Wednesday, March 3, 2010

Where have all the cowboys gone?

Not long ago I watched some little boys playing. They were pretending to be various Star Wars characters, Spiderman, or various other super heroes. It dawned on me that there were a lot of similarities between their game and the games I played with my brothers and neighborhood children when I was their age, only instead of superheroes, we were cowboys, Indians, and outlaws. Whatever the game is called, it's really a game of children looking up to "bigger than life" heroes, a belief that good can triumph over evil, and an attempt to prove that honor matters. It's the creation of an imaginative world, peopled by good guys who outsmart and out-maneuver the bad guys. Every generation has its own set of heroes. Mine wore chaps, Stetsons, and boots. My grandsons' wear Power Rangers Helmets. Mine carried a rifle and wore a six-shooter on his hip. My grandsons' heroes carry ray guns and atomic blasters. Mine rode Trigger or Silver. Theirs ride space ships. Mine were the best because they could out-track, out-shoot, or out-smart their enemies. Theirs are the best because they have special powers. (Special powers are okay, I guess, so long as they aren't getting those powers by ingesting some kind of substance that equates in my mind a little too closely to drugs.) I suppose my grandsons will go on to read Science Fiction the way I graduated to Louis L'Amour books, The Virginian, and Jeanne Williams.

As adults we never quite outgrow our childhood heroes. I know adults who own every Star Wars or Superman DVD, toy, or book. There are many adults who collect cowboy movies, decorate their homes with a Southwest motif, and haunt garage sales to buy up Louis L'Amore and Zane Grey novels. And I'll admit I'm among those who still love a good Western novel.

Westerns are few and far between in LDS writing circles today, so I don't often get to read one. In fact they're a diminishing genre in the general market too. There's still a good number of Western fans, but many of us are turned off by many of the newer writers who fill their pages with profanity, sex, and excessive violence in place of the old "code of the West." So I was pleasantly surprised when recently Return of the Outlaw by C.M. Curtis landed on my desk and I'll admit I was anxious to read it. It's the story of a young Civil War hero who returns home to find his sweetheart engaged to someone else. He drifts farther west, then after his father's death he returns home to claim the family ranch, only to find a crooked outlaw has claimed it. In the ensuing fight to reclaim his property, his friends are killed, he evades several traps, and is branded an outlaw. It's filled with clever tactics, plenty of action, a little bit of romance, and the pursuit of justice. All in all it was a satisfying read, and for me, a terrific break from more contemporary books.

There's a great Western included in the Whitney's Best Romance category this year. I'm not sure why it was put in the Romance Category, possibly because there isn't a Western category and the General category was already pretty full. There's a relationship between a cowboy and some other dude's wife, but I wouldn't call it a romance; they're both in love with the same person--her. But forget the romance elements, Counting the Cost by Liz Adair is the best Western I've read in a long time and as I've said before I'm a Western fan. This one is gritty, but not profane. There's an illicit relationship, but it's not in our face and the cowboy is painfully aware it's not right. The life and actions of the cowboy are heartbreakingly realistic. And though I didn't care much for the woman in the story, I could still sympathize with the hardships her cowboy's life inflicted on her. I think most readers, Western fans or not, will agree Liz Adair is a particularly talented writer and I personally think her understanding of the early twentieth century cowboy is one of the best I've run across.

I'm not aware of a large number of LDS Western Writers. There's Lee Nelson, Marcia Ward, Liz Adair, and myself (though I write other genres as well), so it's fun to welcome C.M. Curtis to our ranks. And readers, if it has been awhile since you read a Western, give one a try. I'd hate to think the Western Writer might give way completely to electronic space rangers. After all, how can a robot compare to a horse!

So where have all the cowboys gone? Not too far I hope. One of my grandsons recently lost a grandfather on the other side of his family. The man left his hat to his grandson, a great big felt Stetson. I'm pleased to say that hat thrills that little boy as much as his Power Ranger helmet does.


Liz said...

Thank you for your kind words about Counting the Cost. I was surprised to find it in the Romance category in the Whitneys, too, but, hey, I don't care. I'm just glad to be there.

I was touched by your story about your grandson treasuring his grandpa's hat. It set me to wondering who got my grandpa's old beat-up Stetson when he died. I'll have to ask around.

Sharon said...

Nice post! I don't like the direction Westerns have headed either. Unfortunately all the other genres use sex and violence instead of plot too. It's too bad.

Jolynn_Reads said...

I grew up on a small farm, and I miss it. Especially the farm animals. I wrote a couple of children's books with a farm setting with farm animals. I tried for years to get them published, and couldn't. Then I even wrote a non-fiction, children magazine story, about a llama gaurding a herd of sheep. Still nothing published. So, I've given up on writting & I read more instead.

Not only is the Western stories gone, so is alot of that life style gone too.

Dragon Lady said...

I have read most of your books and enjoy them and like that they are "clean".