a real Banksy and not a knock-off. For documentation, it had already been posted on his website.

Someone, getting in the spirit of it all, had added some graffiti of their own - "for your consideration," a reference to last weekend's Oscars. But a purist with the cold resolve of a MOCA curator was taking a solvent to the added verbiage, which accounts for the smearing on the right.

I didn't notice all the stickers on the door until I got home and studied the pic. The spot, it seems, is a hang-out for street artists, now basking in a moment of  international regard thanks to its famous visitor.

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

Jonathan Raban, Bad Land

Montana Week concludes with this fine, informative, and entertaining book about the homestead experience in eastern Montana during the years 1910-1925. Raban has done considerable historical research to bring to life this period of boom-and-bust western expansion.

It is well written as any good novel, introducing us to the families of those who went west to fulfill the Jeffersonian dream of independent Americans living off the land. That the promise built into this national myth was, in fact, mythical is part of what makes this account so deeply moving and fascinating.

Raban finds and interviews the descendants of those homesteaders and reconstructs a time and place and way of life that flourished, as long as the rains fell. Then it disappeared as soon as the next cycle of drought set in.

The book is based in great part on a then unpublished memoir by one settler, Percy Wollasten, and the recently published photographs of a local photographer, Evelyn Cameron. (Both books are now in print. Click the authors' names to find them at amazon.)

Mildred, east-central Montana, photo by R Scheer © 2011

Meanwhile, driving around the area in the 1990s in his rented Jeep, Raban also records vivid observations of the rural world that now exists there. The remains of the old one have been subsumed into large, modern cattle ranches, where rambling homes are revealed to result from the assembling of many separate abandoned ones.

Raban offers a broad sweep of history. His picture includes Teddy Roosevelt's progressivist vision of America as well as the profit-driven schemes of the railroads. These championed westward settlement with pseudoscience and false advertising. 

Thursday, March 3, 2011

Mary Clearman Blew, All But the Waltz

Montana Week continues at BITS with this fine collection of essays with accounts of four generations of the author's ancestors. First published in 1991, the book follows her family from their settlement in central Montana in the 19th century to the latter years of the 20th.

Pioneers of strong fortitude, originating in Pennsylvania, her father's family, the Hogelands, are among the first settlers along the headwaters of the Judith River. Good years, wise management, and a faith in the rewards of hard work serve them well - until the early death of the author's grandfather, followed by a decade of severe drought and then the Great Depression.

While half of the homesteaders around them go broke and move on, her family continues to scrape a living from the land. And the women on her mother's side of the family supplement their incomes with teaching in remote one-room country schools.

Hilger, Montana, photo by R Scheer © 2011
Reconstructing her family's story, she brings vividly to life her father and mother, grandmothers, aunts, and her great-grandparents. She deciphers and transcribes the writings of her great-grandfather Abraham, interviews living relatives, and studies family photographs, many of which are included in her book. 

While the primary theme of the book is the survival of her family, she also has much to say about the role of women, focusing on the circumstances that invariably compromised their hopes and aspirations. There is her father's mother, Grammy, who does the work of a man while providing home and shelter for a live-in hired man without benefit of clergy.

Homestead, central Montana, photo by R Scheer © 2011
There's her mother's mother, who teaches school into her seventies to support her family and pay for her husband's care in a nursing home. There's the author's aunt Imogen, who remains unmarried and also teaches school. There's the author's mother, who marries a handsome cowboy and then struggles to make a place for herself in her husband's domineering family.

Meanwhile, the men in her stories make equally interesting studies, especially her strong-willed father, Jack, who's a natural horseman and top hand. Then there's her mother's father, who cannot withstand the pressures of a lonely, hard life on the prairie. Finally, she tells of a husband in later years, a wildcat oilman who is in complete denial that he is dying of pulmonary fibrosis.

This is a well-written, absorbing and sometimes harrowing book that renders such a vivid picture of Montana homesteaders and the extremes of rural life. Thanks to the University of Oklahoma Press for keeping it in print. It's available at amazon and AbeBooks.

Coming up: Jonathan Raban, Bad Land

Wednesday, March 2, 2011

Ralph Beer, In These Hills

Ralph Beer is a writer of both fiction and nonfiction, and for my money he could write lots more. He's good. Montana Week continues here at BITS with his collection of short essays about his life as a rancher outside Helena. Many of them are humorous and rich with Western wit; some have a melancholy undertone. All are very finely crafted.

Working a ranch that has been in his family for four generations, Beer slowly comes to terms with the futility of maintaining a lifestyle that can no longer be justified as a way to make a living. As cattle prices fail to meet the rising costs of running a ranch, it is finally only humor, sentiment, self-respect and the well-worn romance of the rural West that keep him going.

His essays chart the gradual decline of ranching, even as he puts in new fences and throws himself into the yearly rounds of upkeep and improvements. Meanwhile, his humor also does a lot to deromanticize the Western mystique.

Montana ranch, photo by R Scheer © 2011
A trip into town becomes an occasion to reveal himself as a fish out of water. The descriptions of ranch work often show him struggling with uncooperative equipment and stock, and often in brutal weather. A tongue-in-cheek discourse on pickups explores the special kind of love affair between men and their trucks.

Other essays are rich with boyhood memories of his father and grandfather and the friendships of men who have been long-time neighbors and mentors. Some essays are celebrations of skills and craftsmanship no longer appreciated. 

For instance, the building of a log barn by his great-grandfather, the work of a hayfield irrigator, his own reconstruction of an old snowplow, the way a natural horseman rides a horse. In these, his essays become a balancing between a sense of people and times slipping into the irretrievable past and an embrace of what is still there to be cherished in moments of grace and pride.

Thanks to the University of Nebraska Press, In These Hills is in print and available at both amazon and AbeBooks.  For a sample of Beer's excellent fiction, get a copy of his 1986 novel The Blind Corral, which tells a story very similar to his own, about a Vietnam veteran inheriting a family ranch.

Coming up: Mary Clearman Blew, All But the Waltz

Tuesday, March 1, 2011

Ivan Doig, This House of Sky

Montana Week continues here at BITS with another memoir, by novelist Ivan Doig. First published in 1979, his story is a rhapsody of affection for the land where he grew up, the small towns, homesteads and ranches in the Smith River Valley, along the eastern slopes of the Rocky Mountains.

Born in 1939, Doig begins his tale with the emigration of his forebears from Scotland to Montana. At the end, in the 1970s, he has emerged as a writer with a graduate degree, living in Seattle, with rich and deeply felt memories of the people and the land he has known – the house of sky.

An only child, his mother dying when he is six years old, Doig is raised by his father, Charlie, who works various jobs, sheepherding, haying, moving from place to place. For a while he leases a small ranch of his own, his son in tow.

Charlie is a hard-working man, with a big heart and tender love for his son. Concerned by a turn of bad health, he is reconciled to his mother-in-law, who had never approved of her daughter's marriage to him. The three of them become a family that remains together until Charlie's death at age 70.

The book captures and preserves in detail a way of life that has almost vanished from America. Doig tells of growing up in wide open spaces among livestock and wildlife, learning from his father the skills of making a living off the land and surviving against the odds.

White Sulphur Springs today, photo by R Scheer © 2011
In his boyhood during the 1940s, the nearest town was White Sulphur Springs, Montana, where he would go with his widowed father, spending a few hours with him in one of the town's many saloons. There Charlie would find old friends and catch up on the local news. Doig's chapter describing the specific ambiance and clientele of each of the bars in town is a memorable record of mid-century social history.

He attends small town schools, spending the winters in rented rooms, seeing his father and grandmother only on weekends. Because much of his time is spent with adults or alone, he grows up more quickly than his peers and learns to love solitude.

At 300+ pages, this is not a long book, but it's no page-turner. You find yourself reading it slowly, relishing the rich prose style that captures the poetry in this landscape of mountains, valleys, and plains. No less engaging are the people, with their personal quirks, habits, ways of talking, and often eccentric behavior.

Actually, the book reads much like a novel, full of stories, colorful characters, humor, pathos, suspense, and adventures. The vividness of Doig's writing reflects his training as a journalist. It’s a great book for anyone with an interest in the West, nature writing, books about growing up, family sagas, ranching and rural life. 

This House of Sky is available at amazon and AbeBooks. For a sample of his excellent fiction, I'd recommend his historical novel Prairie Nocturne, about an African-American operatic singer, the son of a cook at Fort Belknap and a Buffalo Soldier.

Coming up: Ralph Beer, In These Hills