Six-Gun Snow White by Catherynne M. Valente

Six-Gun Snow WhiteTitle: Six-Gun Snow White
Author: Catherynne M. Valente
Published: 28 February 2013
Publisher: Subterranean Press
Source: own copy
Genre: fantasy, fairytale, western
Rating: 9/10

This is as much my analysis of the story as it is a review, so it contains some spoilers, although I have not discussed the specifics of the ending.

I’ve never found the story of Snow White particularly compelling, but Catherynne M. Valente reinvents it in ways I could never have imagined. She takes the basic elements of the tale – the stepmother, the mirror, the huntsman, the heart, the seven dwarves – and reworks them into a story about racism, love, and mothers.

In North America’s Old West, a wealthy mine owner known to us as Mr. H sees a beautiful Crow woman named Gun That Sings and decides her wants to marry her.  Mr. H “had a witch’s own knack for sniffing out what the earth had to give up” (10), and Gun That Sings has the kind of beauty that seems to appeal to his business interests: “her hair had the very color of coal […] Her dark mouth as a cut garnet, her skin rich copper, her eyes black diamonds for true.” (10-11). Gun That Sings doesn’t want to marry this white man, but after a few not-so-subtle threats about the safety of her people, she relents. When she gets pregnant, Mr. H makes a wish:

let this child have hair like hot coal, and lips as bright and dark as blood, but oh Lord, if you’re listening, skin as white as mine. (15)

It doesn’t come true. Gun That Sings dies in childbirth, leaving behind a beautiful but clearly half-breed child. She lives in luxury in Mr. H’s beautiful castle by the sea, with a little zoo and her own dime museum. Mr. H gives her a silver gun with red pearls in the handle; she calls it Rose Red. But because of the colour of her skin her existence is kept secret.

Mr. H gets married again, to a woman so beautiful it hurts to look at her. When she sees the child she calls her Snow White as a mockery of the pale skin she will never have. Mrs. H proceeds to abuse Snow White for years, beating her and forcing her to do all the housework in their massive home.

In pre-Grimm versions of the fairytale, it was Snow White’s own mother rather than her stepmother who torments her. Valente conflates the two versions. Mrs. H is Snow White’s stepmother, but she’s the only mother the girl has ever known and she wants very desperately for Mrs. H to accept her. The very first thing Mrs. H says to her is “You are not entirely ugly, but no one would mistake you for a human being. That skin will never come clean” (37). She considers Snow White to be non-human because she’s not white, so the only way for Snow White to be accepted is to become white, or at least to become as much like Mrs. H as possible.

For a long time Snow White accepts Mrs. H’s violent abuse, believing that this is love and it’ll “fix” her.

Love was a magic fairy spell. Didn’t the girls in my books hunt after love like it was a deer with a white tail? Didn’t love wake the dead? Didn’t that lady love the beast so hard he turned into a good-looking white fellow? That was what love did. It turned you into something else.

For this reason I forgave Mrs. H. I tried to be near her all the time. She only meant to scrub me up and fix me. At any moment she might take me in her arms and kiss me and like that beast with a buffalo’s body I would fill up with light and be healed. Love would do what it did best. Love would turn me into a white girl. If I did everything right, one day I would wake up and be wise and strong, sure of everything, with skin like snow and eyes as blue as hers. It would happen like a birthday party. One day the girl in the mirror would not look like me at all, but like my stepmother, and nothing would hurt anymore forever. (44)

Under Mrs. H’s cruel ‘guidance’, Snow White bleeds and starves. She is scrubbed in baths of milk and ice. She is trussed up in corsets that suffocate and combs that hurt her. As a result, she gets some very twisted ideas of what it is to love, to be human, and to be a woman.

For myself I thought: this is how you make a human being. A human being is beautiful and sick. A human being glitters and starves. (43)

It’s a much more interesting dynamic than the petty beauty contest of the usual tale, with its stereotypes about female vanity. The mirror plays an important role in this story, but not because Mrs. H admires her face in it (it doesn’t actually show reflections at all). The question of beauty becomes a racial issue instead. Mrs. H is literally ‘fairer’ than Snow White, and since this makes her forever superior in racial terms, she never seems to see herself as being in competition with her stepdaughter. Other people talk about who is prettier, but Snow White is quick to dismiss the issue:

 I heard a lot of talk speculating on whether myself of Mrs. H was the more handsome. It’s plain foolishness.

Everybody knows no half-breed cowgirl can be as beautiful as a rich white lady. Where’s your head at? (65)

Later, Valente uses the fairytale’s iconic line as a dig at Snow White’s half-breed rootlessness. She won’t find a home in her mother’s Crow Nation because she’d “be the fairest of them all” (145) – just white enough that her presence would make trouble for them.

Unlike the fairytale though, there’s more to Mrs. H than simple evil. In the terrifying, ancient mirror that Mrs. H keeps in Snow White’s dime museum, Snow sees a young Mrs. H being abused in a similar way, and told that to be a woman means to “Work until you die” (50), to “Obey until a man give you permission to die,” (50) to “Make your black deals in the black wood and decide what you’ll trade for power” (51). It doesn’t all apply to this story; it’s more like Mrs. H come from a legacy of women who have suffered and found a way out of that suffering through cruelty and magic. Mrs. H tells Snow White that “Magic is just a word for what’s left to the powerless once everyone has eaten their fill” (63), and for a moment, I felt sorry for her.

In that scene, Valente also shows sudden similarities between Mrs. H and Snow White, suggesting that Snow White could take the same path. It’ll inevitably be a trap, a bad bargain, (“I am freedom and I will eat your heart” (51)), but perhaps Snow White could get what she wants.

She runs away instead. She steals a fantastic Appaloosa named Charming and heads out into the WIld West, turning into a character very different from the delicate girl of the fairytale. This Snow White is the fastest gunslinger in the West. She cheats at cards. She “Could teach the Scottish laird who dreamed up whiskey in his sheep pen to bolt it down and never flinch” (150). She gets work in one of her father’s mines, doing filthy, exhausting work in the darkness. The question of her prettiness was dismissed before, but now it becomes irrelevant as her trials turn her hard and vicious. Not that she cares – as far as she’s concerned her body has brought her nothing but trouble so who cares if it’s beaten and scarred? She’s used to that.

A bounty hunter comes looking for her heart, but not because her stepmother wants to eat it. There’s no beauty contest here, so the heart has a more practical but no less macabre function. And then rather than stumble across seven dwarves, Snow White ends up in the town of Oh-Be-Joyful, run by seven female fugitives who understand Snow White’s need to escape from her life.

But even in the form of this hardened gunslinger, Snow White is plagued by her fundamental childhood longings – she “wants a mother so bad it’s like a torn up body wanting blood” (144), even though, for her, “[a] mother’s like a poison made for only one soul” (149). It’s a horrible paradox, but it’s also why this story has such a strong impact.

At this point in the the standard fairytale, Snow White is unbelievably stupid or (more generously) unbelievably naive. Her stepmother tries to kill her three times with the same trick, and Snow White falls for it each time. I won’t tell you how Valente reewrites this part of the story, but I will say that it’s much more intellectually and emotionally involved, as well as being one of the hardest hitting aspects of the book.

The only difficulty I have is the ending. I just don’t know what to make of it. This is a very strange and emotionally complex book, so I read it twice (it’s short) but I still can’t figure that ending out. It even stranger than the rest of the book, and it changes the feel of the story from fantasy to something more like sci fi.

But other than that – wow. I’m so glad I got the signed limited-edition copy of this. And not just for the incredible reinvention of Snow White. As usual, Valente’s writing alone makes this book worth reading, as you may have guessed from the abundance of quotes I couldn’t resist using. I realise that fairytale retellings are getting a bit old now, but a book like this still stands out.

Albert of Adelaide by Howard L. Anderson

Albert of AdelaideTitle: Albert of Adelaide
 Howard L. Anderson
10 July 2012
western, magical realism
eARC from the publisher via NetGalley

Albert is a duck-billed platypus who escapes from a zoo in Adelaide and heads out into the Australian outback to find the mythical “Old Australia” – a Promised Land “where things haven’t changed and Australia is like it used to be”. Old Australia, he believes, is a paradise without humans, where he will be free to live with his kind alongside a peaceful river like the one where he was born.

Sadly, the Old Australia Albert finds is an arid, unwelcoming landscape, and most of the animals who live there are small-minded and prejudiced against him, having never seen a platypus before. He finds a friend in a pyromaniacal wombat named Jack, but Jack’s friendship turns out to be a mixed blessing that leads to Albert becoming a wanted criminal.

He flees across the outback, forced to learn the necessities of survival very quickly – finding food and water, making money, and shooting to kill when he needs to. His journey is one of self-discovery, devoted friendships and violent rivalries. It’s an atypical western and nothing like you’d expect from a book full of animals wearing clothes.

The publisher, Twelve, publishes only twelve books a year and seeks out “the singular book, by authors who have a unique perspective and compelling authority”. Albert of Adelaide is is certainly unique (or at least rare) when taking into account all its elements: it’s a western set in Australia, most of the characters are animals indigenous to Australia, and there isn’t a single human character. Notably, there isn’t a single female character either, although this detracts from its interest rather than adding to it.

I wouldn’t call it fantasy, but you could perhaps call it magical realism, although it’s one of those books that defies categorisation altogether. The animals talk, think and behave as humans do, but there’s no explanation for how this is possible. There’s also no scene in which a human and an animal interact, allowing us to compare the two. It’s like Albert follows a railway line into the desert and becomes a different animal, in a different world. Mind you, there’s no point thinking too hard about the how of this; you just have to accept it for what it is.

It does make me wonder why the author chose to use animals though. They behave almost exactly as humans do, and as humans would in a western – they drink alcohol, mine, work for money, run stores, gamble, use guns, wear clothes, carry backpacks. There are no horses, but then again it wouldn’t make sense for other animals to ride them.

You can’t even think of them as literal animals, as the author doesn’t give much practical consideration to their animal nature or their bodies. How does a platypus survive trekking across the desert? How does it wield a gun in its paws or drink water from a canteen with that big, wide bill? There are only a few occasions when they do specifically animal things, like when Albert goes swimming and eats the crawfish and grubs he finds in the water. For the most part, you’ll just have to throw the logic out the window and accept the animals as they are. If that would bother you, then don’t even think about reading this.

Frankly, I think you could make all the characters human and the story could stay the same with only a few minor adjustments (e.g.. Albert is a boy who escapes from an orphanage to find the vaguely remembered paradise of his birth). The one notable thing about having animal characters is that they’re endearing; the story would have been more ordinary and less likeable if the characters were humans.

Mind you, this is definitely not a story for children, and for several reasons. It’s not cute. It’s full of longing and melancholy that an adult could relate to but that would bore younger readers. It’s also very violent and tragic, as befits a western. Animals get shot, torn apart, eaten. Normally I wouldn’t be able to handle this level of animal violence, but because they have this unusual status as ‘human animals’, it’s not so bad. Still, a kid might be horrified.

I also enjoyed Albert’s journey from one hateful world to another. His time at the zoo was a nightmare – being caged, stared at, taunted. Now at least he’s free, but he’s also in a hell of a lot more danger. He makes steadfast friends, but has to deal with so much prejudice. He’s chasing his dream but has to kill and steal and fight to do it. Naturally, Albert changes and learns a lot over the course of the story. However, he keeps going with a kind of quiet determination that I found very likeable. Even in some really disturbing situations, Albert keeps a cool head that I found reassuring.

So, overall, Albert of Adelaide was nice enough. Not great, not bad. It could be quite slow in parts as Albert plods through the desert or goes about the business of getting supplies, but the pace picks up in some very dire situations. His enemies tend to be particularly vile, which I hate, but the friendships are heartwarming. I don’t know who I’d recommend this book to really, but it’s a good one to keep in mind if you take part in reading challenges (like if you have to read a book where the main character is an animal, but you don’t want to read a kid’s book). At the very least, I think you’ll find it memorable.

Review of The Six-Gun Tarot by R.S. Belcher

The Six-Gun Tarot by RS BelcherTitle: The Six-Gun Tarot
Author: R.S. Belcher
22 January 2013
Pubisher: Tor Books
fantasy, horror, western

eARC from the publisher via NetGalley
Rating: 5/10

Please note: this review contains mild spoilers. I’ve avoided specific plot details, but I have discussed the nature of the ending.

Golgotha is a quaint little town of horrors. Surviving out on the edge of the Nevada desert in the 1800s, it’s seen a surprising amount of supernatural activity, but it’s still home and haven to its odd assortment of residents. The novel opens on Jim Negrey, a 15-year-old boy on the run from a murder charge. Jim and his faithful horse are about to die out in the desert when they’re saved by Mutt and Clay and taken to the safety of Golgotha. Clay is a medical man with a disturbing amount of interest in dead bodies. Mutt is the town’s deputy sheriff, a Native American Indian with a coyote trickster for a father. The town’s sheriff, Jon Highfather, is rumoured to be either undead or immortal. The mayor, Harry, is a Mormon Elder guarding the magical artefacts of his faith, but he’s struggling to reconcile his religion with his homosexuality. Maude Stapleton, the wife of a wealthy banker, is secretly a warrior assassin for a cult of Lilith.

It seems that these people have all been drawn to Golgotha for a reason. The town sprang up at the foot of the now-abandoned silver mine in Argent Mountain, but what the residents don’t know is that all their paranormal troubles are caused by the colossal monster slumbering in chains beneath the mountain. It’s the Greate Olde Wurm (yeah, I laughed) a monster older than God or death, and if it ever got loose it would destroy the universe.

That threat, of course, is at the heart of the plot – the mine is reopened and the Wurm’s chains are weakened. It begins to wake, infecting the residents of Golgotha with murderous darkness. It’s up to the residents to fight back with the talents and tools at their disposal, not just to save themselves and their town, but to save all of Creation.

But be patient, reader: the novel takes its sweet time building up to the apocalyptic battle of its main plot. There is much to learn first, including the mythological backstory of the Wurm’s imprisonment, and the personal lives of Golgotha’s residents. I’ll address the latter first. Maude is deeply ashamed to have married and turned into a demur, submissive wife; it completely contradicts the teachings of the feminist warrior faith. She forms an unlikely bond with Mutt, who is shunned by the town because of his race, and by his own people because of his coyote heritage. Jim is carrying around his dead father’s glass eye, which happens to be an ancient Chinese artefact with strange powers. He hopes to be able to learn more about it from the Chinese immigrants who live in a self-contained area that goes by the derogatory name of Johnny Town (and is rife with racial clichés), but is initially thwarted because otherwise the story would be a lot shorter. Harry, the Mayor, is having an affair with the man who plays piano at the Johnny Town brothel, while his wife Holly drinks herself into oblivion because her husband let her believe she made him gay. Auggie Schultz, a German storekeeper, is torn between his growing feelings for his good friend Gillian Proctor and his devotion to his (un)dead wife.

The narrative jumps frequently between these characters’ stories and more. It’s a hell of a lot to keep track of, but luckily it’s very easy to do so. Since this is a story of pending apocalypse, it also makes sense to have a lot of characters so that you have some idea of the lives at stake.

But unfortunately having so many POVs is one of the novel’s biggest problems. Many of the characters are interesting, but you can’t spend much time with them before the narrative focuses on someone else. The result is that some characters, like Maude, Jim and pretty much all the Chinese, feel badly neglected. Initially, each chapter or section is written from the perspective of one character, but after a while the POV tends to jump haphazardly between characters or to an omniscient narrator.

The romance between Auggie and Gillian takes up a sizeable portion of the novel but is totally unnecessary, as they have no role to play in fighting against the Wurm. I suspect that they’re there to provide a heartwarming aspect to the plot and to address a religious issue – finding a new partner after the death of a spouse. Other religious issues arise as well. Why, Harry wonders, has God allowed a sodomite to guard his treasures and guide his people? There are many different religions, but which one is true? And of course there’s the age-old conundrum: why does a supposedly loving and omnipotent God allows evil to exist in the world?  Religion, or rather, faith, is one of the main themes of the novel, although not in an entirely mainstream way.

Belcher has rewritten Christian mythology to explain the Wurm’s presence on Earth: when God created light, he found monsters living in the darkness. Heaven went to war with the monsters the end of this war, the Wurm was not killed but bound with holy chains and imprisoned on Earth, which was still under construction at the time.

The novel considers the issue of faith of both humans and angels in relation to this version of God who is questionable at best. We know that God is almost certainly a liar. He has not always been in existence as he led humanity and the angels to believe – the Wurm is older than him. He is not omniscient, because he only discovered the Wurm when he created light. It also seems that he is unable to kill it, which would mean that he isn’t omnipotent either. Of course, God doesn’t actually appear on the page; the information about his nature comes from the angels, particularly Lucifer and an angel named Biqa. Overall, God is portrayed as a cruel and arrogant dictator who is not as powerful as he purports to be. Biqa’s theory is that God banished the darkness because he feared it, then went genocidal on the Voidlings because they did not fit into his plan. He suggests that god created the angels and plans “to create an entire universe of doppelgangers to worship Him” because he is afraid of being alone.

So what do the characters, angel and human, think of God in light of the novel’s events? The answer lands, inexplicably, on the side of faith. The general conclusion seems to be that the whole thing was a test and some even wonder, with a ridiculously jovial attitude, what the good Lord will come up with next. However, no one has the slightest shred of evidence to support such a favourable interpretation. Why put all of Creation at stake to test a handful of people living in a small American town at the ass-end of nowhere?

There’s absolutely nothing to dispel Biqa’s earlier impression of God as cowardly and manipulative, and when Lucifer offers his equally unflattering opinions it makes perfect sense within the confines of the narrative. But then again, this isn’t about reason, it’s about reassurance. The residents of Golgotha have “learned long ago to quickly grab hold of any explanation in the daylight that makes it easier to live in the dark”, which in my opinion, explains both the optimism at the end of the novel and the entire phenomenon of religion itself. It’s terrifying to imagine that God cannot kill the Wurm; a more comforting explanation is that He was saving him as a kind of exam paper. Which means that there is a plan, and it seems to be running smoothly, so relax and enjoy the happy ending.

I was just happy to have reached the ending. The novel started out well, I cared for the characters, and I loved the unexplained hints at the weird things that have happened in Golgotha, but Belcher doesn’t really have a handle on this story. For the entire second half I felt like the novel was tossing me all over the place, leaping across POVs, going from a slow pace to dire action, and eventually bringing all its threads together in a way that was chaotic rather than conclusive.

We are told that all religions are true, because it’s belief that gives them their power, rather than deities. In fact, we’re told that gods need people and cannot exist without them. The novel ignores the immense contradictions here. Its own backstory shows that God existed before humanity so although he wants them, he certainly doesn’t need them. And of course there are fundamental contradictions between religions, but there’s less of a need to address this problem because the novel only makes a half-hearted attempt to include non-Christian beliefs. There is a Chinese creation myth told amidst endless Oriental clichés, but after hearing Biqa’s story earlier in the novel, this sounds like a distortion of the more Christian truth. Another creation myth is narrated by a coyote, but all in terms of “the white man’s god”. There is a cult of Lilith that Maude’s grandmother picked up from “the Bantu witch-women” of Africa (there’s that good old blanket term again), but even though this rages against the misogyny of the bible, it still subscribes to the basic mythology. I think the novel could have been a lot stronger if it made a decent attempt to incorporate different belief systems, but it remains unwaveringly Christian at its core.

But hey, it left with enough to discuss for a fairly long review. It was average at best, but most books like this leave me with little to say, so I appreciate those that give me something to think about. Less fussy readers probably won’t be too bothered with the consistency issues I’ve discussed here, and may find this fantasy-horror-western to be a lot of fun. I haven’t really said anything about all the action and horror in the plot, but it suffices to say that there’s plenty of it, although it can get a tad ridiculous. If you’re ok with that sort of thing, then go for it.

January 2013 Round-Up

I can’t believe January’s already over. At first it seemed to crawl and every time I looked at the calendar I felt liked I had loads of time to finish the reading I’d scheduled for this month. And then suddenly it was 1 February and I’d only read 5 books.

Revenge by Yoko IgawaLuckily I started off with an excellent read – Revenge by Yoko Ogawa. It’s a novel made up of interlinked short stories that are deceptively calm and hypnotic with scatterings of shock horror. The writing is exquisite; Ogawa is exceptionally talented when it comes to the finer details of fiction. I’m also giving away two copies of Revenge, so if you haven’t entered, go and do so now!

January 2013

Next up was A Killer in the Wind by Andrew Klavan, a somewhat self-reflective hardboiled crime novel. The protagonist, Dan Champion, is trying hard to live up to his name and come to terms with the times he failed to do so. A decent story with plenty of action is unfortunately spoiled by utterly dismal female characters – lacklustre, weak and whiny. Can a man only be a hero when the women around him are damsels in distress? Perhaps Klavan is being satirical, but either way I wasn’t impressed.

The Six-Gun Tarot by R.S. Belcher is a fantasy-horror-western about a primordial monster  slumbering within an abandoned silver mine out in the Nevada desert in the 1800s. Of course, something begins to wake the monster, and it’s up to the citizens of the town of Golgotha to save themselves, not to mention the entire universe. An average read, but with a few issues I want to discuss. Review to follow this week.

I’m still processing my thoughts on The Best of All Possible Worlds  by Karen Lord. On the one hand, it’s an elegant, skillfully written piece of literary science fiction with exceptionally well-rounded characters. On the other hand, it’s very much a love story, and although the love story takes a long time to develop, it dominates the ending with what I find to be far too much cheesiness. So while the novel is undoubtedly far above average, I have my reservations.

Expecting Someone Taller by Tom HoltMy leisure read for January was Expecting Someone Taller, Tom Holt’s debut novel. I’ve read several of his comic fantasies (and one or two sf ones), and although they’re enjoyable I find that they can get a tad chaotic with their very large casts of characters. Expecting Someone Taller, which draws on Norse mythology, had a lot of people to keep track of, but in general it was simpler. Perhaps my favourite of his novels that I’ve read so far.

I’ve embarked on the very daunting task of reading Neal Stephenson’s Cryptonomicon, but although I started on 15 January, I’ve only made it through about 20% of the novel. If you’ve seen a copy of the book though, you’ll know that 20% of it is already the length of your average novel. to add to that, it’s a pretty dense read with loads of rather technical infodumps. But Stephenson can write infodumps like no one else, and I’m really enjoying the book so far. I just hope I can find time to finish it within the next month!

The Good Old Boys by Elmer Kelton

The Good Old BoysThe Good Old Boys by Elmer Kelton
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

My very first western, chosen for a reading challenge where two participants get each other to read a genre the one enjoys and the other avoids. I wasn’t entirely sure what to expect, other than an encounter with the lone ranger archetype, easily defined good guys and bad guys, and quirky language I’d come across in the movies. This turned out to be pretty accurate. Hewey Calloway, a classic commitment-phobic, freedom-loving cowboy returns to his brother Walter’s home to visit the family he’s been missing. Hewey’s been roaming free for so long that he’s been given up for dead, but he’s warmly welcomed, except by his sister-in-law Eve, and his oldest nephew Cotton. Cotton is a typically taciturn teenager, struggling with the growing differences between himself and his family. Eve and Hewey have never really gotten along as his adventurous lifestyle has always clashed with her industrious homemaking. The Calloways are facing a particularly challenging year – the loan they’ve taken out from the bank will have to be repaid soon, and the bankers are waiting eagerly for any misfortune that will allow them to repossess the farm and make cheap, desperate employees out of Walter and his sons.

This family drama sets the stage for the tale ahead. The Good Old Boys is not the “wild wild west” adventure that generally characterises the genre (at least, in terms of the little I know about it). It’s a slow-paced but entertaining story set in a time when life is often hard but the west is no longer so wild – the Native American Indians have been wiped out, and the land is being claimed and fenced off. Consequently, it’s not Indians and outlaws that Hewey has to worry about. Instead he fears fences, automobiles, and the growth of towns and cities – the signs of a modernizing economy that’s curbing the freedom that characterizes his existence, and has no place for wandering cowboys. Hewey’s generation is aging, and it doesn’t look like there are any young cowboys to follow them. The “good old boys” may well become the “good for nothin’ old boys”, as Eve puts it, unless they give up their freedom, settle down, and get jobs. Hewey’s fears about modernization and settling down constitute the novel’s main themes, and these are neatly embodied in his relationships with Eve and Cotton.

Perhaps the only person Hewey fears, Eve is a tough woman who has successfully ‘tamed’ Walter, making a hard-working farmer out of a commitment-phobic cowboy. She is admittedly harsh at times, but in more tender moments is revealed to be a person who is simply making the best of a difficult situation. As a woman she can never have the lone ranger lifestyle. For her, survival requires hard work and a husband. Eve fears Hewey as much as he does her because he might tempt Walter away from farm and family life, leaving her destitute. She would like to him to settle down, not only for her own peace of mind, but also so that Hewey won’t come to the miserable end she forsees for him: dying alone, far from home, where he can expect little more than a pauper’s burial and his family might never hear of his demise.

Cotton has a different gripe with Hewey. Excited and optimistic about technological progress, Cotton is breaking away from the previous generation. He’s fascinated by automobiles and other modern machinery. At night, he often chooses to read about science and mechanics, rather than sit around talking to his family. He no longer shows any interest in Hewey, with his exaggerated tales and false promises. Hewey is an unabashed bullshitter, embellishing stories with lies to make them more interesting, or making sociable promises that he soon forgets. As my partner in this reading challenge suggested, this is just a part of the cowboy culture. Cotton, however, has been hurt by Hewey’s lies, and now finds his uncle’s tall tales frustrating. In addition, he just doesn’t care about the lifestyle those stories glorify: he’s interested in the future, “need[ing:] and want[ing:] little from what had gone by” (283).

Hewey on the other hand, doesn’t understand Cotton’s fascination with cars – in his opinion, a horse travels as fast as a man would ever want to go and the automobile is just a noisy, dirty, fad that will never catch on. His own experiences with modernization are negative: an authoritarian sheriff who pistol-whips Hewey for riding down an upmarket residential street, an arrogant, rich car owner, a bank that threatens his family with homelessness. All these are associated with the elitism that gives power to those with money and oppresses those without it (like Walter and Eve).

In the final third of the novel Kelton picks up the pace, heightens the drama, and resolves Hewey’s conflicts in a manner that acknowledges the inevitable march of progress, but gives the good old boys a last victory. The ending is unsurprisingly happy, but feels a bit sad too, like a nice gesture given in pity for a lifestyle that no longer exists. It’s a nostalgic tribute to the cowboy, to the freedom he can never have again, to the adventures that won’t be relived, except in books and movies.

I have to admit that I started this novel thinking that a western would probably be silly and possibly boring too. The Good Old Boys was neither. It certainly has its quirks (like men named ‘Snort’ and ‘Fat’), but it’s a strong, entertaining story and a convincing portrayal of American life at the beginning of the twentieth century. The themes and character dynamics kept me interested despite the slow pace in the first two thirds, and although the happy ending was mostly predictable it was also pleasant.

However, this is not a genre I’ll continue to read. I think a key element to enjoying a western is having a sense of nostalgia or sentiment for life in the early American west. As a horse-lover, I’ve always thought it would be really cool to travel on horseback, but other than that living in the society of the western sounds like a nightmare. It’s too hot, too conservative, a tad xenophobic, being a cowboy is mostly boring and dirty (even Hewey admits he has to bullshit to make cowboy’s life as exciting as it’s assumed to be), being a farmer is backbreaking. Consequently, even though I liked The Good Old Boys, it will remain the lone ranger of my western reading experience.