Books: Reading the West

As summer approaches, there’s more than a little appeal in turning to books that celebrate the natural world and the people who protect it. These new books offer glimpses of the best that the West has to offer. They take us on trips into the past, and celebrate the myths and legends of American history by turning to the lives of some of its most notable inhabitants.

Glorious Times: Adventures of the Craighead Naturalists by Tom Benjey (University of Montana Press, $18.95) tells the story of the legendary Craighead family, drawing from American history and genealogical research — and personal interviews, family diaries, and the public record — to paint a picture of the men who helped to save the Yellowstone grizzly and the woman who introduced us to Julie and her wolves.

The best-known Craigheads were Frank Jr. and John, twin brothers, and their sister, the multiple-award-winning children’s book author, Jean Craighead George. Frank Jr. and John were naturalists probably best known for their work in the 1960s that led to the closing of Yellowstone National Park’s garbage dumps in order to discourage grizzly bears from seeking food from humans. Glorious Times reveals many more of their adventures, from a six-week trip through Grand Teton in the 1930s to their extensive work in falconry. Jean’s novels, which include the Newbery Honor Book, My Side of the Mountain, and the Newbery Award Winner, Julie of the Wolves, reveal the rich inner worlds that can come to readers and writers who embrace nature and protect it. All of the siblings’ work is put into context in this fascinating biography of the family as a whole.

Benjey’s work is an ambitious history, tracing the family from the late 18th century to the present. Although the book is roughly chronological, Benjey resists a strict timeline approach. He has done his research well, tracking details and presenting them in a context that demonstrates his grasp of the biographer’s art as well as historical research. But the central theme of the family as nature lovers and early conservationists (before conservation was even a thing) rings through. This is a family history that is also a good story — and readers who are familiar with the conservation work of the Craighead brothers and Jean’s fiction will enjoy this deeper look at their early lives and personalities. The insights that Benjey offers are thought provoking and evocative.

Mark Spitzer takes readers on an epic adventure in his Beautifully Grotesque Fish of the American West (Bison Books, $24.95), noodling for giant catfish in Oklahoma, then ice fishing for burbot in Utah, and going after Asian carp in Kansas. At times hilarious, Spitzer pokes fun at his own hubris and mocks the hilarious appearances and absurd biology of the species that make up his quarry, while offering thoughtful commentary on rare species, what it means to be invasive, and the dynamics of human relationships with these creatures. With a similar verve, but with less imposed drama than television’s “River Monsters” (Spitzer has been a consultant on the show), he manages to put the reader in the center of the action.

Many of the fish that Spitzer goes in search of are the villains in their own little ecological tales of terror. A trip to Washington involves the bounty hunt for pikeminnow, a predator species that has had devastating effects on local salmon fisheries. But what makes Spitzer’s quest for these fish and his commentary on them effective — for anglers and non-anglers alike — is the context that he gives each species and its place in the ecosystem. Pikeminnow, for example, is an endangered fish in the Colorado basin, where fisheries are making efforts to rebuild populations after more than a century of loss. But its cousin in the Pacific Northwest is reviled because of its effect on other fish and on the economy. In the Midwest, Asian carp and snakehead have also had massive impacts on business, tourism, and other fish. Spitzer’s giddy eagerness to go after these species takes a reflective turn. In Kansas, he has to “tone down [his excitement] a bit, to avoid appearing anxious to capitalize on their state’s misfortune.” And tone it down, he does. His commentary on the Asian carp — and his ideas about how to deal with its effects in the region — is both thoughtful and creative.

On the other hand, he doesn’t restrain his giddiness when going after muskellunge in Minnesota, or attending the festivals and derbies centered on the species he seeks. His enthusiasm comes through in his commentary about the edibility of his prey, as well. Evidently, burbot boiled in 7-Up is delicious. Altogether engaging and entertaining, the text is accompanied by photos of the grotesques and the people who delight in them, plus line art of the species that highlight their unusual shapes (alligator gar and paddlefish truly are bizarre); these swim about on the pages (unless they are floating upside down). This is a book that beautifully navigates the space between entertainment and information. Moments will stick with readers, and will make them look at the fish and fisheries with new eyes.

Dodge City: Wyatt Earp, Bat Masterson, and the Wickedest Town in the American West by Tom Clavin (St. Martin’s, $29.99) is one of those history titles that immediately captures the imagination, and is heaped with praise for revealing the “true” story. Few places are as steeped in myth and legend as the little city on the western edge of Kansas, populated by folks like Bat Masterson and Wyatt Earp. With years’ worth of television episodes, movies, and books devoted to the history of the place — both revealing it, and creating it from whole cloth in some cases — it’s hard to imagine how new ground might be broken. But Clavin has managed it, giving a backstory to the men and women who made the small settlement on the prairie worthy of legend and providing a lens through which the importance of places like Dodge City in Western history can be better understood.

By the 1870s, Dodge City — named for a fort that had been established in the region after the Civil War, one in a succession of such forts going back to the 1830s — was a bustling part of the Western economy because of its importance to the great cattle drives of the late 19th century. It became a crossroads for cowboys and emigrants, and a hotbed of violence. Some of the most famous names in Western history were part of its growing up. Today, it’s a small city in Western Kansas, not unlike many small cities on the Great Plains. And it wasn’t unique for its time. Clavin’s goal in this new book — to uncover why Dodge City mattered in popular culture, why it captured the public’s imagination then, and why we still remember it today — is what lifts this book out of the well-trodden territory of tales of cowboys, loose women, outlaws, and lawmen in the Old West. Clavin dredges up the stories and legends, then reveals truths and tales that only serve to enhance them. His masterful storytelling makes this a history that reads like a James Michener novel, drawing together threads from the earliest records and evidence available, combined with the vast storehouse of contemporary research and a healthy respect for imagination. Put together, he manages to offer a biography of a place that shows how well earned the myths and legends are.


Stories from Afield: Adventures with Wild Things in Wild Places by Bruce L. Smith (Bison Books, $18.95) offers up a wild selection of tales from the writer, wildlife biologist, and conservationist’s life spent questing after North America’s big game across its diverse and thrilling landscapes. Smith’s experiences in the field run the gamut from surviving a winter stranded in the mountains after a helicopter crash, to following mountain goats along their narrow, cliffside trails. Smith’s affection for and fascination with wilderness and its inhabitants is the theme on which this collection hangs. It’s infectious and inspiring, and his storytelling makes this an excellent contribution to the genre.

John Gierach’s new collection of essays on fishing and life, A Fly Rod of Your Own (Simon & Schuster, $25) is a similarly entertaining collection of recollections and musings on a life spent outdoors with unpredictable beasts. Gierach’s writing on fly fishing is deservedly revered — and this book does not disappoint. At times funny, it also offers his trademark thoughtfulness and the appreciation for his own life that always comes through in his works, from his gentle humor about the annoyance of having to sleep far from his fishing buddy’s snores, to his reflection on the time the pontoon plane he was on in the Canadian bush almost didn’t clear the trees. “Given the time to think it over I might have concluded that this was a better place than most to check out, but in the moment I just thought it was all happening too fast.” Gierach manages self-deprecation, and yet inspires envy and perhaps a bit more fishing. He’s an ambassador for the sport and for the wilderness itself.

Stranded: A Story of Frontier Survival (Five Star Publishing, $25.95) is award-winning novelist Matthew P. Mayo’s latest compelling read set in the frontier West. The story of 14-year-old Janette Riker’s harrowing winter alone in the Northern Rockies after losing her father and brothers — which is based on a true story — effectively puts the reader in Riker’s well-worn shoes. Her story, a feat requiring ingenuity and imagination in spades, has an authentic and moving voice. Told through Riker’s diary entries during her months of frozen solitude, the book benefits from meticulous research and matter-of-fact reporting about a young woman in desperate straits, making this a compelling read. From her simple statement, “I have only two concerns — food and fire. Fire and food,” to the revelation of her certain knowledge that if she can’t manage to kill for food, she won’t need her fire, each chapter deals with the minute details of a day of survival. Flights of fancy are few, and the immediacy of her peril grabs the reader on every page.

Craig Lancaster’s seventh novel, Julep Street (Missouri Breaks Press, $14.95) introduces readers to another of his wonderful, anti-hero characters. In this case, the long newspaper career of Carson McCullough is over, and he’s left adrift, so he sets off on a journey of discovery with his yellow Lab, Hector. Man, dog, and car are the building blocks of many a novel or memoir. In this case, the inner world of the fictional newspaperman, who is not a newspaperman any longer, inhabits a novel that walks right up to cliché, embraces it, and turns it into a moving story of a man at a loss for what his future holds as he tries to come to peace with his past. Lancaster’s facility with characters and dialogue, and his great gift for the quirky, make taking the journey with Carson and Hector a worthwhile trip.

Robert Osborn’s The Cowboys of Central Montana: 50 Portraits (Montana Arts Books, $65) preserves images of the American cowboy and a way of life that seems to slip further and further away with each passing year. The design of this book is simplicity itself. Fifty rich and detailed black and white images of cowboys and cowgirls (though cow-women seems a better word) look out at the reader from unadorned pages, lightly annotated with the names of the subjects and the locations and dates of their photographs.

The beauty of the photographs makes each page a moment in an art gallery, inviting the reader to pause and study the wrinkles and folds of fabric even while opening up the imagination to thoughts of each life story. For every “old timer” pictured in this book, there’s a young face that represents the future or a family portrait that hints at the heritage of the area and the longevity of the ranching lifestyle. Weathered wood and weathered faces provide the context, while the unwrinkled brows of young mutton busters preserve the past even while looking toward the future.

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