A line of verse by Townsend Miller in This Bitterly Beautiful Land, suggests the theme that runs through the novels of Elmer Kelton. Miller calls the region of Kelton’s works, “The bleached bone laid on the huge heart of the continent.” The 1972 book, edited by Al Lowman, the great Texas bibliophile, contains essays, recollections, and descriptions of a land that is indeed bitterly beautiful. Long out of print, the book is a limited edition designed by William Holman, illustrated by Barbara Whitehead, and published by Roger Beacham. Though it does not directly discuss the works of Elmer Kelton, it paints a picture of the land he loved and wrote about. What he calls in his memoir Sandhills Boy, his heimat, his homeland.
The title of Lowman’s book could serve as an epigraph for all the works of Elmer Kelton, for he is concerned with characters, often racially and culturally dissimilar, who make habitable the inhospitable in an impossible climate and a forbidding landscape. Juxtaposing the bitter and beautiful is always present, but so is balancing the two.
Most critics maintain, arguably, that the focal point of many of Kelton’s stories is cowboy/ranching life, but adding that race, culture, socio-economic status, gender, history, and folklore attached to every group within the arid stretches of the Southwest in general and West Texas in particular validate the story and illustrate his personal vision. There is collision and cohesion in all these elements; conflict and resolution; difference and likeness, consequences and changes; mixing or separating. In other words, convergence, wherein all notions meet.
Nothing means more than location, a coming together of a multitude of Southwestern components in a specific region of the American Southwest, with West Texas as dead center for the novelist. But even dead center covers thousands of square miles and millions of acres, not to mention some 500 years of history, recorded and unrecorded.
Both the Southern Plains and the Chihuahuan Desert, two geographic regions, converge, too. Both regions are, or were, largely uninhabitable, or at the very least inhospitable and peopled with indigenous peoples (Comanches mainly), transplanted inhabitants (Mexicans mainly), invasive groups (early Spanish, but later Anglo settlers, mainly), or those passing through (Cavalry, trail-drivers)—all of which have notable cultural and racial differences each from the other groups but within the groups themselves.
The place of convergence . . .
The place of convergence means everything—shapes, molds, changes, destroys, makes noble and ignoble individuals. Place also impacts ethnicity—the ways (habits, customs, speech, living, thinking, adapting) and means of a racial or cultural group.
Geographic determinism comes into play here that notices how the regions of the earth shape the animal kingdom, mankind included, contribute to who and what they are and how they behave. J. Frank Dobie used the phrase, “appropriate to time and place,” referring to the behavior of people in Old-Time Texas. Both terms have much in common..
In Elmer Kelton and West Texas (1988), Judy Alter writes:
The always accurate but fairly casual mention of the land’s characteristics in the early works is replaced in later works, particularly the major novels by an almost lyrical understanding of West Texas, its harsh nature and its under-appreciated beauty, and of the men who have peopled that land. The rugged harshness and beauty of the West are not just thematic; they are also contributing factors in the development of Kelton’s characters (127).
Kelton acknowledges his part of Texas, harsh as it is, marks, defines, integrates, and anchors real people and therefore his characters with a sense of place, of belonging, becoming a part of. He notes that the Mexican people call such a feeling querencia (“What’s Wrong in Being Different?” This Place of Memory: A Texas Perspective (1992).
In a preface to Texian Stompin’ Grounds, a 1941 volume of the Texas Folklore Society, Harry Ransom put it this way:
Among the feelings that have moved men powerfully, none has been more universal than love of the earth. Consciously or unconsciously, silently or in defiant proclamations, men have always identified themselves with their native soil. With their own countryside, with their home rock, they have associated the forces of their lives. Young men, not always in vain, have died for this ideal of the land; poets have sung it and old men have celebrated it in story. It has made some men narrow, but it has made others heroic. Famed or nameless, each of us is moved by this feeling for the place of his growth. Every man deserves a native heath” (note).
The work of Elmer Kelton affirms Ransom’s declaration in every piece Kelton writes.
Lyrical, soft, affectionate allusions to the land of West Texas are often just that and belie or underplay the realities of it. It is often through the personalities of his characters who must struggle, live or die with it, that attest to the realities of Place.
The main character in Stand Proud who speaks to this feeling is Frank Claymore a “strong-willed, individualistic breed,” one “whose years of struggle had etched a belligerent independence into his grain,” even a violent streak, who “never called on others for help, not even from God“ (2001, page?). In spite of a personality forged in hard times in hard environment, Claymore’s relationship with the land draws him, speaks to him, inspires his devotion, and it is a woman who finally helps him make peace with himself. Letty, as female figure by which many world cultures identify land—She; Mother Earth—comes to mind, although Kelton likely never entertained such ideas. Still, Letty is linked to Claymore’s feelings about the ranch in unspoken ways, albeit the place that forged Claymore’s abrasive personality.
The same kind of negative aspects in character infect Wes Hendrix (The Man Who Rode Midnight ) as he fights to keep his home and land from becoming a lake. His reasoning is that he doesn’t live in just a house; he “lives everywhere his land is” (110). In the Afterword to the novel, Kenneth Davis, a West Texan himself, insists that people draw strength from the harsh, raw environment where to survive at all is nearly impossible. Not a few of Kelton’s characters become like the land—stubborn, mean- spirited, fractious, hateful.
While the land may be a catalyst for Frank’s and Wes’s behavior, citing only two of Kelton’s novels, the land does not make its presence felt beyond descriptions, or casual mention, as Alter notes. However, in the later novels such as The Time it Never Rained, The Wolf and the Buffalo, and Honor at Daybreak, Place is a major character, making itself known in its extremes of weather. It is in such works that the locale of convergence is painfully noticeable. Lyrical description of such places are few. Realistic description takes precedence.
Not until Sandhills Boy: The Winding Trail of a Texas Writer (2007), did Kelton describe in his own words, not just through short passages of brief description, or in the dialogue of his characters, the place written mostly about—West Texas or lands like it:
No stranger seeing the land for the first time would describe it as scenic. It is like the ugly child loved only by its mother. For centuries after venturesome Spaniards first set foot there, travelers pushed across the dry stretches of West Texas on their way somewhere else. Few saw anything that invited them to stay. Water was scarce, grass was sparse. Most forms of flora and fauna were armed with stickers, thorns, horns, or tusks. Roads were few and distances long. Each seemingly barren horizon, when reached, yielded to another much the same. Prolonged droughts were the rule, punctuated by occasional times of healing rains that never seemed to heal quite enough before the next siege of dry years. It was the last part of the state to be settled, and then only because nothing else was left” (12).
There is nothing more graphic or painful to read wherein the vicious vagaries of weather and landscape and the entanglement—another word that speaks to convergence—occur than The Time It Never Rained (1973). The reader is choked and consumed with sun, heat, and sand only to drown in rains that come much too late.
In the Prologue to the story, Kelton sets the stage:
It crept up out of Mexico, touching first along the brackish Pecos and spreading then in all directions, a cancerous blight burning a scar upon the land.
Just another dry spell, men said at first. Ranchers watched waterholes recede to brown puddles of mud that their livestock would not touch. They watched the rank weeds shrivel as the west wind relentlessly sought them out and smothered them with its hot breath. They watched the grass slowly lose its green, then curl and fire up like dying cornstalks.
Men grumbled, but learned to live with the dry spells if you stayed in West Texas; there were more dry spells than wet ones. No one expected another drought like that of ’33. And the really big dries like 1918 that came once in a lifetime.
Why worry? they said. It would rain this fall. It always had. But it didn’t. And many a boy would become a man before the land was green again.” (xiv)
Taking place in the Drought of the 1950s, a time remembered in agricultural histories in capital letters, what begins with Charlie Flagg’s battle with malicious elements turns into a fight with friends, neighbors, the bank, his son, and the federal government. The realities of grappling with the West Texas land itself without drought is made known throughout the novel, but Charlie’s attachment and fondness for the rugged, hard landscape doesn’t really come under a microscope until drought attacks with a vengeance. While others give in and quit fighting a losing battle, Charlie never does. He manages to separate the forces of nature from the place itself because the land is embedded in him, the cause of his joy as well as his sorrow, the very reason for his being. As such he is determined to maintain his stubborn independence, just as the land retains a singular distinction; his rugged individualism, just as the land stands as one of a kind place; his notion of not needing anybody to help him, as the passive earth has no control anyway. The elements are chancy and unpredictable; so is life for those who live there. A man accepts and struggles with it in order to stay on the land he constantly fights nature for. It doesn’t make much sense; in fact, no sense at all—that is unless Kelton’s writing sorts it out, causing readers to shake their heads, but getting it in the end. Charlie is convinced that the past and the way things used to be are his anchor, but the truth is that the land is his succor.
The time-worn adage of taking care of the land so it will take care of you is hollow romantic nonsense. Still, Charlie and the land endure together, but only in that sense do they take care of each other:
“Outlasting this eternal drought had become the only thing that mattered any more to Charlie. All else faded from importance; it was a vendetta” (265). For Charlie “the drought was the beginning, the middle, and the end of his conscious thoughts” (266).
Man, beast, the earth itself, suffer and die. Drought pervades, drives the action and reaction of characters great and small who march to the rhythm of a searing, sun-pulsed beat. No lyrical descriptions here.
In The Wolf and the Buffalo, the same water-starved land becomes a Who, a character, in the novel that recalls the Battle of Adobe Walls of 1874 in which, historically, Comanches attacked the trading post, defeating a significant number of a cavalry unit. In Kelton’s hands history becomes a dry-drama in which the Comanche draw a cavalry, composed mostly of Buffalo Soldiers, into the waterless wastes to a place appropriately called Dry Lake. Delirious, hallucinating, dying from thirst, the Indians take in the scene from a distance. One Comanche remarks: “It is the land that kills them, not us” (page?).
If Honor at Daybreak seems an unlikely novel as illustration of West Texas characteristics, it bears notice since it takes place at a later time than Kelton usually sets his stories. If the coming of settlers, ranchers, developers, cavalry is looked on as the first harvest, the oil-patch days may be looked on as a second harvest— ravaging the same land for entirely new purposes of gleaning the leftovers, forcing not only water, but oil from the impenetrable, stubborn soil.
The landscape becomes littered with new shapes and heights forged out of man-made materials that can be as dangerous as anything rough, jagged, sharp, and treacherous in the natural landscape and terrain.
Still, it is the same old sandy, rocky, windy place but in the Roaring Twenties, a period when there is little to no movement within the Place and life is settled. The story occurs at the end of the American Dream and death of the cattle kingdoms. Caprock, fictional name of the town that resembles Kelton’s Crane, is dull, finished, and living with the aftermath of the Frontier Myth. Manifest Destiny, however—that philosophy alive and well even today, often called Entrepreneurship and Big Business—causes the town to come alive when oil erupts, literally blowing holes in the earth.
Not only does the land reverberate with noisy equipment, but new and noisy cars and motorcycles that tear up the land with ruts and trails. The town is littered with the temporary—tent-communities, box-houses that can be carted on wagons to other sites, sheet-iron shacks, oil rigs and ancillary equipment. No one intends to stay. The Place isn’t worth anything. The junk will either be transported to other rigs or left where it is, littering the land forever. Of course, a few of the old-time residents know that’s no way to treat the land, yet most are glad to take the money from leasing and drilling.
No detailed descriptions of the land appear in the novel except a chase scene through mesquite and cactus in the dark in which thorns and stickers take their revenge on villains. Mesquite wood is put to new use for firing moonshine stills. One chapter title, “Thunder in the Earth,” resonates but hardly compares with the image of thundering hooves.
Honor at Daybreak received mixed reviews and does not stand among readers’ favorites. Yet, it is still a realistic story about the arid stretches of nothing of West Texas. The land is not a character, does not drive the action, or even influence it except indirect stubbornness to yield its treasures, but man figured out a way to do even that. Thus, the worthless, wasted region provides a realistic setting.
Those who converged . . .
Identifying who all met in the Place, seems a snap even to a casual reader of Kelton’s novels—Cowboys, ranchers, Indians, Mexicans, and eventually Cavalry, including blacks in the form of Buffalo Soldiers, a few Germans.
Some of the earlier works identify ethnic groups in Texas and the conflicts that result.
In Eyes of the Hawk (1998), Thomas Canfield takes notice that “Texas wasn’t just leftover Mexicans and Bible-speaking, whisky drinking, rifle-shooting, English-speaking immigrants from Tennessee” but “people from all over the world because it was so big and had much land to offer. You found settlements of Germans, Swedes, Irish, French, Czechs. It was Babel without a tower. It was a melting pot that never quite melted.” ( 9).
While the mixtures of folk are indeed converging on Texas, what amounts to a listing is merely that. The story isn’t about immigrants converging on Texas. It is rather about the good and bad Americans with their big wagons and the good and bad Mexicans with their big ox-carts. The two groups collide. Never the twain shall meet.
Canfield, who speaks Spanish and depends on Amadore to be in charge of Mexican carters, notes “Some Mexicans will lie to you, cheat you, kill you. But some whites will do the same. What’s the difference?” (9). It is the land that offers both groups the same challenges.
Bitter Trail (1997) mixes the good/bad of Anglo and Mexican, but in a slightly different way. Two characters have borrowed accoutrements, even names, from each other’s culture, producing a hybrid found in other of Kelton’s early works. Frio Wheeler, an Anglo with a Spanish first name, wearing a flat brimmed black American hat asks a question of “Sombreroed Blas Talamantes,” a Mexican with an Anglo first name, or at least it sounds Anglo. Blas turns “in his big horned Mexican saddle” (1). Frio touches his “big-rowled Mexican spurs to his sorrel’s ribs” (1) His skin “was burned Mexican-brown from sun” in his blue eyes (1). Blas Talamentes wears Mexican “leather breeches decorated with lacing” (1). They have borrowed until it’s hard to tell them apart. “Wheeler was patron and Talamente was the man hired. But they were compadres though hard to tell patron from empleado”(2). What they wear and the equipment they use has to do with adapting to the conditions of Place—sun, heat, stickers, rocks, sand. Even their work relationship is blurred because it takes what each knows about the land to keep them both alive; a partnership to combat both the place and the gang stealing Frio’s carts and mules. Who? Florencio Chapa and his bandidos, muy malo, composed partly of Gringos, one of which used to be Frio’s best friend. Both groups already know how to cope with the land, but it is still a region where both contend for right-of-way.
While the earlier novels, only two of which are cited among the many, take notice of the land and its effects on characters, it is in the later novels wherein the “bitterly beautiful land” marks many of the characters. The Wolf and the Buffalo is the premiere example of race and ethnicity—Mexican, Black, Anglo, Comanche, Cavalry, horse culture, slave culture, new-comer, ancient dwellers, women — who converge on the rugged Southern Plains.
The work contains not one story but two, as Lawrence Clayton explains in an Afterword to the 1986 reprint by TCU Press:
In a sense, The Wolf and the Buffalo is two novels skillfully interwoven to create a sympathetic picture of two quite different cultures locked in a fight to the death. One of these stories follows a young Negro, Gideon Ledbetter, out of slavery in Louisiana after the Civil War ends and into the role of a black cavalryman, one of those the Indians called buffalo soldiers because their black curly hair resembled the shaggy bison or buffalo. Ledbetter serves most of his time in the Tenth U.S. Cavalry stationed at Fort Concho, located in present-day San Angelo. Through him, Kelton depicts the plight of a freed but still socially inferior man with the drive and ability to succeed when given a chance; the cavalry gives him that chance (422).
The second story centers on Gray Horse, a Comanche whose tribes still rule the Southern Plains during the same time frame when Gideon appears.
It is Gray Horse who takes center stage in the first chapter as he seeks a vision for his life that will allow him to go into battle for his people; in essence become a man. The totem, a wolf, appears as his guide and he receives a spiritual connection to the animal. Other images appear and become tangled in the foretelling of his future in ways he cannot understand but make themselves clear as the story unfolds.
To the Plains Indians, certain landscapes are sacred. Such is the case for Gray Horse when he goes to the place called the Double Mountains to seek his vision that will guide his life. He knows “the spirits would surely seek out the high points” (4).
The label, mountains, calls to mind greener, cooler climes, but such is not the case in West Texas. The rugged steeps are covered in gravel, rocks, boulders, low growing brush, and prickly pear. Adept as Gray Horse is in coping with rough country, he injures himself seriously when he loses his footing:
“Gray Horse was almost to the top when the loose gravel slipped beneath his moccasins. He slid on his stomach, moving faster as he went down. The sharp rocks gouged and ripped at him. … He slammed his left leg against a boulder and stopped” (7). After inching his way to a “small patch of short, dry grass” he pulled “it up by handfuls,” “wadded it tightly and pressed it against the wound,” stopping the bleeding (7).
Against all odds, the questing man makes it to the top of the treacherous incline where a “warm wind—almost hot” and typical of wind conditions in such places, blows against his wound, causing healing to begin.
Later, he comes upon prickly pear cactus:
Gingerly, avoiding the bigger thorns, he cut away several of the pear pads, impaled them on a stick and carried them back to his waiting place on the rimrock. Using a sharp-edged flint knife, he sliced a pad open, laid it across the gash as a poultice and tied it in place with a soft leather string. Though he had cut away the large thorns, his fingertips were pierced by the tiny ones, most no larger than a human hair but wickedly sharp and persistent. Some unkind spirit had armed the prickly pear with many weapons for self-defense, as it had done with the mesquite and many forms of brush, and the other kinds of cactus. All these plants were useful, but all extracted a payment. The tiny thorns would bedevil him for days, taking their small revenge (12-13).
It is in the place of the Double Mountains that Gray Horse receives the wolf-medicine from dreams, visions, signs, and images brought on by extreme hunger and thirst that cause hallucination. It is the land that both critically injures him but also restores him because he knows how to listen and see into the sacred places as well as make use of the land to sustain and heal himself—the same kinds of conditions that Gideon Ledbetter faces with far different results. Gray Horse notices little to concern him or his people.
Others such as the Texas Rangers or the Comancheros, neither of which are intimidated by either the land or the Comanche, were “always transient, always strangers in an inhospitable land that rejected them quickly” (167). He is confident the Buffalo Soldiers fall into the same category.
Gideon Ledbetter and even Jimbo enter the military as blank slates waiting to be written on. Coming from the southern slave culture where they are used to being told what to do and never asked to think for themselves, they also come from an entirely different kind of ecology and land mass. Accustomed to the vertical perspective of looking up and down because they are surrounded by trees, forests, thick understory providing shade and the comforts of forests—reliable water sources, wood for fires and building shelter, domesticated animals for food such as pigs, chickens, milk cows, but not necessarily beef—the woods confine perspective. Living on a plantation surrounded by the boundaries of that culture yet never partaking except for taking orders, Gideon and Jimbo are tools.
Both enter the world of horizontal perspectives—the Plains, where the only constant is space. And a good part of the story notices Gideon’s trouble with it. Taken apart from the plot and action of the story, the effects of the solitary land make a personal story in itself and mark the changes in Gideon from being completely unsure of himself in such an environment to complete confidence in commanding himself and others.
As it turns out, Jimbo has little trouble adapting to cavalry life because he has been a groom for the master; he is a master of horses. He “spoke two languages, English and horse.” In his position, if one can call it that, Jimbo was able to think for himself and make decisions and his judgment was reliable and trusted when it came to horseflesh.
Horses and horse culture were central to both Indian life and Cavalry life. They were beasts of burden and means of transportation; carried warriors and military into battle; accepted as barter and for buying things such as wives, or given as gifts by the Plains Indians. Or used as shields to fight behind or for eating if necessity arose.
Gideon has neither Jimbo’s experience or the Comanche life-way to cope with the distance and space that surrounds him. Gideon never comes to complete comfort in the saddle, but it affords him confidence in a way he never quite acknowledges. Several passages allude to his maturing opinion about the country, his admiration of it, yet no mention is made except casually about his horse: “The immensity of this country, the most incomprehensible distances, seemed overpowering to him, fearsome yet strangely exhilarating”(50); yet he is terrified that Indians are watching him, hidden in all that space and ready to attack. It is the space more than human presence that assaults him.
Later in the story when Gideon comes across two dead soldiers who have met their fate because of stupid mistakes, he is sickened yet feels “that unaccountable soaring of spirit when he had faced his enemies. He would always respect this country and its dangers, but he would never be afraid of it again. He stood up to its challenge, and he had prevailed” (115).
On patrol and out of the safety of the fort, Gideon responds to his present state of affairs:
Every hill he climbed spread a fresh and different scene before him. It was not a planned and ordered land, with houses and fields and well-defined roads, but a new and unspoiled country with a random scattering of creeks and rivers, of mountains and prairies violated by only a few twin-rut military roads hard to distinguish from the buffalo trails that led to water, when there was any (130).
Sometimes Gideon had the feeling that he had set foot there the day after God had finished it, for man had made little mark upon it. The Indian neither built nor tore down, and the whiteman, for the most part, had not yet claimed it (131).
His fear for this big open land had left him. But the awe remained (131)
On the same journey, the unit passes the last water and moves into even more impressive landscape.
The semi-arid flatlands which sloped gradually westward toward the Pecos River, harsh and inhospitable. Grass was sparse, and trees did not grow at all, except for a scattering of the indomitable mesquite. … Great open flats were covered by low shrubs like the lotebush and the greasewood, and on harder ground, up the sides of arid stony hills, grew a wicked-looking cactus plant whose curled leaves grew in a circular pattern with the sharpness and toughness of short, bent swords” called lechugilla (131).
Hollander pauses with a sense of excitement as he is able to mark a waterhole not on the map. At this point Gideon recognizes the feeling Gray Horse, whom he has never encountered except in battle, has always been aware of:
A chill played on Gideon’s spine as he realized they had moved onto that mysterious land known as ‘the plains.’ Men talked of it in the same mystic tones they applied to heaven and hell. The horizon line appeared level, without a tree, a hill, anything to break the flatness of it. Up there, somewhere beyond the shimmering heat waves, lay some dark and hidden stronghold known only to Comanche and Kiowa. Few white men had done more than guess at what it was like, for nature guarded it even more fiercely than the Indian (134).
Later, when the troops return to town, Gideon’s transformation is complete.
Small as it was, that town frightened him more than the half-explored Indian lands that stretched almost to infinity beyond it. He had tasted that land now. For all its strangeness, its continuous threat of disaster, it produced a stimulation he had never known before. Out there he seemed set free from the constraints of his blackness. The land made equal demands upon all men and neither gave credit nor demanded extra for their color (145).
It is just as Gideon begins his ascent into a full understanding of his potential and power in what amounts to a new world for him, Gray Horse rapidly descends from the very same place that lets him down, destroys his medicine, shows all his visions, dreams, of buffalo, a red calf, and wolf to be revealed as signs of his own and his people’s destruction. He recognizes that “Visions were seldom exactly like life. And life was almost never like the visions” (401).
Just before his death, Gray Horse returns to the place, the Double Mountains, where his manhood began, to the place “he could see this great land in one long, sweeping glance that reminded him forcefully how much the People had truly lost” (406).
Only when the setting is fully defined and the characters’ places in that setting clearly established does the novel move into more action, plot, denouement, and conclusion. Skirmishes, rescue, the last combat with desert and thirst, death of cavalry black and white, their mounts, the disintegration of Gray Horse’s band, death of his son, and betrayal of his totems takes precedence over Place.
Certainly examples of convergence of Buffalo Soldier and Comanche are pronounced in the novel, but others are present, too. Different varieties of women appear at Fort Concho or in town. Mexican women are merely used as prostitutes and never appear in traditional roles. In fact, Mexicans play no part in the story beyond servicing the needs of soldiers, or as sources for Comanche raids into Mexico. None are even given names. Hannah York is a slave to Granny, also black, who farms her out both as a prostitute and housekeeper for Elizabeth Thomas. Hannah engages in a star-crossed love affair with Gideon. Elizabeth, wife of the commander of the post, “tries diligently to present a symbol of polite civilization as she remembered or imagined that civilization to be. She was an island of gentility in a huge, rough wilderness, a tiny candle in a dark night, a reminder to those who saw her that somewhere life was—or had been—different” (73). Such a description indicates Elizabeth’s response to this isolated military post in the middle of a desert wilderness with all its hardships.
There is Adeline Rutledge, sister of a soldier, who comes to visit the post, and sets her cap for Lieutenant Hollander who has been rejected earlier by a woman because he commands a black unit in the wastelands of the west. Adeline is already schooled in military life and not subject to dictates of Victorian female notions. In fact, none of the females in Kelton’s story have any problems with life on the plains primarily because they are schooled as military wives and sweethearts or were prairie and plains born such as Green Willow. The few who might have proved examples of convergence stayed home.
There is always the feeling that people of drought-driven plains and desert whether born there or converging there are superior, better to know because they have scraped up against such hard country, been shaped and disciplined by it and endure. Kelton takes some pride, it seems to me, in illustrating what happens to some characters and how they are perceived when taken out of their natural element; or better yet, when they come into the region because of circumstances of choice or chance. Consider Gideon Ledbetter and Jimbo, who come not only from the South, but from a slave culture; Victor Underwood (HAD), accused of being a college professor who comes to the oil fields to wildcat; or Big Boy Daugherty from East Texas who aims to kill; or Irish who had spent his childhood in East Dallas. These are only a few examples of many. Sometimes, within the racial depictions, Kelton explorers the types within a race, socio-economic distinctions and levels, values, customs, ways of living—all different in their likenesses. Then he lets that mixture touch, come together, collide, change, adapt—or not.
Kelton makes the case that the land, the place he writes about inspires contentiousness, causing us to notice that the harder, more deprived the land, the more contentious some become. It is a land with so much space that people feel compelled to fight about it, are determined to conquer the silence, penetrate the mysteries and thus lay claim to a region they would rather die than give up. Moisture in any terms but sweat and saliva is suspect. Niggardly rain taunts and teases. The land punishes native, invader, and even itself it seems. It is the land of the rain shadow—the east side of mountain ranges where moisture pushed by cooling winds is stingy. Yet, Kelton, with words, romances the rain shadow, tells such compelling stories about the Place and the people who inhabit it that we fall under the spell of the forbidding territory. While we suffer and are even repulsed by such a region, we often fall in love with it and make it our own because a great story-teller bids us do so.
Kelton’s body of work provides cultural filters through which a reader may view Place. Anglo, European, Plains Indian, Mexican each with wide variety within their ethnic perspectives of gender, age, temperament, work, and way of life matter. Carrying the cultural baggage of their individual history and folklore provides three dimensional folk who act as seines to catch and hold the metaphor of the journey through a particular time period. Transportation in the form of horses serves as yet another filter wherein viewing the land from the back of a horse or from a wagon seat provides the reader a means of traversing the word-landscape; of viewing it from a loftier and better vantage point. The story-teller makes use of all these notions to sell such forbidding territory—his home.
Certainly others romance the Place with not only words, but in art, photography, music and song, films, exhibits, even advertising, giving it like offerings to hold forever the spirit and mystery of Place, the myth and legend. Because people—good, decent, mean, indecent, warts and all—populate the wasteland, still converge there, a kind of hope and promise prevails even as we watch government, finance, agriculture, and we, ourselves, destroy it one way or the other. Elmer Kelton recognized it, knew that the end result of Manifest Destiny still at work today turns out to be one more lesson in destruction and annihilation. But that is never the writer’s message. Hope springs eternal even knowing that if rain comes can drought be far behind. Against all odds, the brown and withered dessert and plains appear technicolored under his hand.
Now, Elmer Kelton, story-teller emeritus, has converged with the very earth he so knowingly extolled and rests in his bitterly beautiful land. To say that he will be missed is gross understatement. To say that he and his time and place live forever through his words, is hardly hyperbole.
Works referenced or cited:
This Bitterly Beautiful Land: A Texas Commonplace Book, 1972; ed. Al Lowman; intro by Carl Hertzog, color woodcuts by Barbara Whitehead, publishers Holman and Beacham
Elmer Kelton and West Texas, by Judy Alter, TCU Press, 1988
Eyes of the Hawk, Forge, 1998
Bitter Trail, Forge, 1997
This Place of Memory: A Texas Perspective; UNT Press, 1992; ed. Joyce Roach; “What’s Wrong With Being Different?” Elmer Kelton
Texian Stompin’ Grounds, 1941, Texas folklore Society publication
Stand Proud, Forge, 2001
Man Who Rode Midnight, TCU Press, Afterword Kenneth Davis, 1990
The Wolf and the Buffalo, TCU Press, 1986, Afterword by Lawrence Clayton,1980
Honor at Daybreak, TCU Press, 1991, TCU Press, 2002
The Time It Never Rained, 1973, TCU Press, 1984
Sandhills Boy: The Winding Trail of a Texas Writer, Forge, 2007