Book Review: The Ferguson Rifle

Book Review: The Ferguson Rifle by Louis L’Amour

My name is Ronan Chantry, and I am alone upon this land.

He is a scholar and a gentleman, but Ronan Chantry was raised in the wilderness, hunting, trapping and tracking.  Now that his wife and son have died in a fire, and pursued by the reputation of killing a man in a duel, Chantry returns to the wilderness.  He does not remain alone for long, joining a small band of men also going into the West to try their hand at fur trapping.

The Ferguson Rifle

Their camp is nearly raided by allies of a treacherous Native American guide; but some time later the group makes friends with the Cheyenne, while trying to evade Spanish soldiers who have not yet gotten word that the Louisiana Purchase has gone through.  Then Ronan stumbles across Lucinda Falvey, whose father was murdered for the secret of a lost treasure.

The murderer and his minions have pursued Lucinda into the Dakota Territory, and turns out to have connections to both Lucinda and Ronan’s pasts.  Chantry and his allies must evade the killers, find the treasure and get the woman to safety–perhaps an eccentric mountain man has the key to survival?

This is the first novel written in the Chantry family saga by all-time great Western writer Louis L’Amour.  (But the last in internal chronology.)  The title comes from Chantry’s signature weapon, a firearm given to him by Major Ferguson himself.  It’s a customized prototype without the weakness in the lock mortise.  Since the story is set about the time of the Lewis & Clark Expedition, a rapid-firing breechloader is a formidable advantage.

This is a fast-moving story with clear but often evocative use of language; not a lot of time is spent on characterization, with bad man Rafen Falvey getting the bulk of what depth there is.  Chantry is not just smart and well-educated, but wilderness-savvy and skilled at all forms of combat he turns his hand to.  His one weakness is prideful anger, which led him into the fatal duel, and into the knock-down drag-out fistfight that is the climax of the book.  The use of coincidence to drive certain story elements does come close to breaking suspension of disbelief.

Recommended to Western fans, and those looking for a good manly adventure story.

Book Review: A South Dakota Country School Experience

Book Review: A South Dakota Country School Experience by William E. Lass

By happy coincidence, shortly after finishing my review of a school book used in South Dakota country schools, I have found a book about being a student in one of those schools.

A South Dakota Country School Experience

Mr. Lass is a historian who attended eight grades at Emmett School in Union County, in the southeastern portion of South Dakota, during the 1930s.  (He wound up teaching history in Mankato, Minnesota for many years.)  While much of the book talks about his personal experiences, he also consulted historical records for the school and county to provide context.

The book is divided thematically, rather than chronologically, starting with a physical description of the school, then students, teachers and what they did there.  While some of Mr. Lass’ experiences are unique, Emmett School was fairly typical of a rural school of the time, and those who shared that education will no doubt be able to relate.  (He doesn’t seem to have had trouble with rattlesnakes, which were a problem in my mother’s area of South Dakota.)

It appears to have been plenty tough for teachers at these schools, teaching eight grades in the same room and trying to keep all the children busy!  For $585 a year, no less.

The book is handsomely bound and has some color illustrations, as well as black and white photos.  The language in most of the chapters isn’t too difficult, and could easily be read by a bright fourth-grader on up; the epilogue has more difficult vocabulary and is rather bittersweet.  There are reference notes and a list of suggested further reading for the serious scholar.

This would make a good gift for an older relative who went to a country school themselves, or has an interest in South Dakota, but also should be shared with younger readers to show them how school was done in their great-grandparents’ day.    Consider purchasing it directly from the publisher, Minnesota Heritage Publishing.  Highly recommended.

Book Review: In the South Dakota Country

Book Review: In the South Dakota Country by Effie Florence Putney

This is a history of South Dakota written for grade school children in the 1920s, when the frontier days were still in living memory.  (Indeed, my mother was educated in a one-room schoolhouse some years later.)  This was before Mount Rushmore and Wall Drug, so the emphasis is somewhat different than a current history book might cover.

State Seal of South Dakota
State Seal of South Dakota

In the introduction, Ms. Putney explains that she’s tried to write the book in “stories” to make it easier for children to read, but never past the point of it not being good history.  The majority of the story is or intersects with Native American history, and the author tries to be evenhanded.  The war between the Ree (who were in the territory first) and the Dakota (a.k.a. Sioux) is covered in separate tales for each side.  However, there’s a lot of use of words like “savage” and “rude” (meaning crude, without craftsmanship) to refer to the native peoples.

Many of the short chapters are not so much about South Dakota as they are about people who passed through South Dakota on their voyages, such as Lewis & Clark.

The efforts of missionaries and others to “Christianize” and “civilize” the Native Americans are depicted entirely positively, and when the various difficulties between the races are brought up it’s always phrased that the Indians thought that the whites had broken treaties, rather than just admitting that the treaties had indeed been broken.

Towards the end of the book, there’s a chapter on the political shenanigans around the choosing of the state capital, with two major railroads offering free rides to encourage the citizens to vote for that railroad’s favorite.  (It wound up being Pierre.)  The last chapter is about the activity of the South Dakota Volunteers in the Philippine insurrection.  Their heroism is emphasized, though it is mentioned that the Filipinos thought they had been ill-used when the U.S. refused to let them be independent after the Spanish-American War.

This book is primarily of local interest to South Dakotans, but may also be instructive to students of history who want to see how it was taught to children in the early 20th Century.  Parents of younger readers will want to discuss the history of Native Americans as we now understand it, and how prejudice can distort our images of those who are different.  This volume was reprinted in 2010, so you may be able to find a reasonably-priced copy.

Magazine Review: Lapham’s Quarterly: Spring 2015 Swindle & Fraud

Magazine Review: Lapham’s Quarterly: Spring 2015 Swindle & Fraud Edited by Lewis H. Lapham

Mr. Lapham’s literary magazine is based on the principle that history has much to teach the present on many subjects, so presents excerpts from many famous (and not so famous) authors on a loose topic for the education and entertainment of its readers.  This issue covers swindle & fraud, and the topic of lying and stealing more generally.

Lapham;s Quarterly Spring 2015

The pieces are all short, none more than six pages, and most hanging around the two-three page mark.  A long time spectrum is covered, from the classic Trojan Horse gag to the sub-prime mortgage bubble of the 2000s.   After a lengthy editor’s introduction, we start with Lawrence Osborne buying his own death certificate.  Through many authors we proceed to Oscar Wilde’s short play “The Decay of Lying.”Along the way we hear from Charles Ponzi (his original scheme was legal, but he couldn’t raise money for it without resorting to fraud) and Malcolm X’s thoughts on how white politicians lie to black people to get their votes.

There are a few original essays to round out the issue, “Rogue Wounds” by Daniel Mason, on faking illness; “We Buy Broken Gold” by Clancy Martin , on the retail buying of precious metals and gems; and “A Fish Tale” by David Samuels, about Herman Melville and the nature of fiction in Moby Dick.

The issue is profusely illustrated with classic artworks and other depictions of the theme, infographics and short quotes.   Everything is properly attributed, or at least it appears to be.

The general selection of items is high quality, and since they’re short, if a particular piece doesn’t interest you, another one will be along quickly.  It helps that crime and corruption are such interesting topics.  The shortness does however mean that most of the topics are only touched upon in the briefest of terms and you will want to investigate further if a given one interests you.

Highly recommended for strong readers who have limited time at any sitting.

Book Review: Wild Among Us: True Adventures of a Female Wildlife Photographer

Book Review: Wild Among Us: True Adventures of a Female Wildlife Photographer by Pat Toth-Smith

Disclosure:  I received this book as part of a Goodreads giveaway on the premise that I would review it.

Wild Among Us

This is a coffee-table book of wildlife photographs, with chapters for each kind of animal and the stories of how the photographer got the pictures.    There are indeed some lovely photographs in here.

The stories will be familiar to anyone interested in wildlife photography.  The elaborate preparations,  the missed chances, the miserable conditions and the brilliant moments when that one perfect shot is available.   Ms. Toth-Smith has several terrifying encounters with wildlife, but usually comes out okay, except for that one time with the mosquito.  (There are no mosquito photographs in this volume.)

Depressingly, the photographer details how she needs to take extra precautions from human threats because she is a woman who often travels alone.  Lucky so far, but a few terrifying moments.

The book is kind of expensive at $45 suggested retail price; consider it as a gift for people who love wildlife photography or animals in general.

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