The One Western Everyone Loves

I grew up during TV’s golden age of westerns and I hated every minute of them.  Those were the days of three networks (four if the cloud ceiling was low enough to bring in PBS) and twenty eight hours of prime time programming every week. On the year I was born there were thirty westerns on television.  If you do the math and remember most westerns were an hour long, (except The Virginian, which was 90 minutes) you’ll realize that almost half of the shows aired during family viewing time had rifles, spurs and bonnets in every episode.  The Duke was still alive and the go-to movie actor for many dads and Lois L’Amour sold enough paperbacks to deforest a small continent.  We were flooded with westerns, inundated with the damn things and it’s probably why my friends became comic book and sci-fi fans.  We couldn’t take one more stone-faced guy blowing the black-hats away and then saying, “Shucks, twarn’t nothing, ma’am.”  It would take an incredible yarn to make us trade our phasers for a horse and a great story is what we got.  Everyone loves Lonesome Dove, and it is a western, but a western that breaks the rules.

Look at all those standard western heroes and what do you see?  Strong, silent, incorruptible white men who face the lone prairie with a horse and six-shooter that never needs reloading.  Now look at Lonesome Dove’s Hat Creek Company, the group that propels the story.  The leaders are two old guys, retired by nineteenth century progress and long past their glory days.   Augustus McCrae can be strong when the need arises but not silent; no one talks more than Gus and he prefers the idle life of whiskey, jokes, women and cards to work and cattle.  His partner Woodrow Call is closer to the stereotype but his successes are the result of endless worry, obsessive planning and avoiding the women he fears.  Call is at heart a shy man, as is his hired hand Pea Eye, and the women they encounter are forthright, a condition that makes many men seek open country.

These strong females are another departure from the standards set by Zane Grey and Owen Wister.  Clara Allen is the equal of any male in her acquaintance, including Augustus McCrae, and a much better horse trader than her husband, the nominal head of her business.  She does create a home and a family but the other female characters, Lorena Wood, Ellie Johnson and  Janey aren’t tied to traditional values or ambitions.  Each woman is driven by a defining need, whether it be vengeance, a new beginning or an old lover and any risk will be taken to achieve their ends.  If any character reaches the wordlessness of a traditional cowboy, it is Lorena Wood, driven to silence as her last shelter from the men who would use and abuse her.

Traditional westerns divided humanity into racial groups and assigned character traits accordingly so when children played Cowboys and Indians, no one wanted to be an Indian.  (Hispanics and black people weren’t even mentioned).  Lonesome Dove shows a world of good and bad people, some strong, some weak, some wicked and some kind but the characters are not defined by their background.  Dan Suggs is a sociopath and a serial killer and so is Blue Duck.  It doesn’t matter that one is the son of a Comanche and the other is Caucasian; what matters is what they do to others.  Jake Spoon ‘s weak character is his undoing, and Josh Deets holds the respect of others because of his strengths.  Ethnic background doesn’t matter nor formal education in this world.  What matters is how someone chooses to live.

Some books leave me satisfied with a story well told and I close the covers and smile. I’m sad when other tales have ended and I return to this world with a sigh.  Lonesome Dove  left me unable to return at all.  My emotions were so high the first time I finished the book, it felt like a part of me had been amputated when I closed the back cover.  I wandered into the living room, blinking at the light and full of thoughts about McCrae, Po Campo and the other members of the Hat Creek Cattle Company.  The world seemed out of balance and harsh with no story left to read and all of the characters gone.  These people were too vivid, too rich and real to die or be put away on pages and I couldn’t bear the thought of them gone.  I went back to the bedroom, re-opened the book and began the story again.  After fifteen pages, I could put the novel down, satisfied that the denizens of Lonesome Dove were alive and had a lifetime of adventures before them.  Then my life could go on.

I was raised in the West and grew up hating Westerns which gave my folks reason for pause.  But I love good books, stories so wonderful they burst from the pages and transcend their genres and that’s why I love Lonesome Dove.  If you haven’t read it, I envy the adventure you can find but take some advice from a fan.  Finish the book when you have time to open and re-start the novel again.  You won’t want this story to end.

Sophie’s Choice

Google remembered the liberation of Auschwitz today.  For those who grew up in the latter half of the twentieth century, Auschwitz is the edge of a remembered nightmare, a disaster our parents and grandparents witnessed and passed in their memories to us.  My mother saw the newsreels of the liberation as a child and the images haunted her forever but some of my friends were even closer to the tragedy.  One college friend’s great-aunt was a survivor of the camps and when I met the lady, I marveled that this happy cookie-jar of a woman had faced such evil and still lived so joyfully, dancing with a tattooed number on her arm.  Another friend was the child of camp survivors who married after the liberation and their tenacity and PTSD were visible in her character.  Auschwitz left a lifetime of suffering and long memories in its wake and those of us not directly affected have been trying to grasp the motives and magnitude of the Holocaust ever since.  This is the role more and more of the world has moved into over the last seventy years and it’s a role William Styron talked about in his novel, Sophie’s Choice.

Styron understood the place of a third-hand witness to history better than most.  Son of a liberal southerner, he grew up ashamed of the history of race treatment in the South. As a Marine officer who never saw combat, he also understood how the lucky boredom of his own military service had been paid for with the blood of others.  A few years in New York after the war gave him the background to write of a young Southerner and perpetual witness to history and Sophie, the Polish, Catholic woman he meets who was pulled though the war into Auschwitz.

Sophie’s Choice is a novel for adults.  The story is incredibly varied with beautifully written passages of great humor as well as sorrow, anger and Eros and the characters are layered and complex, especially Sophie.   These individuals are human beings with strengths and failings, not cardboard cutouts who can be labelled “hero” or “villain” as need be and forgotten.  Sophie is a lovely imperfect woman whose actions aren’t noble but they are understandable, given the circumstances and her survivor’s guilt is well-earned.  Nathan is the brilliant, broken, American Jew who can’t reconcile the horrors of a war he never faced and his Gentile girlfriend survived while millions of others were murdered.  Finally, Stingo is the witness trying to care for himself and his friends in an unbalanced, out-of-control existence. If the outcome of their story is inevitable, it’s still a difficult account to read because, thanks to Styron’s skill, these are people we care about.

There’s no easy explanation some of mankind’s history or for Styron’s novel but Sophie’s Choice wasn’t written to give people easy answers.  Styron understood that we are, at best, complex, imperfect beings that need to be forgiven on a regular basis.  Those lucky enough to be “third-person” witnesses have the responsibility to learn from the experiences of others, to forgive the failings of people we love and to embrace the potential in each new day.  It’s a lot to do but a less difficult job than surviving a war.   And it’s an easier alternative than Sophie’s Choice.

The Lessons of Loss and Sid Halley in Odds Against

Most people think you can’t learn much from popular fiction. I disagree.  For one thing, so many of the “classics” people revere were popular tales in their day and for stories to sell, they must have an emotional appeal. Either story is sensational, in the titillation sense, or it resounds with the reader.  Since the thriller novels of Dick Francis weren’t exceptionally sexy or gory, there was something besides the entertainment of the stories that kept readers coming back.  One of the continuing themes in his stories was coming to terms with loss and because he wrote about this well, readers kept returning.  It was a subject Dick Francis could speak on with authority.

Francis had success as a jockey, although he lost his fair share of races, including the failure of Devon Loch in the home stretch of the Grand National.  To win so many races and ride for the royal family and then lose that race for those owners because your horse falls in the home stretch must be devastating. Not long afterwards, Francis retired from racing, still a young man but unable to pursue the career he loved because of one too many injuries.  These experiences became grist for his writing but Francis gave his hero, Sid Halley, losses that were worse.

In Odds Against, Sid starts at the bottom of trying to return to life.  As a champion jockey, he had learned to tolerate pain, failure and deprivation but devotion to his profession has cost him his marriage.  Then a racing accident crippled his left hand, leaving him without a career or the identity he created with riding.  Sid alternates between the self-pity and lethargy of deep depression until a crook’s misfire and his former father-in-law remind him there are still ideals and matters worth fighting for.  Sid has to learn the hard way that while every loss must be mourned, clinging to the remains of a shattered life is a recipe for ruin.  Halley’s gradual return to the world is a harrowing journey on every level and he encounters more devastation but after learning the lessons only time and experience can bring: that catastrophe can be survived, that regret serves no one and that even a disaster can be unexpectedly liberating. 

Odds Against was written in the mid 1960’s and a few references to the period date it a bit but the message is universal: loss is a part of life and how we face up to it defines a large bit of our character.  We can withdraw and mourn what we cannot regain or we can move forward toward survival.  It won’t be an easy trip but ease seldom creates success.  And surviving can be a success in itself, when you ride Odds Against.

When reading leaves you in need of a doctor.

I’ve said that books are friends that move with you and I’ve got a few that have  done that for years.  From high school to college, to the Air Force, then marriage and apartment to house, about 100 stories have followed me around the country in boxes and trunks. My husband swears they’ll get packed into my coffin.  That’s fine with me.  I can spend an eternity with M*A*S*H.

Okay, for anyone whose read this far, if you know the TV series M*A*S*H but not the book, withhold your judgment.   Same deal if you know the movie but never picked up Richard Hooker’s novel.  If you haven’t read the book, you don’t know M*A*S*H and you can’t really appreciate how the story morphed from one incarnation to the next.   I know all three and they are different.  I loved the series, I never miss a chance to re-watch the movie but the book….the first time I read it, I nearly ruptured myself laughing.

The time is spring of 1976 and I’ve just undergone an unexpected appendectomy.   My best friend had left me some post-op paperbacks to while away the recovery time with (those were the days when people recovered in the hospital) and the top one was M*A*S*H.  I picked up the story and fell in love with the schemes of Hawkeye, Trapper and Duke, a/k/a/ the Swampmen. When they noticed patients were more likely to survive when Chaplain Dago Red administered last rites, they incorporated the ritual into their surgical plan, and I managed to snicker.  My surgical incision snickered back.  Not good.  I kept at it until the Swampmen decided to thank Dago for his contribution to Public Health with a human sacrifice and kidnapped his Protestant colleague, Shaking Sammy.   I put the book down for twenty minutes and clutched my side with both hands while I laughed and wept silently, praying my stitches would hold.   Never before (and never since!) have I needed to laugh even though laughter caused incredible pain.  After half an hour I was sore but calm.  Only sixteen-year-olds are this stupid, I picked up the book again.

I got as far as Dago finding the triumphant Swamp Men lying drunk in front of an unlit bonfire and Shaking Sammy suspended behind them from a cross.   Then Trapper intoned his prayer.

“Whether it rains or whether it freezes, Sammy’ll be safe in the arms of Jesus”

 I  really don’t remember much after that.  I screamed from a combination of laughter and pain, the nurses came running and I got some extra sedation.  I think it widened the scar.

The thing is, the book came in handy a few years later when a bunch of us in college watched a horror film together.  We were all scared afterward and some of us (no names!) were afraid to go back to go to sleep.  Nothing calmed me down until I started reading M*A*S*H and, of all things, I went to the chapter where they were working constantly.  All the blood and gore that had frightened me in the movie were just exposed blood and guts now and it was the doctors’ jobs to put them back.  The killer with the knife was replaced in my imagination by doctors with scalpels.   It worked and I was able to get to sleep.  There’s nothing like real life trauma, even fictionalized trauma, to put demons to flight.

I can’t recommend the rest of franchise (yes, there are many sequels) because none of them achieve the same balance of zany behavior and serious medicine that the first book has.  Sometimes, lightening strikes just once.  Nevertheless I am glad I ran across this one, even if it gave me a wider surgical scar and another day in the hospital.  It’s a fitting souvenir for any book too funny to be read following surgery.

For those who love to read aloud…..

There’s something wonderful about discovering a new book.  It makes you feel like you have this great, golden, wonderful secret and you want to run up hill and down dale spilling the news.   At least it’s that way for me.  Nellie Forbush can sing all she wants about her wonderful guy but I need to start a parade:  I’ve found a wonderful book.   If you have children, go get this one because you’ll want it.   If you don’t have children, get it anyway and rent some kids to read it to because this book (besides being wonderful, scary, hilarious and thrilling) begs to be read out loud.   Seriously.   This is a fabulous read-aloud book.

Ready?

The Book is A Tale Dark and Grimm by Adam Gidwitz and yes, it’s a salute to the Brothers Grimm.   As the narrator points out, fairytales these days have no resemblance to their dark and lovely ancestors once published by the Brothers Grimm.   Somebody else retold the story (and changed a few things) then someone else repeated the procedure, ad nauseum, ad infinitum until Disney got ahold of it and really turned the tale into literary pablum.   A shot of boredom, straight to the solar plexus and our current youngest readers nod off wondering why anyone bothered about Snow White and Rose Red in the first place.  The narrator here promises he’s excavated the real story of Hansel and Gretel and he’s willing to share it with you but as the story progresses, he keeps saying to get the kids out of the room.

Will you?

My sis (who knows about such things) turned me on to this tale and I’ll bet the next  mortgage payment that when she reads this warning aloud to her students they all shout her down and demand she keep on with the story.  I would.   First off, the the story is funny, laugh-out-loud funny in places.  In what other tale would Hansel sniff himself baking in the oven (Yup, in this version the kid spends time in the RadarRange) and think, “Oh no! I’m cooking!  And I smell delicious!”

You shouldn’t worry about Hansel.  He’s not really baking.  Not yet.

The story is a combination of wide-eyed fairy tale mixed with enough anachronistic humor to keep the adults grinning (my favorite supporting characters are three ravens who comment on the scene and finish each others’ sentences like Tweedledum and Tweedledee) and underneath it all a wonderful story about the mistakes everybody makes and how everyone needs love, forgiveness and understanding, parents included.  (Understanding here is so much more than comprehension and empathy.  This version says understanding means, I will literally stand under you and bear your cares and burdens like they were my own.   That’s more than empathy, that’s love.)  It’s an overwhelming book and the only warning I would give prospective parents is read the thing yourself first so you will know what’s coming and where you’ll want to take a breath when you read this thing out loud.  Because you will want to read it out loud.  The prose begs to be read out loud.  And listeners will love it when you do.

The best news is that A Tale Dark and Grimm is only the first of a series and while I can’t recommend those yet (I haven’t read them yet and I haven’t trusted an author on sequels since  Lemony Snicket) I will be reading them to see if the magic holds up.  In the meantime, does anyone have a batch of kids that need reading aloud to?  There’s a book I really want to share.