THE AMERICAN WEST (mostly): Fact and Fiction (mostly fiction)

"NOBODY GETS TO BE A COWBOY FOREVER." -- Chet Rollins (Jack Palance) in MONTE WALSH (NG, 1970)

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Wednesday, January 2, 2013


The Blind Corral was Ralph Beer's first novel. The book was so well received that the Western Writers of America bestowed its coveted Spur Award on Beer for Best Western novel. That was twenty-six years ago. He has not written a second novel.

That doesn’t mean that he hasn’t been writing during the interim. He has had many essays published over the years, primarily in Harper’s and other magazines, and in a couple of anthologies. Thirty-three of his essays were collected and published in 2006 under the title In These Hills (Ron Scheer has a review of In These Hills at Buddies in the Saddle), but there has been no second novel. And that is a shame, for Beer is a talented writer, and The Blind Corral is an excellent contemporary Western.

In this semi-autobiographical novel, Jackson Heckethorn, a wounded Vietnam veteran who has just been released from an Army psychiatric hospital, returns to his Montana ranch home. He represents the fourth generation of his family to live on that ranch, but he has plans to move on.

The family ranch is located near Helena and that presents one of the biggest obstacles facing him and the other ranchers in the area. Not only do they have to contend with the unpredictable weather and all the other uncertainties associated with ranching, but they must also attempt to stave off the encroachment of urbanization and commercial and residential development. In the historic past there had been range wars between cattlemen and homesteaders and between cattlemen and sheepmen. It seems that the more things change, the more they remain the same.

As Nancy Mairs wrote in her 1986 review of the novel in the LA Times, “[t]he struggle of urban developers against an established and respectable form of rural living is a contemporary Western version of a range war. Though the developers’ violence and injustice are less pronounced than typical they still arouse Jackson’s anger, helping him to realize his love for the land and for his family’s way of life.”

I don’t want to give away any more of the plot of this richly textured novel. Besides, any feeble attempt by me to summarize it would pale against what Beer has written. The advice to novice writers from time immemorial is to write about what one knows. And that is what he has done. He has lived the life he describes in this authentic depiction of an individual’s emotional attachment to the land.

But the price for that attachment is not always an easy one to pay. Jackson’s neighbor, Ted Schillings, hits the nail squarely on the head when he describes the life of a Montana rancher:

“It never quits….Every year a fella figures he’ll do better, have better luck, get a better price come fall. But it’s always the same, or nearly always. You work hard at it when you’re young, build up your place, breed up your stock, work your fields. Then the price of beef goes down. One day you look outside and it’s winter again, the whole thing to go through over, and you just don’t care. You come to the point where you can see you aren’t gaining an inch, that the fence posts you put in a few years back have rotted off, the barn’s leaning, the kids growing up or gone.”

And there you have it in a nutshell, but what do you want to bet that Ted won’t still be there next year – going through the whole thing again?

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