I would rather read than write. Until a few weeks ago, because of a yearlong commitment, I had precious little time to read for pleasure. The stacks of books that I had been hoarding against this time overwhelmed me. One of the first ones that I unearthed was Elmer Kelton’s memoir Sandhills Boy – The Winding Trail of a Texas Writer, published in 2007.
Kelton’s father, born in 1901, was a third-generation West Texas cowboy. Elmer’s brother Myrle, who I met on one of Buster Welch’s roundups, was a fourth-generation cowboy. But Elmer Kelton, now 82, went a different route. He rounded up readers and transported them back to a time and place where people had a strong sense of the value of work in spite of the harsh realities of Mother Nature and the advances of modern technology.
“Dad valued physical labor but distrusted indoor work,” wrote Kelton. “He did not acknowledge that anyone sitting at a desk was actually working. He liked to see some tangible end product of labor, whether it be cattle for the market, a crop of cotton, a straight fence, a meal on the table, or even a proper shine on a pair of boots. A pile of papers did not count, for these could not be eaten, worn, ridden or driven.”
I was introduced to Kelton’s writing by Buster Welch, another avid reader. Kelton is best known for his fiction – his peers in the Western Writers of America voted him the “Best Western Writer of All Time” – and Buster recommended that I read Kelton’s novel The Time It Never Rained, whose protagonist, Charlie Webb, struggles against severe drought and bureaucratic restrictions in West Texas of the 1950s.
“In a broad sense this book is dedicated to the old-time Western ranchman, whose life style gave him an inkling of Heaven and more than his proper share of Hell,” wrote Kelton in the introduction to The Time It Never Rained. “In particular it is dedicated to my father, Buck Kelton … one of them.”
If you haven’t read Kelton, you may have seen the 1995 TNT movie of Kelton’s novels, The Good Old Boys, directed by and starring Tommy Lee Jones, who also starred in No Country for Old Men, awarded the Academy Award as best picture of 2007.
If you love good books about the American West – fiction or non-fiction – doesn’t pass up Elmer Kelton.