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Archive for the ‘Westerns’ Category

Cover artSometimes it’s good to hit the reset button. Bram Stoker didn’t invent the vampire, but he carved the archetype: a creature of power, terror, and ruthlessness hidden under a veneer of charm. Vampires have been popular recently, both in fiction and movies, but the trend has been to smooth over their edges, making them suave, stylish, even glittery, in a way that doesn’t sit well with many fans of horror.

Scott Snyder and Rafael Albuquerque decided to go back to basics. In Skinner Sweet they re-created the vampire, one who commands visceral fear, not existential angst, who is bloodthirsty, vicious, and brutal. And then they threw in a twist: their vampire would be uniquely American, born and bred in the Wild West. As such, he would not be like any of the vampires that had come before him. Unlike all the European vampires, Sweet is unaffected by exposure to the sun. As the character himself explains “Sometimes, when the blood hits someone new, from somewhere new, it makes something new. With a whole new bag of tricks.”

The first story begins in Nevada, during the construction of the Boulder Dam (now called the Hoover Dam). As the construction expands, so does the vice in nearby Las Vegas. Where there is vice and money, there is blood, and where there’s blood, there’s vampires. Sweet, living under the name Jim Smoke, is running a brothel called the Frontier. In life, Sweet was a murderer and a thief, with a knack for riling up pretty much anyone he interacts with. As a vampire, he’s even worse. When a man turns up drained of every drop of blood after dating one of Sweet’s girls, the law begins to take an interest. But do they have any idea who, or what, they are dealing with?

Pearl Jones, a vampire created by Sweet in Volume 1, is still struggling to come to terms with the consequences of her new life. Desperate to live as normally as possible, she shuns her vampire side, feeding on blood without killing. But she is forever tied to Sweet, and the people who want him dead have decided that she just might hold the key to getting rid of him for good. Pearl, along with her husband Henry, is also featured in a shorter second story in this volume. Although each of the stories has a conclusion, the reader is always somehow left feeling like none of the stories actually end. They are just pieces of a larger narrative that slowly builds with each vignette.

Snyder’s writing ratchets up the tension, and the angularity of Albuquerque’s drawings enhances the sharpness of the vampire’s bite. For the first volume, Snyder approached Stephen King with his idea for Skinner Sweet wanting a forward, but King was so enthused with the character he ended up guest writing the origin story himself, based on Snyder’s outline. If a stamp of approval from one of the biggest American horror writers wasn’t enough, American Vampire won the 2011 Eisner and Harvey Awards for Best New Series. Recommended for fans of horror and westerns.

Check the WRL catalog for American Vampire.

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High noon at the O.K. Corral (actually around 3pm), The Earps and their pal John “Doc” Holliday face down the Clantons, and when the smoke clears there are three men dead, and a trail of vengeance begun that would lead to more deaths. That is all most folks know about Wyatt Earp and Doc Holliday. Here, Doc never makes it to Tombstone.

Instead, Mary Doria Russell has written a superb story about the Earps and Holliday that explores their lives in Dodge City, Kansas in the years before they made it out to Arizona. John Holliday has left his native Georgia to make his way West, in hopes of easing the effects of the tuberculosis that would kill him in less than a decade. Seeking to set up a practice as a dentist, he supplements his meager earnings through his skills at the faro and poker tables. In the course of his time in Dodge, he meets and becomes uneasy friends with sometime lawman Wyatt Earp, second oldest son of a large and close family originally from Illinois. In Russell’s able hands, the Earps and Holliday escape the bonds of gunslinger mythology with which they have been so long entangled. Holliday’s illness and touchy temper shape his encounters with everyone from priests to prostitutes to cowboys. As Russell depicts him, Holliday is a faithful, if at times difficult, friend, and a bad enemy. He moves quickly from charming to deadly cold, but cares deeply about people. Wyatt Earp may be the most sympathetic character in the book. His patience with Holliday, his affection for his brothers, and his resolute honesty make it impossible not to like him. The other characters, fictional and real, are equally appealing and equally complex.

Russell not only excels at character, she also does a fine job at creating a sense of place that feels all too real. Dodge City comes to life in all its squalor, casual violence, political corruption, difficult family lives, and occasional humor. Frontier towns were not all cowboys and saloons: actor and comedian Eddie Foy brings his show to town and becomes friends with Holliday and the Earps. Russell also introduces a fictional priest, an Austrian Jesuit, who becomes friends with Doc and Wyatt.

Doc is death-haunted. Holliday knows that he will not live long, and it is painful to read about the agonizing effects of his TB. There are numerous deaths in the book both prior to the time of the story and in it. Accidents, illness, and all too common violence take their toll on the characters. Nonetheless, this is an optimistic story. Although we know that many of the characters, Doc, Morgan Earp, and others, will meet hard ends down the road, here, we see them as fully-realized human beings, trying to make their way in a difficult world. Regardless of whether you are interested in the West or in westerns, you should read Mary Doria Russell’s Doc. It is the work of an outstanding writer at the top of her game.

Check the WRL catalog for Doc

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What an attraction it must have been.  Stories of thumb-sized gold nuggets just laying in a Yukon streambed for the taking drew men from around the world to make their fortunes.  In the midst of a worldwide Great Depression, many walked away from failing businesses and farms, left their families, and headed North to Alaska in search of wealth and redemption. Some would become rich beyond their dreams, while many others would lose everything, including their lives, in their search.

Along with the would-be millionaires came confidence men, counterfeiters, thieves, pimps, and jaywalkers.  Hoping to gull the marks, they worked in gangs which were often protected by the police.  While usually not violent, they did have enforcers who would take care of anyone who protested about losing their money, or use strong-arm tactics to collect  protection money.  Alongside the reputable businessmen who served the legitimate needs of the growing territory, they would rake in the cash by indulging the darker side of human needs.  Such men gave places like Skagway, Alaska–like every boom town before and since–a reputation as wide-open and lawless.

Three men–outsized personalities all–are the perfect filters to tell the story of the Yukon Gold Rush.  George Carmack was a deserter from the Marines who lived with the Tagish tribe of coastal Canada when he wasn’t searching for gold. Charlie Siringo was a former cattle drive boss, a successful cigar merchant, an unsuccessful writer of Western tales and eventually a Pinkerton’s detective.  And Jefferson R. “Soapy” Smith was an accomplished con man, leader of a gang of specialists who could separate even the most suspicious mark from his last dollar.  The three of them would eventually converge on Skagway, where they would face off over a fortune in gold.

Blum traces their lives, using contemporary records, their own letters and writings, and in-depth histories of the region.  Readers see Carmack and his Native partners carrying enormous loads of supplies through the wilderness and stumbling across the creek that started the Gold Rush.  We ride with Siringo in his lengthy search for desperadoes, then on his investigation into the impossible theft of gold bars from the world’s largest gold mine.  And we learn about the variety of large and small scams that gave Soapy his fortune and ambitions for respectability.

Blum evokes the feel of a country where independence was giving way to corporations and associations, and where civilizing influences were driving free spirits into remote outposts.  He captures the feel of cattle drives, the growing towns and cities, the loneliness of isolation, and the thrill of discovery.  He also finds the humor in the stories.  One particular tale, involving retribution for bigotry, is especially delicious.  This is a great piece of North American history, which demonstrates the adage “Truth is stranger than fiction.”

Check the WRL catalog for The Floor of Heaven

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The end of the early,  “wild” west has always been a great setting for stories, and Leif Enger’s second novel So Brave, Young, and Handsome adds to that tradition. It captures an exciting time when one generation, one way of life, was passing into the sunset, but another way of life was being born.

It’s 1915, and the protagonist is Monte Becket, a Minnesota man who wrote one great adventure novel, but despite several false starts, cannot find the thread for his next book. He’s considering giving up writing and returning to a bland job in the post office, but he wonders what that will do to his marriage and the adulation of his son Redstart. Becket doesn’t just have writer’s block, his whole life has become stuck.

That changes when a mysterious man named Glendon Hale appears on the local river. The two men strike up a friendship, although Glendon remains elusive. But ultimately, when Glendon decides to journey to Mexico in search of some kind of reconciliation with his lost wife, Monte, with his wife’s encouragement, goes along.

What follows is a rambling adventure on rivers, trains, and on early roads through little towns, a late Wild West Show, and out to California. Along the way, Becket encounters two more characters, who along with Glendon, will forever change his outlook. The first is Charles Siringo, a prairie version of Hugo’s Javert, a vicious and egomaniacal lawman who is continuing a long chase. The second is Hood Roberts, an upbeat young man in search of Western adventure. Becket is a waffler compared to all three of his companions, who while they have little else in common, are all men of action. As he’s dragged through chases, near escapes, and disasters, he begins to pick up a little of their gumption.

Enger captures the more formal speech and writing patterns of early America beautifully, and that especially shows in the audiobook, read nicely by Dan Woren.

Addressing various themes such as what it is to be good, whether one can ever shed guilt, how failures can damage a relationship, the driving force of revenge, and the different ways in which we can create the story of our lives, this is an enjoyable and powerful book. Like Enger’s excellent first book, Peace Like a River, this story features a great American journey and some truly American characters in the process of finding themselves. He’s one of our best current novelists, and I look forward to his future work.

Check the WRL catalog for So Brave, Young, and Handsome

Look for So Brave, Young, and Handsome in Large Print

Or try it as an audiobook on compact disc

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Frank Ross, a fair-minded farmer living in Arkansas in the 1870s, tries to intervene when a barroom fight breaks out one day in Fort Smith. One of the fighters, Ross’s own farmhand Tom Chaney, takes the opportunity to kill and rob the farmer. Chaney then flees on horseback to Indian Territory.

Ross’s fourteen-year-old daughter Mattie is angry. She is beyond angry. She wants blood and she wants justice. She is going to hunt down the man what done kilt her pa.

Mattie is not stupid. She is stubborn, impatient, and unforgiving, but she is not stupid. She knows she can’t go blazing off into the frontier without help, so she goes in search of a man with enough grit to get the job done. The man who matches that description is the one-eyed Rooster Cogburn, technically on the side of the law– he is a U.S. marshal– but of very questionable repute. You don’t kill twenty-three men in four years without getting some rough edges.

Slightly more respectable is a Texas Ranger named LaBoeuf, who has his own reasons for tracking Tom Chaney, but Mattie doesn’t want him interfering with her search– and LaBoeuf doesn’t want a teenaged girl interfering with his search. It is under a very uneasy truce that the girl, the ranger, and the marshal agree to pursue the outlaw together.

If you’ve seen the John Wayne movie adaptation (1969) or the Coen brothers adaptation (2010), you know what’s coming: adventure, and lots of it. There are bandits. There are fight scenes. There are more fight scenes. There are galloping horses and perilous injuries and there are snakes, lots and lots of snakes, all conveniently gathered into the pit that Mattie falls into.

I have no idea if True Grit is typical of its genre– I’ve never read another Western except for Brokeback Mountain, which probably doesn’t count– but you don’t have to be a fan of Westerns to like it. It’s an easy and fast read with tons of action. There is a lot of subtle humor that comes by way of Mattie’s contrary disposition and her colorful idioms. Children and squeamish readers would find the violence to be too intense, but it’s a great read for teenagers and adults who love a good story and who aren’t bothered by a few rattlesnakes.

Check the WRL catalog for True Grit (the 1968 book), True Grit (the 1969 John Wayne movie), or True Grit (the 2010 Coen brothers movie)

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I’m not crazy about Sherlock Holmes, and when it comes to all the pastiches the Holmes tales have inspired, until recently I would probably have said that although I liked Laurie R. King’s Mary Russell series, I really did not need to read any more Holmes knock-offs in this lifetime.

Sometimes, I’m really wrong.

Steve Hockensmith imagines a world where Holmes is a real detective, and unbeknownst to him his biggest fan is an illiterate cowhand working in 1893 Montana. Gustav “Old Red” Amlingmeyer just loves Holmes’s “deducifying,” even if he can only get at the stories by having his little brother “Big Red” read them to him when they turn up in the outhouse paper pile.

When some creepy ranchers come to the saloon where the Amlingmeyers are drinking, Old Red sees the chance to emulate his hero and do some investigating of his own. A case with murders, a cannibal, ornery bad men, and mysterious English dudes ensues, and it’s fun every step of the way.

Big Red is Hockensmith’s Watson. The tale is told through his narration, and he’s a hoot. Gregarious where Old Red is dour and taciturn, strong as an ox, and entirely his own man, it’s hard not to like Big Red. He’s full of cowboy similes that will keep you laughing all along the way. And while Gustav is a more prickly character, readers will come to appreciate both his intelligence and his ideals within a few chapters. The mystery is well done too, but honestly, with these two as the detectives, that’s not so important. I particularly recommend the audiobook, on which narrator William Dufris does a great job voicing his leads (so good that you won’t mind his more suspect female character voices).

Hockensmith has gone on to write several more books in this delightful series, books that take the brothers around western America at the turn of the 20th century.

Check the WRL catalog for Holmes on the Range

Try Holmes on the Range as an audiobook

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I don’t usually read westerns, but a few weeks ago I tried the first book in Craig Johnson’s Walt Longmire mystery series. I raced through The Cold Dish, then read the second, Death Without Company, and just finished the third, Kindness Goes Unpunished. After I write this post, I’m going to start the fourth, Another Man’s Mocassins. I laugh out loud while reading these books. The mysteries are good and the humor is just the way I like it: dry.

The stories are told from the perspective of Longmire, a Vietnam vet and the long-time sheriff of fictional Absaroka County, Wyoming, “the least populated county in the least populated state in the union.” His best friend since grade school is Henry Standing Bear, from the Northern Cheyenne reservation that abuts Absaroka County, and his deputy is Vic Moretti, a transplant from South Philadelphia where her brothers, father and uncles are all cops. Longmire has a daughter, Cady, his “singular ray of sunshine,” a lawyer now living in Philadelphia.

The first two mysteries take place in Wyoming, with Cheyenne characters playing a big part of the story, and while Kindness Goes Unpunished is set in Philadelphia, the element of Native American mysticism stays strong. Longmire, Standing Bear, and Longmire’s dog, Dog, drive Standing Bear’s powder-blue 1959 Thunderbird to Philadelphia, where Standing Bear is guest of honor at an exhibit of Native American photographs at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts. The sheriff is eager to see Cady and to meet her new boyfriend Devon, a lawyer at a different Philly law firm. But before father and daughter reunite, Cady is brutally attacked and almost killed. She stays in a coma for most of the book, while Longmire teams up with the Philadelphia cops to try to find the assailant. Several deaths and a drug bust occur while Longmire is in town.

There is enough fire power (including the brief appearance of a Howitzer) and fighting to satisfy those who like violence in their mysteries, but not so much that it turned me away. There’s some sex and a bit of romance. I’ve been intrigued over the course of the series by the developing relationships between Longmire and those around him. These books should appeal to women as well as men; the women’s characters are fully-developed and strong where appropriate. These are good mysteries – exciting, intriguing, funny and addictive.

Check the WRL catalog for the book Kindness Goes Unpunished

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keltonSome folks argue that the Western story as a separate genre is dead, or at least dying, and will before too long be just a subgenre of Historical Fiction. With the passing of Elmer Kelton last Saturday, that prediction is sadly one step closer to becoming true. Kelton was a writer of Western stories that blended the best of the tradition with an understanding of contemporary issues in the western U.S. Born and raised in Texas, Kelton served as an editor and writer for various farming and ranching publications for over 40 years. His experiences here were reflected in the concerns of his fiction writing — the changing nature of farming in the southwest, the struggles of small ranchers against organized agribusiness, the oftentimes challenging nature of being dependent on the weather to make a living, and the concerns of average people trying to live good lives.

Even in his more traditional Western stories, set in the post-Civil War period and featuring cowboys, Native Americans, lawmen and rustlers, trains, and buffalo and cattle and horses, Kelton’s focus on character and setting more than action sets him apart. His characters are people about whom the reader comes to care deeply. They are good people, often caught up in events beyond their control, and who clearly understand the changes that time is bringing to their world. There is a consistently elegiac tone to Kelton’s work, one that for me most clearly comes through in my two favorite novels — The Day the Cowboys Quit, about a work stoppage in the 1880s, and The Time it Never Rained, about a drought in west Texas in the 1950s.

Elmer Kelton told stories of the American West in a fascinating and compelling voice, and this voice is one that will be missed. Look for some of Kelton’s books next time you are in the library.

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Territory

I visited Tombstone, Arizona on my last trip out west, and I will never forget the sun-baked desolation of Boot Hill, with its rows of lonesome graves, or the zombie barkeepers in the saloon, or the giant spiders. OK, so the town was decorated for Halloween, which not only made our visit extra-surreal, but may explain why I fell into Emma Bull’s fantasy western like it really might have happened this way: Wyatt Earp, Doc Holliday, and a whole bunch of black magic in the old west.

Territory retells the weeks leading up to the O.K. Corral shootout, as seen by original characters who are newcomers and outsiders. Jesse Fox is a horse breaker on his way to Mexico when he gets sidetracked in Tombstone, where he not-so-coincidentally runs into Chow Lung, Chinese physician and the one man alive who knows what Fox is running from. I have a bit of a crush on Jesse Fox: a good man with a horse, sober, honest, speaks Chinese, plays poker to lose, can light candles with his mind. Mildred Benjamin, widowed Easterner with literary aspirations, also has a bit of a crush on Jesse Fox, even though there’s trouble wherever he goes. The first night she meets him, she find herself abetting a jailbreak.

Don’t worry, the Tombstone you remember from the history books (or the movies) is here too: all the Earps, Clantons, and McLaurys, plus a scene-stealing Doc Holliday as a sort of unwitting sorcerer’s apprentice. Magic is a powerful but hidden presence, threaded through the landscape like silver through the mines, with Tombstone as a vortex for power-hungry men who can twist its natural forces to supernatural ends.

Territory is more character study than shoot ‘em up. I loved it for its moody atmosphere, compelling characters, and screenplay-ready dialogue. The strong characterization and subtle deployment of magic make it a good fantasy choice for readers who don’t usually read fantasy, and a western for folks who don’t read westerns. It’s intended to stand alone, but if the story doesn’t end where you’d expect, you’ll be encouraged to know that Bull is at work on a sequel.

Check the WRL catalog for Territory

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doigThe cast of Ivan Doig’s The Whistling Season has the potential of growing like Topsy – even in the small town of Marais Coulee, Montana. But Doig wisely focuses on two: Paul Milliron, the narrator remembering his pre-teen years, and Morris Morgan, the unexpected visitor whose mysterious background is forgotten in the face of his incredible ability to bring learning to the children of this frontier village.

The young Paul grows up precocious, thirsty for knowledge and challenges that neither the schoolmarm nor his erudite father could provide. On their farm, surrounded by family and by the immigrants come to live in Montana, the kind of education Paul needs is not to be found. He learns the practical lessons of the prairie boy – among them farm chores and schoolyard fighting – but is driven to get more than the one-room schoolhouse can provide.

When his father hires a housekeeper all the way from Minnesota, the whole family is surprised when she shows up with her brother in tow. Although a well-spoken city man, Morris is surprisingly enthusiastic about taking on difficult tasks to earn his keep. He quickly shows himself to be Oliver Milliron’s equal in every aspect of learning, and when the schoolmarm runs off, Morris become the new teacher.

Even with no experience, Morris proves to be an inspiring educator, able to channel his considerable knowledge into lessons that teach children from the smallest first-grader to the hulking eighth-graders who want nothing more than to be earning a living outside the classroom. The climax of his efforts comes with the arrival of Halley’s Comet and a triumphant school performance before parents and a dreaded school inspector. But it is the challenge he gives Paul that leaves a lasting mark – he is not content to have Paul drift along, so they begin a true teacher-student relationship. And when Morrie’s mysterious background comes to light, he leaves his future in Paul’s hands. (For anyone looking for another account of teaching in rural one-room schoolhouses, it is well worth your while to find a copy of Jesse Stuart’s The Needle’s Eye.)

Doig has an incredible cast of secondary characters, most of whom are developed with brief outlining strokes – much as a boy might view the adults that he knows by virtue of their influence on his daily life. His brothers and other schoolchildren, his father, his terrifying aunt are all brought to the fore. The episodic nature of the story lends itself to that kind of character development, and Doig constructs an appropriately engaging plot that brings these very real people together.

Unfortunately, Paul has as little understanding of women as any pre-adolescent boy, so Morrie’s sister Rose is not nearly as well-developed a character as a reader might hope. (Especially when she’s introduced to us through the advertising headline “Can’t Cook But Doesn’t Bite”, and her musical habit gives the novel its name.)

The Whistling Season is a terrific book, and earns a deserved spot on my list of great character books.

Check the WRL catalog for The Whistling Season

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gunslinger_born1I sobbed my way through the final book of the Dark Tower series, not only because Stephen King kept killing off characters but because I knew there was nothing more to look forward to. I shall wax eloquent about the series, some other day, but for now I’ll tell you about the graphic adaptation of the fourth book, Wizard and Glass.

If you haven’t read the Dark Tower books, you’re missing out on an utterly compelling mix of the fantasy, horror, science fiction, and Western genres. But you don’t need to have read the series to appreciate The Gunslinger Born, which functions as something of a prequel, despite taking place in the exact middle of the series.

Here we meet a teenaged Roland Deschain, who has just become the youngest person ever to best his combat tutor. Ushered at such a tender age into the violent world of his elders, Roland goes on a dangerous political mission, incognito; surely no one will suspect that this kid is a full-fledged gunslinger. He is tasked with investigating a distant enemy faction that poses a threat to the peace of his own home. It’s not long before he discovers the enemy’s plans to amass heavy artillery. Nor is it long before Roland discovers a pretty young woman named Susan. In no time flat, our sullen, brooding lone-wolf hero is head over heels.

I’m not going to give away the story, but this doesn’t end well. At all. I mean not even remotely. But that’s par for the course for us Stephen King fans–and while King did not write the graphic novel, he did work closely with its author, Robin Furth. This is a faithful adaptation of the print version, interpreted with lovely, bold illustrations.

Check the WRL catalog for The Dark Tower: The Gunslinger Born

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“Lord… whatever I’ve done to piss you off… if you could just get me out of this and somehow let me know what it was, I promise to rectify the situation.”

Thus starts this adventure of one Brett Maverick, an adventurer and cardsharp who is desperate to make it to a championship poker game in Saint Louis. In order to get there, he needs to collect the $3,000 owed to him to pay the $25,000 entry fee. But things get complicated when he has to deal with bank robbers, wild Indians, a rogue gang of thugs, and a runaway horse carriage in order to play in that poker tournament. And did I mention a professional thief posing as a Southern belle?

Western comedy doesn’t get any better than this movie, which is a remake of the classic Western TV show. It is directed by Richard Donner, who did all three Lethal Weapon movies, and the humor is much the same here. It features an all-star cast that includes Mel Gibson as Maverick, Jodie Foster as Mrs. Annabelle Bransford, and James Garner (who played Maverick in the original series) as Marshal Zane Cooper. The repartee between Mel Gibson and Jodie Foster is smart and full of laugh-out-loud humor.

There is also a long list of supporting actors that add a great deal of humor to this movie. Danny Glover of Lethal Weapon fame makes a cameo appearance as a bank robber who gets a serious case of déjà vu when he thinks he recognizes Mel Gibson from somewhere. Graham Greene as Joseph the Indian and Geoffrey Lewis as the banker are two “friends” of Maverick who add much to the humor of the movie. Then there is James Garner, of course, who has fun nagging Gibson throughout the movie until the surprise ending.

I really enjoyed watching the poker tournament that comes at the end of the movie. It takes place on a steamship located on the Mississippi River owned by a Commodore Duvall, played by veteran actor James Coburn. There are several famous Western actors that help give this scene the right feel, including Bert Remsen and Denver Pyle. The country western music that plays in the background is perfect for the scene and fun to hear (even though I dislike such music in principle). There is a plot against Maverick that comes to a head here at the tournament, but I think that the game itself, and watching Maverick win, is more fun (and worth watching over again) than the suspense and action scenes.

This movie is highly recommended for anyone who wants a good laugh.

Check the WRL catalog for Maverick

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Eagle Catcher CoverOn this week’s Blogging for a Good Book, I’m posting about four authors who are coming to the Williamsburg Library Theatre on Monday, March 31. We’ll be having a relaxed conversation with Margaret Coel, David L. Robbins, and Jacqueline Winspear, led by Willetta L. Heising. The event starts at 7 pm in the Theatre at 515 Scotland Street, and will be followed by light refreshments and a book-signing.

An Indian reservation. Culture clashes with whites. Murder mysteries that center on Native history. Tony Hillerman, right?

Wrong. Margaret Coel.

The comparisons are inevitable, and Coel’s Wind River series offers much to Hillerman’s readers. Hillerman readers will appreciate another author who deals with Native Americans both accurately and with sensitivity. But where Hillerman uses Jim Chee and Joe Leaphorn as our guides, Margaret Coel gives us John O’Malley, a Catholic priest, as our observer. He is trusted, but in a world not his own.

Father John has bridged many of the gaps between white and native cultures by his simple presence on the Wind River Reservation. His long service as a priest to people who value their Catholicism and blend it with their old ways makes him a integral part of reservation life. His willingness to advocate for the Arapaho in the white world, and to push criminal investigations on his own are the backbone of much of the series. O’Malley is also imperfect in many ways – an acknowledged alcoholic who struggles to stay on the wagon, a relationship builder estranged from his own family, a man of God with strong feelings for attorney Vicky Holden. And as a Boston kid, he is still developing a feel for the wide-open West.

A full-fledged Arapaho, Vicky Holden is also an outsider. Called Woman Alone by the Arapaho elders, she walks a nontraditional path after leaving her abusive husband, giving her children to family to be raised, and putting herself through law school. Holden is torn between serving her people and earning lots of money in distant places; her own feelings for Father John make it difficult for her to sustain relationships with more eligible men. She is a fascinating character – strong and driven on the outside, lonely and self-doubting on the inside.

Like any good author who has chosen to work in a series, Margaret Coel deepens relationships among her characters – not just Vicky and Father John – as the series develops. Readers also become more familiar with the seemingly infinite world of the Wind River Reservation through Coel’s powerful descriptions of the landscape and its impact on its inhabitants. Those two elements alone are enough to bring readers back time and again to these books.

These are Mystery stories, though, and their real test is the quality of the puzzles. And Coel does a great job with that, setting up red herrings, misdirecting our attention, but giving us clues to work with. Unlike Tony Hillerman, who bases many of his storylines on the spiritual world of the Navajo and other Southwestern Indians, Coel draws from all aspects of Arapaho history and modern experience as starting places for her stories. Tensions between Arapaho, Shoshone, and the whites who want to hold and exploit the resources of the reservation (including the people) boil over into murder. These are not especially violent stories – not as cozy as Jacqueline Winspear, nor as detailed as David L. Robbins, but there is a real sense of the action and danger in her stories.

I was lucky to be introduced to these Mysteries, and am very much looking forward to meeting Margaret Coel on March 31.

Check the WRL catalog for the first book in the series, The Eagle Catcher.

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In 1997, the American Film Institute released its list of the 100 greatest films. The Searchers ranked 96th. This was a scandal. It is the greatest John Wayne movie, and the greatest Western ever, which means, necessarily, that it is the greatest movie of all time. The AFI released a revised edition of their top 100 this year, and they are starting to come to their senses. The Searchers is now 12th. That is still 11 places too low—but at least it no longer ranks below Rocky.

When the film was released in 1956, most of the excitement was over the appearance of Jeffrey Hunter, a studmuffin of the day, who played Wayne’s adoptive nephew. But for the next generation of filmmakers—Scorsese and Lucas and Spielberg—it was a masterpiece to be studied and imitated. Director John Ford’s shotmaking is phenomenal. The movie was filmed on location in Utah’s monument valley, in Technicolor, and the American West has never looked more starkly beautiful. And there’s that other American landmark: John Wayne, who is a force of nature as the bitter loner, Ethan Edwards—graceful and brutal at the same time.

The story follows the five-year quest of Ethan and his nephew to track down the Comanche chief Scar, who kidnapped Edwards’ niece and massacred the rest of her family. Edwards is a racist who reveals his hatred of Indians even before his family is murdered. As the search goes on, it becomes clear that he means to kill his niece (played by Natalie Wood in braids) if she has reached sexual maturity while living with the Comanche. There has been controversy over whether Ford intended The Searchers to be an indictment of racism, or simply accepted Ethan’s attitudes as those of the old West. There’s no room for doubt in the fine novel on which the movie was based, written by Alan LeMay. In the book, Ethan is destroyed by his hatred. The film’s ending is less grim, but only slightly so. In the famous final shot, Wayne stands alone, framed in the doorway of his family’s house–outside, cut off from warmth and love.

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Will anyone be reading Westerns ten years from now? The boys who once saved their dimes for pulp Western magazines have become old men who read and reread Louis L’Amour in large print. Soon, they will fade from the scene. Their children and grandchildren would not be caught dead reading a book with a little cowboy boot sticker on the spine. This is a shame, because, you guys, you are missing out on some great stuff.

Let me try to change your perspective a bit. What would say to a historical novel about a strong woman’s fight for justice in the face of religious bigotry and violence? That explodes with imagery of the landscape of southern Utah, a place of canyons and valleys hidden behind waterfalls, ancient pueblos, red and white cattle on the move? That resonates with potent themes of sex, paradise, violence? That is filled with thrilling action and sensational animal scenes. Not just any Western, but the most famous of all Westerns: Riders of the Purple Sage.

I’ll grant that Riders is not the Great American Novel. Grey’s colorful language has made him the target of punsters, who mock him as the “writer of the purple prose.” The dialogue is famously dreadful. The characters are odd and unnatural—in fact, the animals have more personality than the humans. And the book’s anti-Mormonism is so strident that some readers are permanently put off. But so what? It is vivid and weird and interesting. In it you will find—and I’ll open this up to argument—the most spectacular sense of place in American fiction.

Check the WRL catalog.

 

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Sometimes I think that all Western literature, from Gilgamesh on down, is really about what it means to be a man. That is, Man with a capital M: a mensch, an hombre, someone who is worth the space he takes up. This is the question of utmost interest to readers of both sexes, at least until the emancipation of women is complete. For men, life is just one test of manhood after another. For women, a good man may be easier to find on the page than in the flesh.

Which brings me to Elmore Leonard. Whatever his standing in the Western canon, he has no equal in the Western canon—you know, the canon that includes the likes of Zane Grey and Louis L’Amour. He is best known for his urban crime-and-caper novels, but Leonard began his career as a writer of Westerns, and what Westerns they are: Hombre, Valdez is Coming, Forty Lashes Less One. Leonard’s heroes are not heroic, but they are Men. Underestimating them is usually the last mistake their enemies make.

Leonard is the modern master of spare, economical storytelling. Compared to him, Hemingway is a gasbag. This is especially true of Leonard’s short Western fiction, which originally appeared in dime pulp magazines in the 1950s. You should read some. Try Three-ten to Yuma and Other Stories, just reissued in honor of the Russell Crowe movie based on the title story. Your reward will be the pleasure of a good story, with not a second of your time wasted on needless words. Here’s an example from “The Captives”:

“How many did that make?” Brennan asked.

“What?” Chink straightened slightly.

Brennan nodded to where Mims had been shot. “This morning.”

“That was the seventh,” Chink said.

“Were they all like that?” he asked.

“How do you mean?”

“In the back.”

“I’ll tell you this: Yours will be from the front.”


Check the WRL catalog.

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