Book Review: The Complete Western Stories of Elmore Leonard

Book Review: The Complete Western Stories of Elmore Leonard by Elmore Leonard

Elmore John Leonard Jr. (1925-2013) started his career as a professional writer by producing short Western stories for the pulp magazines.  According to the introduction, Mr. Leonard’s first attempt was not very good and was rejected, whereupon he decided that next time he would do his research first.  He focused on the Arizona Territory, because that part of the country had a strong draw for him, and he liked the Apaches best of the various tribes of Native Americans.

The Complete Western Stories of Elmore Leonard

This volume presents the bulk of the stories in order of publication, rather than when they were written.  Thus it begins with Elmore Leonard’s first published work, “Trail of the Apache.”  Indian agent Travisin does his best to keep his Apache charges peaceful and moderately satisfied.  He keeps his wits sharp through a bet with his lead scout Gatito that if the other man can ever touch his knife to Travisin’s back, he will win a bottle of whiskey.  For the last two years, Gatito has not had alcohol.

The trouble arrives with Travisin’s new trainee, Lieutenant De Both.  De Both himself is a decent enough fellow, though green in the ways of the West.  But he’s escorting a band of Apache from another reservation, led by the renegade Pillo.  The Army, in its infinite wisdom, has decided that Pillo and his rowdy comrades should be separated from their wives and families on Travisin’s reservation to calm them down.

To no one’s surprise, Pillo and his men are soon off the reservation with Gatito, and looking to gather other renegades to restart the Indian Wars.  It’s up to Travisin, De Bolt, and the tracker known as Fry to stop them.

By the end of the 1950s, the pulp magazines had died, and the market for short Westerns had dried up.   Mr. Leonard switched to primarily doing crime stories (You may remember Get Shorty.)  But every so often, a Western collection would ask him to contribute, so there’s not quite a handful of such late stories.   The last one published was “Hurrah for Captain Early!” which takes place in a small Arizona town which is having a return celebration for its hometown hero of the recent Spanish-American War.

The main character is Bo Catlett, a cavalryman who also served in the war.  But since Mr. Catlett is black, there are those who don’t believe that he’s a veteran.   In fact, they don’t believe that Mr. Catlett should be in town at all.  And possibly not breathing.  But Sergeant Major Bo Catlett has something to return to Captain Early, and maybe it would be okay if there was a little blood of an ignorant fool on it.

Like the other late-period stories, this one contains strong language that wasn’t allowed in the magazines, as well as the period racism.  Taking place in the twilight of the Old West, it’s a suitable and somewhat cynical endpiece.

Of special interest to movie fans are the stories “Three-Ten to Yuma” and “The Captives” (which became The Tall T.)  Both were considerably expanded from their original short format.  In the former tale, a deputy marshal tries to get his prisoner aboard the title train with them both still alive despite their respective enemies.  In the latter, a rancher who’s lost his horse hitches a ride aboard a stagecoach–which is promptly captured by outlaws, and he must use his wits to keep himself and at least one other passenger alive.  Both are exciting and suspenseful.

Mr. Leonard was no stranger to dark humor, the best example of this in the current volume being “Cavalry Boots” in which a cowardly deserter becomes honored as the hero of a battle.  Mostly because he’s not around to dispute it, but partially because he accidentally did save the day.

This edition has an extra story at the end, “The Treasure of Mungo’s Landing”, which wasn’t in the first edition because it couldn’t be proved it existed.  Tracking down clues, it was discovered to have been printed under the wrong author’s name (Leonard Elmore) and in a different magazine than believed.  The story itself is a nice tale of a man who discovers a robbery is about to be committed, and stops it only to be accused of the crime himself.  The bad guy would have gotten away if he hadn’t let his greed and gloating get away with his common sense.

It’s thirty-one fine stories in all, ranging from talented newcomer quality to very good.  There’s period depiction of Native Americans (not usually entirely negative) and some period sexism (plus a couple of attempted rapes.)

Recommended for Western fans, Elmore Leonard fans and fans of the TV series Justified, which was based on Mr. Leonard’s work.

Let’s have a video of the opening to the 1957 film of 3:10 to Yuma.

Book Review: The Naturalist

Book Review: The Naturalist by Darrin Lunde

Theodore Roosevelt (1858-1919), 26th President of the United States of America, was big on nature.  Specifically, he had a strong interest in natural history, and wanted to become/be known as a naturalist.  This new biography focuses on that part of Roosevelt’s life, from his boyhood collection of stuffed birds to his African expedition for the Smithsonian Institute.

The Naturalist Theodore Roosevelt

The author is himself a museum naturalist, so the narrative is perhaps a bit biased in favor of those who go out to collect specimens for natural history museums.  Roosevelt considered himself a “hunter-naturalist”, someone who went out, observed nature carefully, then killed animals for scientific study.  Sickly as a boy, with bad asthma, Teddy had to re-invent himself several times in his youth.  He worked hard to build up his body and mind, engaging in outdoor activities and especially learning about animals in nature.  His family was involved with the founding of the New York Museum of Natural History, which gave him a head start.

Interestingly, Roosevelt’s choice to go to Harvard seems to have doomed his ambition to become a full-time naturalist–according to this book, the college’s natural history program was dominated by laboratory work, not the field expeditions Teddy favored, and he met his first wife and realized that a naturalist’s pay wasn’t going to keep them in the style they were used to.

Instead, Roosevelt studied law and got into politics, with the results I mentioned in the first paragraph.  While he certainly made some headway as President, including creating America’s first wildlife reserves and other environmentally friendly actions, Teddy chafed at not being able to hunt properly and the last months of his term were largely taken up with preparations for his African expedition.

There were many bits of knowledge in this book that I either had not known before or had long forgotten.  Theodore Roosevelt’s poor vision meant that he was a bad shot, and often had to use far more bullets to bring down specimens than was ideal (and sometimes this meant he wound up killing more animals than he wanted!)

I found the literary feud between Roosevelt (and other scientifically-oriented naturalists) and the “sentimental” nature writers as exemplified by the Reverend William J. Long interesting.  Dr. Long heavily anthropomorphized the animal behavior in his “non-fiction” stories, and often depicted events that were so unlikely that naturalists accused him of just making things up.  (Side note:  I looked up Dr. Long’s work and among other things he penned an entirely serious book on the subject of animal telepathy-not just non-verbal communication, telepathy.)  In response, Dr. Long said that President Roosevelt could only touch the hearts of animals…with bullets.

The book stops with the aftermath of the successful African expedition-the less happy Amazon expedition does not get mentioned at all.  As is common with these specialized biographies, any parts of Roosevelt’s life that did not have a bearing on natural history get short shrift, and the serious student should also read a more general biography to get a balanced picture.

A heavy emphasis is placed on how Roosevelt’s practical experience with hunting influenced his ideas on conservation.  He could see with his own eyes how over-hunting was wiping out game animal populations, even within the span of a few years.

There’s a center section with black & white photos, and a few more scattered through the book.  There are extensive end notes, a bibliography and index.  Bright senior high students should be able to handle the material and language.

I enjoyed this book, and would recommend it to those interested in Theodore Roosevelt, natural history and the role of hunters in nature conservation.

Disclaimer:  I received a copy of this book through Blogging for Books for the purposes of this review.  No other compensation was requested or offered.

Comic Book Review: Corpse on the Imjin! and Other Stories by Harvey Kurtzman

Comic Book Review: Corpse on the Imjin! and Other Stories by Harvey Kurtzman edited by Gary Groth

In later years, Harvey Kurtzman was better known  for his humor work, among other things being the first editor of MAD.  But while he worked at EC Comics in the early Fifties, Mr. Kurtzman was also known for some very impressive tales of action and warfare in Two-Fisted Tales and Frontline Combat.  He was a pioneer in the area of more “realistic” war comics, ones that didn’t treat the enemy as subhuman or inherently evil.

Corpse on the Imjin! and Other Stories by Harvey Kurtzman

This book reprints many of those stories, divided into two sections, those Mr. Kurtzman illustrated himself, and those done by other artists from his layouts.  (He was notoriously unhappy when those artists deviated from his vision, and as he was also the editor of the books, those artists usually didn’t get invited to work with him again.)

The volume opens with “Conquest!”, a story set during Spain’s expansion of its empire into Central and South America.  Captain Juan Alvarado and his conquistadors initially have great success against their under-gunned native opponents, but their lust for gold undoes them.

The final story (with art by Reed Crandall) is “Memphis!” about a battle between Union and Confederate gunships on the Mississippi River during the Civil War.  The enthusiasm of the spectators, especially the children, is contrasted to the horrific cost of the battle.

The Korean War was going on during the run of these comic books, and the majority of the stories concern that conflict.  Several of these are top-rate.  “Rubble!” is about a Korean farmer building a doomed house, with step-by-step coverage of the hard labor he puts in–the art in some panels reminds me of WPA heroic friezes.  “Air Burst!” is the tale of a Chinese mortar squad as they try to survive a UN attack, their numbers dwindling.  “Corpse on the Imjin!”  was one of Mr. Kurtzman’s favorites, about two soldiers fighting to the death near the title river, with narration that’s deliberately poetic.  And “Big ‘If’!” is a meditation on the randomness of death that focuses on one soldier considering the choices that have led him to this place, sitting facing five “devil sticks.”

Some of the stories are not quite as good–“Contact!” about a U.S. patrol looking for the North Koreans and finding them ends with a patriotic speech straight out of Hollywood propaganda.  And “Bunker!” (art by Ric Estrada) about two disparate units trying to take a heavily-defended hill, has some unfortunate exaggerated features on the black soldiers that would not fly today, despite the well-meant message of the story.  But overall, most of the stories are solid to excellent.

The stories are reprinted in black and white, which favors the strong inking skills of Mr. Kurtzman, but there is also a color cover gallery that shows off his sense of color design and the work of Marie Severin as a colorist.

The volume is completed with several essays about Mr. Kurtzman’s work and EC Comics in general.

While the violence level is high as you might expect from war stories, these tales don’t lean on the gore as some of EC’s horror titles did–even visible blood is rare.

Highly recommended to EC fans, war comics buffs and those studying the Korean War and how it was seen at the time.

Book Review: Lost Kingdom: Hawaii’s Last Queen, the Sugar Kings and America’s First Imperial Adventure

Book Review:  Lost Kingdom: Hawaii’s Last Queen, the Sugar Kings and America’s First Imperial Adventure by Julia Flynn Siler

Disclaimer: I received this book in a Goodreads giveaway in the expectation that I would write a review of it.

Lost KingdomThis is not the happy story of how altruistic Americans freed the Hawaiian people from tyranny. (I’m sure there is such a book, somewhere.) It is, however, a well-researched look at the life and times of Lili’u, the last queen of Hawai’i.

Hawai’i’s time as an independent kingdom was relatively short, with no one thinking to unite the islands before the coming of Westerners and the almost inevitable whittling away of sovereignty once the great powers of the Nineteenth Century took interest.

One can see that it wasn’t just greedy white men’s ambition that brought about the theft of power from the native Hawaiians, but a string of bad luck–if the royal family of Hawai’i had flourished, they might have been better able to stand up to economic and social pressures. If Lili’u’s  husband had been more compatible with her, and not died at a crucial moment, she might have gotten better advice. And if a war hadn’t started at just the wrong moment, Hawai’i might not have seemed so important to annex.

And the sugar kings that did so much to weaken and then overthrow the government of Hawai’i?  Their power was broken within a generation when other sources of cane sugar were found.

I’d recommend this book to history buffs, those wanting to know more about Hawaii, and school kids looking for something slightly different to do a book report on.

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