Friday, June 25, 2010

Friday Forgotten Book: Sandhills Boy by Elmer Kelton

I'm taking a leap here by choosing this book as a Friday Forgotten Book, because it's hard to imagine that Elmer Kelton would ever write anything that would be considered forgotten. But the vast majority of this very popular author's books have been fiction - most of them in the western genre - so I bet that a lot of his readers don't know that he wrote a memoir. I also decided to write this review because the one year anniversary of Kelton's passing is coming up in August.

Published in 2007, SANDHILLS BOY covers Kelton's early years on the family ranch as well as his years as a soldier in World War II, meeting his wife in Austria and their life after Anni emigrated to Texas to be Elmer's wife.

That's the book in a nutshell. Written in the simple and clear prose, always self-effacing, he writes simply and with love on growing up on a cattle ranch. Kelton does touch on some personal battles he encountered along the way, such as his lack of self-esteem, but the account reads like an cultural and social history of Texas ranch life as opposed to a personal history. But that doesn't mean that it doesn't have merit as a memoir - quite the opposite in my opinion. Kelton's ability to keep the spotlight off of himself and instead on the people around him - his family, the other workers, their neighbors - makes this a remarkable account of Texas life and a very important book for anyone who is interested in early 20th century cowboy life. It also says a lot about this man who preferred to talk about all of the people around him than himself -Kelton was modest and unassuming all the way to the end.

Just as remarkable is Kelton's account of meeting his wife, Anni Lipp, while stationed in Austria at the end of the war. Kelton knew just a little German. Anni knew no English, and to make it worse, was suspicious of soldiers and had parents who disliked American soldiers even more. On the day they met, when Kelton left, Anni and her parents assumed they would never hear from him again. They didn't know this determined young man from Texas. Kelton returned and, until he had to ship out, continued to court Anni. The minute he returned to the United States, Kelton's top priority was finding a way to get Anni to the U.S. so they could marry.

After the war, Kelton, even though suffering from low self-esteem and the lack of approval from his father, stuck to the writing business and struggled to become a successful fiction writer, despite his father's distrust of anyone who would choose such a dubious way to make a living:

Dad valued physical labor but distrusted indoor work. 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.


James Reasoner, another fine Western writer, wrote a review of SANDHILLS BOY back in 2008. In the review he writes of his father, who had the same prejudices that Kelton's father did towards writers, and how a meeting between his father and Kelton at a Western Writer's Association conference changed all that.

I've always been endeared to Kelton because I've been told that he grew up reading my grandfather's stories in WILD WEST WEEKLY, and in particular Sonny Tabor stories. So I was a little disappointed when he mentioned reading pulp magazines when he was a young boy but didn't mention WILD WEST WEEKLY in particular. But he does mention later that when he started to seriously consider fiction writing for a living, he was given a "bag full of old pulps" and studied them judiciously to get the technique down. I bet there was a Paul Powers pulp or two in there somewhere. He does write of his association with editor Fanny Ellsworth, editor of RANCH ROMANCES, who published his first stories.

Kelton doesn't write as much about his career once he became an established writer. But he does talk of his early novel publications and the disappointment in that he couldn't get a publisher for his pride and joy, THE TIME IT NEVER RAINED, based on the long drought of the 1950s in Texas. Make no mistake, this book is about Kelton's young life and meeting the love of his life and it is frequently nostaglic. Still, I thought it was highly entertaining and I think it's definitely worth reading.

Friday's Forgotten Books is hosted by Patti Abbott over at her blog pattinase. Please go there to find who else has written Forgotten Book reviews.

19 comments:

pattinase (abbott) said...

At a bookstore last week, I saw several memoirs of growing up in the west and wondered what was a good one. And here it is.

Laurie Powers said...

Patti, if you didn't know already, Buddies in the Saddle - http://buddiesinthesaddle.blogspot.com/ - recently posted a list of cowboy memoirs that lists many memoirs from those that grew up in the west in the 20th century. Definitely worth checking out.

George said...

SANDHILLS BOY sounds wonderful! I'm ordering it now!

Bill Crider said...

This one just came out in mass-market paperback. I picked it up at Wal-Mart last week.

Travis Erwin said...

I had the good fortune to meet Mr. Kelton at our local conference ten years or so ago and after hearing his stories I really would enjoy reading this. Will look for it soon.

Laurie Powers said...

George and Travis, see Bill's message about it being out in paperback now.

So Bill, I guess that because it's now in MMP mean it's not a forgotten book. Oh well, too late. I'm glad I did the review anyway.

Ron Scheer said...

Thanks, Laurie, for this fine review of Kelton's book. When I read the book, I expected something more like your grandfather's memoir - about the man's life as a writer. I was surprised by how much he devoted to his courtship and marriage.

He also did not play up his cowboy credentials. Instead he's apologetic about not being very good at it (that's his father's judgment, I think, after all these years). Self-effacing, he's been described as a "Texas gentleman," and for those of us who haven't met many, this book provides a real example.

Walker Martin said...

Elmer Kelton was a Guest of Honor at Pulpcon 28 in Dayton, Ohio in 1999. Gee Laurie, you came in to the pulps too late. You missed Robert Harris and Elmer Kelton both.

Laurie Powers said...

Ron, it was very telling that he didn't play up his cowboy credentials yet the entire first part of the book is about how much he learned growing up on the ranch. A true Texas gentleman, yes.

Walker, arriving too late is the story of my life. Nothing new here.

Deka Black said...

As a European, Texas for me is many things. In my chilhood is the land of cowboys, high noon duels and the horse of the villain, who is always slower than the one of the hero.

Now, i see Texas as a very important part of world history. Aland what is cradle of legends and fact more amazing even than the legends himself.

Well, and thew birthplace of my most beleoved writer: Robert Ervin Howard ;)

Is always good learn about Texas.

Richard R. said...

Very interesting, from the sound of it. This sounds like the kind of biography that tells much more than the life, it reveals the times, and that's always fascinating. Good one!

Richard R. said...

by the way, Laurie, I'm not seeing the graphic, just a rectangle with a ? in it. Not sure if it's my end or yours...

Laurie Powers said...

Thanks, Deka and Rick. Rick, the graphic shows up on my PC using both Internet Explorer and Firefox.

Deka Black said...

^^ About the graphic... Sometimes i have the same problem, but is fixed hitting F5 and reloading the page.

Ron Scheer said...

By the way, notice how the photo of Kelton on the cover is a perfect example of how to buy a CB hat. The front of it is the mirror image of the shape of his face. (That's my rule of thumb anyway for hat shopping.)

James Reasoner said...

Watching Elmer and my dad sit in a hotel lobby and talk for an hour is one of my favorite memories. A couple of real gentlemen, to be sure.

Evan Lewis said...

Outstanding review, ma'am.

Laurie Powers said...

If anyone else has trouble loading up the graphics on my pages, let me know. Sometimes I upload pics and scans that are really huge files so maybe that's the problem. But this book cover was small, so I don't know why that would not show up.

Ron, I did NOT know that about buying a cowboy hat.

James, I loved your review of this book.

Thanks, Evan!

Richard R. said...

Now in Firefox and still no graphic but that's okay. And no, reloading the page doesn't help, it was the first thing I tried. Doesn't matter, I just thought I'd stop bck by and check with another browser. (Doesn't show using Chrome, either.)