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Check It Out

Courier Articles by Sandy Schultheis
Sunday, October 1, 2000

Stories of Western Life Evoke the Wide Open Spaces Books About the West

As a transplant from the Far West I often find myself longing for the wide open spaces and the big skies. Usually a trip to California with its fast traffic and long lines makes me appreciate the slower pace of life in the Mid-West, but after twenty years in this area I am still drawn to books set in the West that evoke a sense of place, a philosophy of life and which feature regional characters reminiscent of those I once knew, whether ranchers or outdoorsmen or small town eccentrics. Today's column is a joint effort with Red Bank Reader's Advisor Becky Browning , who is recommending the last three titles. These and many other books about the West, as well as other geographical regions are available through your public library.

Cactus Tracks and Cowboy Philosophy by Baxter Black (Crown, 1997).

I can't remember when I first heard Baxter Black on NPR but it must have been in the late 1980's when he first began his occasional commentaries on life in the West. This is an anthology of his radio commentaries and poems from 1988 through 1996. Many of these stories were familiar to me but I was surprised to see how many I had never heard. When I hear Baxter I am reminded of my childhood growing up in a rural place with lots of animals, and the attendant veterinarians, farriers and stockmen and I can appreciate his take on life. When Baxter came to Mt. Vernon in 1993 many of us had the opportunity to see him in person. I was surprised to find that while Baxter is entertaining on the radio, he has to be seen in person to be truly appreciated. Baxter is really a one-man show and he will be appearing in Evansville on October 20 to raise funds for the Public Library Friends.

Colter: The True Story of the Best Dog I Ever Had by Rick Bass (Houghton Mifflin, 2000).

This lovely, poetic book, written from a naturalist's point of view, captures the essence of what dogs do. Too many people get a dog and then are dismayed because the dog digs, barks, jumps, or is too rambunctious. What they so often forget is that dogs are held hostage by their genes: beagles roam, shelties and border collies bark, nip and herd, terriers dig, and German shorthair pointers, like the Colter of this book, love to hunt. Fortunately for Colter, Bass recognizes his dog's "genius" as a hunter and allows him to develop to his fullest potential. The living, breathing landscape of Montana serves as the backdrop for this story of dog love at its very, very best.

Close Range: Wyoming Stories by Annie Proulx (Scribner, 1999).

Proulx won the Pulitzer Prize in 1993 for The Shipping News; too bad, the committee should have saved the prize for this short story collection. It is simply the best writing that I have "experienced" in a long, long time. The stories are difficult in the sense they require the reader take long, hard looks at brutal, unforgiving environments of the so-called New West, peopled with characters whose lives are " fast rides that end up in the mud." Even so, these stories will hold you spellbound. The prose is all the more stunning if read aloud and the unabridged audio version offers the voices of different narrators who work their own special magic in the telling of these tales.

All the Pretty Horses by Cormac McCarthy (Knopf, 1992).

McCarthy is making a name for himself in contemporary American literature, being compared to William Faulkner and Herman Melville. Simply put, this book recounts the adventures of three young Texas boys who set out for Mexico in search of adventure. What they find becomes a mesmerizing tale of courage, heartbreak and coming of age. The last 50 pages have been described as "breathtaking." This is a book that meets all the criteria for a great read; a dynamite story that is written by a master craftsman. All the Pretty Horses won the National Book Award in 1992, and will soon be made into a movie starring Matt Damon. There is also an unabridged audio version which is read by the masterful Frank Muller.

Sandy Schultheis is a librarian with the Evansville-Vanderburgh Public Library. The opinions expressed in this column are personal and do not reflect policies or official recommendations of EVPL.