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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Sunday, March 10, 2013


Elmer Kelton wrote in the prologue of The Time It Never Rained:

“Men grumbled, but you learned to live with the dry spells if you stayed in West Texas; there were more dry spells than wet ones.  No one expected another drought like that of ’33.  And the really big dries like 1918 came once in a lifetime.

“Why worry? They said.  It would rain this fall.  It always had. 

“But it didn’t.  And many a boy would become a man before the land was green again.”

The novel is set in West Texas during the 50’s when the region endured and barely survived a drought that lasted seven long years.  And Kelton was there – not as a rancher, but as an agriculture journalist.  He covered the desolation on a daily basis and was intimately acquainted with what it meant for the people who were forced to cope with its devastating manifestations.

As a sideline, Kelton had been writing fiction since the late 40’s and his stories were first published in pulp magazines.  When those went out of business, he was able to get his first novel, Hot Iron, published in 1955.  Twice he began a novel about the drought but his publisher was not interested.  It was too different – too unconventional.  Its plot simply did not contain the elements ordinarily found in the Western novels of the day.  There was a lot of gray and very little black-and-white.  It was a story about change and how people attempted to adapt to it, but not always with success.  In other words, there was not enough action; it was too tame as far as the publisher was concerned.  One might even say, too literary.

In the early 70’s, after several more of Kelton’s novels were published, he scrapped his first two efforts and began a third draft of a novel about the drought.  The Time It Never Rained was the happy result.

The Western Writers of America would eventually name Kelton as “the number one Western Writer of all time.”  Willa Cather finished a distant second.   

Seven of Kelton’s novels have received the Western Writers of America’s prestigious Spur Award and the National Cowboy and Western Heritage Museum has bestowed its coveted Western Heritage Awards on him for three of his novels.  These are the equivalent of Pulitzer Prizes in the Western book world.

Kelton went on to write over forty novels, two published posthumously after his death in 2009, but the most honored is The Time It Never Rained, for it received both the Spur Award and the Western Heritage Award.  Kelton never wrote “The Great American Novel,” but some critics have called The Time It Never Rained “the Great Texas Novel.”

Kelton’s protagonist is Charlie Flagg, “[who] was past fifty now, a broad shouldered man who still toted his own sacks, dug his own postholes, flanked his own calves.”  His ranch would have been considered a mid-sized one in West Texas in the 50’s.  It consisted of fifteen sections, almost ten thousand acres, but he owned only three of the sections.  He leased the others.

Cattle and sheep ranching in West Texas on any size scale at all required many acres even in the best of times.  It took four acres to feed just one sheep and twenty to feed one cow.  During the dry times, even those ratios would not suffice.  Therefore, ten thousand acres was not a large ranch.

Charlie was an ornery cuss. He was also a libertarian at a time when that particular philosophical label was not in vogue.  While the other ranchers in the area accept government assistance during the drought, Charlie will have nothing to do with it.

Charlie says that when a man took government assistance “he sold his freedom bit by bit, and was paid for it on the installment plan,” and that “the politician promiseth, and the bureaucrat taketh away.”   “What I can’t do for myself,” he says at one point, “I’ll do without.”

He uses his grandfather as his role model as he tries to explain to his son why he is unwilling to accept government assistance:

“He went through cruel hard times when there was others takin’ a pauper’s oath so they could get money and food and free seed, but he never would take that oath.  He come within an inch of starvin’ to death, and he died a poor man.  But he never owed any man a debt he didn’t pay and he never taken a thing off the government.”

And what about Charlie?  Does he prevail?  Rather than disclosing the answer to those questions, I would recommend that everyone read this atypical Western novel and discover the answers for themselves.

And what about today?  It would seem that the more things change, the more they remain the same, as indicated by this recent headline: In 2013, Texas Drought Could Be Worst Ever In Some Areas, Climatologist Says
Elmer Kelton
The world according to Charlie Flagg:

"It's as old as mankind...the hope of gettin' somethin' for nothin' or gettin' more out of the pot than you put in it.  Nobody's ever made it work yet.  Nobody ever will."

"It's a good life, son, but sometimes a damn thin livin'."

"As a way of makin' money, ranchin' is awful highly overrated."

"Only real difference I see between ranchin' and poker is with poker you got some chance."

"A ranch without any cows is like a man walkin' down the street without any pants on.  He's just not respectable."

"I reckon we just keep the ewes so we can afford the cows."

"Some people say we ought to let the coyote alone, that we got to have them for the balance of Nature.  But most of these people live in the cities, where they threw Nature out years ago.  They ain't goin' to give up their automobiles and paved streets and sewer systems to get Nature back, but they're damn sure free with advice on what the other man ought to do."

"I say man has got to be considered a part of Nature's balance, too.  You can't raise coyotes and sheep together any more than you can have paved streets and coyotes together.  You can't eat a coyote or wear his fur."

"A bad habit or two is good for a man or a beast.  Did you ever know a man who didn't have any bad habits?  I have, and I always hated the son of a bitch."

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