Train Dreams by Denis Johnson

91cr7sy43slSometimes it’s very hard to pin down why you love a book.

Denis Johnson’s very short novella, I found it on a list of brilliant books you can read in a day, tells the story of an abbreviated life.  Robert Grainier is a day laborer in the American West circa 1910.  He never amounts to much.  There isn’t much to tell about his life.  He works very hard, he marries a woman he loves and has a daughter only to lose both in a wildfire.  Afterwards, he retreats into a smaller and smaller world becoming, by the end of his life, the hermit in the woods.

Through his life he is haunted. He is haunted by the memory of the Chinese man whose near murder he participated in, though he was just passing by at the time.  Why he so willingly joined in with the mob of men who were attempting to throw the Chinese laborer off of a bridge and what became of the young man who managed to escape with his life become obsessions that bother Grainier even during the short time he is a happily married father.

After the fire destroys his life, Grainer returns to the site of his cabin searching for the remains of his family.  Though the fire destroyed the area completely, he decides to stay on his small piece of land where he builds a shelter though never anything as nice as the cabin he lost.  A stray dog appears and keeps him company until another dog takes over a few years later but he has very little human company.

It’s a very simple story, really.  The focus is entirely on the character of Robert Grainier who is not a complex man.  While he is haunted by memories of his past, he basically lives by living without much time for self-reflection.

Should this make for a moving read?  Is there enough there to make the reader feel for Robert Grainer? I think the honest answer to both questions is no, but I was moved, I felt for Robert Grainer.

Just past the halfway mark, Grainer goes to a county fair where he takes a ride in an early bi-plane.  Almost no one else at the fair has the nerve to go for a ride in this contraption, but Grainer takes it in stride, with little thought for any dangers involved.  The plane climbs higher than Grainer has ever been before then begins

 to plummet like a hawk, steeper and steeper, its engine almost silent, and Grainier’s organs pushed back against his spine. He saw the moment with his wife and child as they drank Hood’s Sarsaparilla in their cabin on a summer’s night, then another cabin he’d never remembered before, the places of his hidden childhood, a vast golden wheat field, heat shimmering above a road, arms encircling him, and a woman’s voice crooning, and all the mysteries of this life were answered.

This plane ride is the most momentous thing that has happened to Grainer in many years and the most momentous thing that will happen to him in the years he has left.  The memories it summons for him are simple moments, still moments recalled through stupendous movement: sitting quietly sharing a soda with his small family; hearing his mother’s voice comforting him as she holds him in her arms.

I think that sums up why I loved this little book. Most people would have expected that first plane ride to be the big event, but it was ultimately that soda on a hot evening that haunted Robert Grainier’s memories.

So, I’m looking forward to the next book on my list of brilliant books you can read in a day and I’m going to be looking for more by Denis Johnson.

News of the World by Paulette Jiles

In Texas, during the years following the Civil War, a 75-year-0ld printer who has lost his business, a casualty of war and its aftermath, travels the western part of the state giving readings from newspapers.  He rides into town, posts notices of his performance, and collects a dime from everyone who attends in an old paint can. All he does is stand in front of the crowd and read a selection of stories from several recent newspapers.

Did this really happen?  Is there historical evidence for such a thing?

There are no mention of this in the  notes from the author at the end of the book and most readers will be more interested in other aspects of this novel, but I hope this really is true.  It could be.  1870 was still the “wild west” in America.  Performances of any kind were almost always welcome in the smaller towns and settlements.  Even today people are willing to pay just to hear other people read something to them.

But for me this was a strange element to find in a western.  I was reminded of Hilary St. John Mandel’s recent novel Station Eleven about a travelling Shakespeare company in a post-apocalyptic future.  Paulette Jiles’s reader travels through a post war Texas facing a series of threats not unfamiliar to readers of dystopian fiction: overly friendly townspeople,  a hostile gang of slave traders, an Indian attack, a dangerous city. The story could easily have become The Postman.

What makes News of the World great are two characters and some wonderful writing.  Besides Captain Kidd, the reader/printer mentioned above, there is Johanna Leonberger, a ten-year-old girl recently “rescued” from the Kiowa tribe who have had her since they kidnapped her at age six.

Johanna is wild, afraid of nearly everything she sees in what to her is a new world.  She remembers almost nothing of her white family.  She wants only to return to the Kiowa whom she considers her family.  It is very difficult for her to trust the white man whom she has been handed over to.

Captain Kidd has taken the job of returning Johanna to her family, an aunt and uncle several hundred miles to the south.  Along the way he and Johanna form a very tight bond. This story, how Johanna comes to trust Captain Kidd and how Captain Kidd comes to see Johanna as a daughter, give News of the World its heart.

I know I tend to get lost in inter-texual linking but I kept thinking of the 1998 Brazilian move Central Station about a bitter retired school teacher who takes an orphaned boy across Brazil to his father’s home.  It’s a wonderful movie by the way.  The performance by Fernanda Montenegro is one of the best you will ever see. She lost the Oscar, by the way, to Gwyneth Paltrow who won it for Shakespeare in Love.

There have been many stories about captive children returned from Native American tribes.  Some date back to just shortly after the arrive of Europeans in North America.  From what I’ve read they all seem to have certain things in common.  The children always adopt the tribe as family.  They forget white culture altogether including their language some in just a few years. They do not want to return to white culture.  They never see their native culture again.  They never completely re-adapt to their families.  I’ve only seen this story in “case studies”–stories about one person both fiction and non-fiction. I’d love to find a broader study on this topic.  Is this pattern the result of differences between how native people live and how white culture at the time lived? Or is it something about the nature of children who experience abduction through extreme violence.  Very often they have seen their parents and siblings killed as was the case with Johanna in News of the World.

I was expecting this story to end badly.  As I got closer to the end I began to fear what would happen to Johanna and to Captain Kidd for that matter.  Over the course of the novel I became very fond of both of them.  All I’ll say here is that there was a happy ending for both, one that was completely believable and satisfying.

Finally, a word about the writing. Not so much a word as a quote.  You can judge for yourself.

She put down the doll and shouted at the Indians with her hands around her mouth.  What could she possible think would happen? That they would come for her? She was shouting for her mother, for her father and her sisters and brothers, for the life on the Plains, traveling wherever the buffalo took them, she was calling for her people who followed the water, lived with every contingency, were brave in the face of enemies, who could go without food or water or money or shoes or hats and did not care that they had neither mattresses nor chairs nor oil lamps. They stood and stared across the water at her like creatures of the sidhe, wet and shining in every flash from overhead. They stood among their jack strawed tipi poles heaped on horses, drenched children gazing at her out of buffalo robes on the travois, the men ahead and at the side with their weapons wrapped in whatever would keep them dry.  One of them shouted back over the water. The lightning made them appear in every detail like an intaglio and then disappear and the reappear again.

I’ve gone on about News of the World long enough.  I loved it.  Go read it it.

Little Big Man by Thomas Berger

“Little Big Man changed the way I see the world.”  If you were around in the 1970’s, after the Dustin Hoffman film version of Thomas Berger’s novel Little Big Man hit the screen, you probably heard someone say this.  Maybe you said it yourself.   I was too young for R-rated movies in 1970, back then no one would have dreamed of taking a seven-year-old to a PG movie let alone an R-rated one, so  I was in college the first time someone told me Little Big Man changed them.

Thomas Berger’s novel turns out to be problematic in its depictions of Native Americans.  It’s not really about Native Americans; it’s about a white man who was raised by them.  This is a subtle but important distinction– one that separates the novel from the movie based on it.  The novel’s narrator, Jack Crab, functions as a Candide figure.  He moves through the major historical events of his day as an innocent.  He is captured by the Cheyenne after a rival tribe massacres his family’s wagon train.  For a time he lives with the Cheyenne and comes to see tribal elder, Old Lodge Skins, as his father.  He never forms a lasting bond with anyone else he meets during his life.  However, he abandons the Cheyenne in the midst of battle in order to save his own life.

Over the course of the novel he meets Wild Bill Hickock, Buffalo Bill Cody, Calamity Jane, and  General Armstrong Custer.  He moves among several Native America tribes, Mormon settlers, peddlers, buffalo hunters, former slaves, trappers, preachers, whore houses, school marms, and would be senators.  His story is all-encompassing.  He is the American west.  And while he returns to the Cheyenne several times, his attitude towards them remains problematic for 21st century readers.

Take the scene when the calvary, led by Custer, massacres the Cheyenne village at Washita creek. Jack Crab tries to save Old Lodge Skins who refuses to leave his teepee, claiming, “Today is a good day to die.”  Crab convinces his grandfather that a dream he had granted him invisibility– no soldier will be able to see you, we can just walk through the fighting to the river.  But before he’ll leave, Old Lodge Skins, who has become blind from a previous wound, insists on taking all of his magical possessions.

“Wait,” he said.  “I must take my medicine bundle.”  This was a sloppy parcel about three foot long and wrapped in tattered skins.  Its contents was secret, but I had once peeked into that of a deceased Cheyenne before they put it with him on the burial scaffold, and what was contained was a handful of feathers, the foot of an owl, a deer-bone whistle, the dried pecker of a buffalo, and suchlike trash: but he undoubtedly believed his strength was tied up in this junk, and who was I to say him nay.  So with Old Lodge Skins.  I got his bundle from a pile of apparent refuse behind his bed.

Crab’s attitude towards Old Lodge Skins beliefs here is typical of his stance on Native Americans.  He is critical, often dismissive of Cheyenne customs and beliefs in ways fitting the fashion of a 19th century man that border on racist today.  Look at how he describes Old Lodge Skins possessions in the quote above–‘tattered,’ ‘suchlike trash,’ ‘junk,’ ‘apparent refuse.’  The language here is fairly mild when compared to other scenes in the novel.  This is typical of the language used by 19th century authors to describe Native American tribes as the following passage from Mark Twain’s 1870 essay “The Noble Redman” illustrates:

His heart is a cesspool of falsehood, of treachery, and of low and devilish instincts. With him, gratitude is an unknown emotion; and when one does him a kindness, it is safest to keep the face toward him, lest the reward be an arrow in the back. To accept of a favor from him is to assume a debt which you can never repay to his satisfaction, though you bankrupt yourself trying. 

However, by the end of the novel I came to see Jack Crab’s ambivalence about Native Americans as a testament to how good Little Big Man is.  A narrator with nothing but praise for anyone Jack Crab met during his life, would not be a narrator we could believe in. I’m not going to say trust here, because I don’t think we can trust Jack Crab completely.  He’s well over 100 years old, or so he claims, and he’s telling us what happened to him  80 years ago.  Much of what he says is hard to believe, as hard to believe as most history texts about this period are.  We often can’t believe it, or don’t want to believe it.  Did the above quote from Mark Twain shock you?  Have you long believed he was an advocate in favor of civil rights and equality for all people?  How could the man who wrote Huck Finn hold views like this about Native Americans?     

The movie makers wisely decided to leave out some of the book.  While they have given Jack Crab a life outside of his time with the Cheyenne, the movie is concerned with making a statement about the treatment of Native Americans which the book is not.  Compare the movie’s depiction of the massacre at Washita Creek.  There really is little humor in this scene.  There is no business about Old Lodge Skins dressing himself in his fanciest clothing or looking for his medicine bundle.  Jack Crab does convince Old Lodge Skins that he is invisible and he does walk through the battle smiling but there is no overt comedy in the movie’s depiction as there was in the book.  It’s entirely tragic.  Chief Dan George, who portrayed Old Lodge Skins in the movie, smiles his way to the river, but his smile only serves to make the entire sequence more disturbing.


I’m not enough of a film historian to say this with authority, but I think this was the first time mainstream American movie audiences ever saw an Indian village massacred. We’d seen the reverse, Indians destroying farm houses and wagon trains like the one in the opening scene of Little Big Man, but this was the first depiction of what was done to the Native American tribes. It’s a brilliant piece of film making, though difficult to watch.  Jack Crab leads Old Lodge Skins to safety like Aneas leading his father from the burning ruin of Troy, but Jack’s wife and son will not survive the battle.   Pay attention to the way music and sound is used in this scene and to the way the editing makes it look like Jack is shot and killed along with his wife and child.  It’s easy to see why this movie changed so many of the people who saw it.

In both the book and the movie, Jack Crab returns to white civilization after the Battle of Washita vowing revenge on Custer for the massacre.  That’s how he ends up at the Battle of Little Big Horn where he is the sole white survivor.  Here again, the book differs from the movie in ways that I found problematic.  In the movie, events are telescoped. Little Big Horn follows the Washita massacre fairly quickly while in the book there are many years and chapters between these two events.  In the book enough time passes for Jack to meet General and Mrs. Custer and to come to admire them both.  It’s difficult to remain sympathetic to Jack throughout Little Big Man.  The reader wants him to be angrier about what happens to the Cheyenne, not  to praise General Custer.  The book is anti-establishment in its depiction of both white and native American society.  It pokes fun at everyone, victim and victor, which just seems unfair at times.

But in the end, I think that’s America.  In America Chief Sitting Bull leads the attack on Custer at Little Big Horn and ends up an attraction in a wild west show.  50 dollars a week was the pay.  The great scope of history is turned into fodder for circuses.  Jack Crab may look like Aneas in one scene but he’s really Candide with a more knowledgable Dr. Pangloss in Old Lodge Skins.  The movie version sums it up in Old Lodge Skins’ final line, “Sometimes the magic works, sometimes it doesn’t.”


Thomas Berger, like Voltaire before him, looks at the horrors of history and concludes the only way to deal with it all is to laugh at it.  Towards the end of the novel Jack Crab, Little Big Man, speaks to his grandfather, Old Lodge Skins, about Custer:

I says: “He was not scalped, Grandfather.  The Indians respected him as a great chief.”

Old Lodge Skins smiled at me as at a foolish child.

 “No my son,” says he.  “I felt his head. They did not scalp him because he was going bald.”



This review first ran on my old blog Ready When You Are, C.B. back when I was running two reading challenges at once: The Hop-a-long, Git-a-long, Read-a-long; and the Read  the Book, See the Movie Challenge.  There were both fun.  I enjoyed reading challenges, but it’s been a long time…

Mamaw by Susan Dodd

Pretend it’s not a western.  Pretend it’s historical fiction.

Imagine this story takes place in Ireland or South Africa instead of western Missouri.  A young woman marries a religious man who takes her away from home to start a new life.  The two raise several children on a hard-scrabble farm.  When he dies,  she re-marries, this time to a doctor.  More children are born.   Unable to continue living a life he feels is constantly hindered by a distant and unjust government, her favorite son becomes involved with a violent independence movement.  He later joins the army and fights on the losing side in a civil war.  Disillusioned and jaded, with no job-prospects he turns to a life of crime.  Before he can turn himself in, do his time and begin his live again, he is killed by one of his compatriots.   His mother is left to live the rest of her life with a reputation she had little hand in generating.

What makes this story a western?

Would it be substantially different if it were a book about a woman with a son in the IRA instead of a book about the mother of Jesse James, Civil War veteran turned outlaw?

It’s not a pretty story.  Certainly not along the Missouri-Kansas border at the time of the American Civil War.  I’ve a hard time deciding if there were any heroes in that particular struggle, but I’m certain Jesse James was not one of them.  So how does one approach a book about the woman who raised him, who loved him more than any of her other children and protected him when she could even though she knew her protection made more crimes possible, including murder?   To her credit, Ms. Dodd doesn’t whitewash her story, as far as I can tell.  Her heroine loves her son, admires him, pushes him to action, protects him and his reputation as much as she can.  But even she reaches a point where she must simply refuse to look too closely at what her son has done.  In order to remain the mother she has always been she must make herself willfully ignorant of her son’s crimes.  This is probably the healthiest choice she could have made.  Not the wisest or the best, but the only one that would work for her.

And Mamaw worked for me.  Whether it’s a western or not, whether or not the question even matters, Mamaw is a fascinating book that took me into the life of someone I never expected to meet.


This was one of the books I read for the Hop-a-long Git-a-long Read-a-long, a challenge I use to run back in the day.  While it never really took off, I did get double digit participation each year I ran it–I think three years total.  It was fun for me and a few of the people who joined in let me know that their overall opinion of the western genre changed for the better as a result.  I remember this book, Mamaw.  It’s wonderful book; one that stayed with me for a long time. I’m pretty sure I kept my copy to re-read in my retirement.

The Highwayman by Craig Johnson

I admit it.

I have a thing for Netflix’s Walt Longmire.

The strong, silent type–wounded by a tragic past–handsome in a casually masculine way suiting his late middle age.  He’s a sexier John Wayne without the political baggage.

I cancelled Netflix after season three thinking that was all the episodes we were going to get only to find out last week that season four has just come out.


The Highway by Craig Johnson is my first Longmire mystery.  I’ve no idea where it falls in the series, how many books came before it nor how many have come after.  It was okay.  A decent airplane read, one most readers will be able to finish in a five or six hour flight.

But, the television show was better.

While I found The Highwayman entertaining, it was too Scooby Doo for me.  If you watched Scooby Doo as a child, you’ll recall that each episode featured the Scooby Gang arriving at the scene of a supernatural mystery.  The team would investigate the spooky crime in a somewhat comic fashion until events finally revealed the all to human cause of the “supernatural” mystery.image

The Highwayman begins with a supernatural mystery, a ghost of sorts.  Walt Longmire arrives on the scene, Henry Standing Bear in tow.  The two try to solve the mystery and save a fellow deputy in the process.  Walt disbelieves the supernatural story but Henry insists the spirit world is real throughout.  In the end the culprits are unmasked and both Henry and Walt are right.

It was fun, but too close to Scooby Doo for my taste.  And why is it assumed the reader will accept the Native American Spirit World as real in ways no one would ever ask us to accept a Judeo-Christian Spirit World?

So while I probably won’t be reading any more Longmire mysteries, I will be renewing my Netflix subscription as soon as my cable contract runs out.  #ShouldHaveStuckWithHulu.


The Cowboy and the Cossack by Clair Huffaker

I wish I liked this book more.

It’s a Nancy Pearl recommendation.  Ms. Pearl, who works for the Seattle Public Library, is a champion of books, all books.  She is an unapologetic genre fan, someone who reads everything and seems to love everything she reads.  When she appears on NPR to talk about a book or writes about something she’s read you can’t help but want to go out and read it.  I can’t, at least.

Clair Huffaker’s The Cowboy and the Cossack is part of her Book Lust Rediscoveries Series. It’s a book she loves so much she put her name on the cover in the hopes of winning it new editions and a wide readership.

Noble goals.

I liked parts of The Cowboy and the Cossack quite a bit, largely the beginning and the ending scenes.  The novel opens with a group of Montana cowboys arriving off the coast of Siberia with 500 head of longhorns to deliver to a Russian aristocrat who is starting his own herd.  Because they cannot get past the paperwork and the paper-pusher that would allow them to disembark properly, they sail south of town under cover of darkness and push the cattle into the sea so they can swim for shore which is technically legal.

It’s a terrific scene. One I wish John Ford was still alive to film.  It would be great.

imageIt’s no coincidence that Mr. Huffaker was a successful screenwriter.  The Cowboy and the Cossack may take place in Siberia, but it follows the classic movie-western plot.  The story is told by a young man, an orphan who was raised by the head cowboy, Shad.  Though the two have a bond tighter than any father and son I’ve ever known, it’s not something they ever discuss.  Once they are in Siberia they are met by a group of Cossacks  who have arrived to take the cattle to their new home, many weeks away.  The leader of the Cossacks sees the narrator’s potential and insists he join him as he scouts the way across the tundra.

I imagine, if you’ve seen all the John Wayne westerns like I have, you can fill in the overall plot from there.  The two main adults become rivals, of a sorts, for the young narrator who spends the novel trying to determine which example of manhood is the one he should follow.  Think Red River, or Fort Apache or True Grit for that matter.  The other cowboys include a wide assortment of men, two former slaves, one Mexican, a former Confederate, a would-be poet, etc.  There’s a similar variety with the Cossacks.  While there are several good scenes in the mid section of the book, and there are plenty of moments when Mr. Huffaker makes good use of the conflicts between east and west, things didn’t really pick up for me again until the end when the herd runs up against a group of Tartars.

That was one fine fight.

So in the end, my recommendation for The Cowboy and the Cossack is still a good one, but not as good as I hoped.  Three, maybe four our of five stars….

…under a lonesome sky…..


Welcome to Hard Times by E.L. Doctorow

A western without a hero.

In High Noon Gary Cooper stands alone against a gang of outlaws, the town sheriff acting the classic role of hero.  This is what audiences expect of westerns, especially westerns starring the likes of Gary Cooper.

But what if the small western town, alone on the prairie, has no hero to defend it?  What if the bad man rides into a town with no one brave enough or able enough to stop him having his way?  What damage could he do?

Welcome to Hard Times by E.L. Doctorow opens with the arrival of a Bad Man from Bodie, a loner who single-handedly destroys the small town of Hard Times, burning down two buildings, killing half its citizens.   When the men of the town realize they are no match for the bad man, they hide out on the prairie waiting for him to leave.

Afterwards, the survivors try to rebuild.  The narrator, Will Blue,  takes in a now orphaned 10-year-old boy, Jimmy Fee.  Together they nurse Molly, a prostitute and the sole survivor of the local saloon, back to health.  Will becomes the de facto town mayor in his attempt to bring Hard Times back from oblivion.  The nearby mine is still active, workers still come into town on Saturday nights looking for fun.  Soon a new saloon opens, a shopkeeper arrives, a banner is hung across main street in the hopes that the state governor will build a  road through town up to the mine.  Things are looking good.

“Welcome to Hard Times.”

But Molly holds a grudge.  She blames Will for failing to stand up to the Bad Man from Bodie.  Though he presents himself to the world as her husband, he probably does love her and he wants to be a father to Jimmy Fee, she cannot hide her venom.  He knows that she hates him in spite of everything, that she’s waiting for the bad man to return so she can take her revenge, that she has convinced Jimmy Fee he should do the same.

Welcome to Hard Times is a meditation on evil, cowardice and revenge, all themes common to westerns, common to literature in general.  This is Mr. Doctorow’s first novel.  It’s scope is narrower in space and time than his later novels; the cast of characters is small, but the town of Hard Times and its handful of citizens provide room enough to keep the reader enthralled.  They are a classic western cast: a reluctant hero, a former saloon-girl, an orphaned boy looking for a father figure.  Mr. Doctorow takes this cast and subverts them: the hero is racked with guilt and cowardice, the saloon-girl has a heart of stone, the boy turns against the father figure.  However, this subversion serves to make them all much more human than the classic tropes they are based on.  They are more like us than we want to admit.

I first posted this review on my old blog, Ready When You Are, C.B. back in 2010 as an enticement to anyone who might want to join in The Hop-a-Long, Git-a-long, Read-a-long Western Reading Challenge I was hoping to start.  I ran it for two years, I think then decided to concentrate on The TBR Dare.  Though I only had a few takers, it was fun.  I’m still a regular, if not quite devoted, fan of westerns.