Sunday, October 27, 2013
FAVORITE WESTERN SHORT STORY by ROD MILLER
“It seemed to the young Englishman that if anyone had been watching from the bench he would have seen them like a print of Life on the Western Plains….”
So begins my favorite Western short story, “Genesis” by Wallace Stegner. Those are the thoughts of the tale’s central character, Lionel “Rusty” Cullen, a 19-year-old Englishman who migrated to the cattle country of Saskatchewan in search of adventure. His musing reveals that by 1906, when the story is set, dime novels and the art of Charles M. Russell, Edward Borein, Frederic Remington, and others had already romanticized the Old West and made the cowboy a mythical figure. For Rusty, and the reader, this story corrects those notions.
“Genesis” is a long story, 82 pages tucked into the middle of the memoir of the author’s childhood days in Eastend, Saskatchewan, Wolf Willow. Stegner, born in 1909, said he “lived in twenty places in eight states and Canada,” spending his developmental years in Eastend, Great Falls, Montana (where he mowed Charles M. Russell’s lawn), and Salt Lake City, Utah. He ran the creative writing program at Stanford for many years, teaching several noted Western writers including Edward Abbey, Thomas McGuane, Ken Kesey, and Larry McMurtry. His novel Angle of Repose won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction in 1972, The Spectator Bird won the National Book Award in 1977, and he claimed three O. Henry Awards for short fiction. Stegner died in 1993.
But, back to “Genesis.” It didn’t take Rusty long to realize his romantic notions of cowboy life were misguided.
“Already, within a day, Rusty felt how circumstances had hardened, how what had been an adventure revealed itself as a job.”
Rusty also realizes he is but a pilgrim, least among the nine men who ride out on a late fall roundup to bring in calves for winter feeding. Still, he is determined, eager, even, to give it his best, to prove himself a man among men.
“He had the feeling that there would be a test of some sort, that he would enter manhood—or cowboyhood, manhood in Saskatchewan terms—as one would enter a house. For the moment he was a tenderfoot, a greenhorn, on probation, under scrutiny.”
The nine cowboys on the fall roundup comprise the cast of “Genesis,” but like many Western tales, the land is also a character.Stegner shows it in passages like this:
“When he chopped through the river’s inch of ice and watched the water well up and overflow the hole it seemed like some dark force from the ancient heart of the earth that could at any time rise around them silently and obliterate their little human noises and tracks and restore the plain to its emptiness again.”
And, later, this:
“They got what they deserved for daring Authority; the country has warned them three separate times. Now the punishment.”
Weather, too, is a character in the story and the source of the punishment. The roundup is interrupted repeatedly by a series of snowstorms, early blizzards that scatter the cattle time and again and challenge the cowboys.
“The darkness was full of snow pebbles hard and stinging as shot, whether falling or only drifting they couldn’t tell, that beat their eyes shut and melted in their beards and froze again.”
Eventually, the storms become so violent and the cold so brutal the men are forced to abandon the herd, even the remuda, to race across the plains at a snail’s pace, trying to outrun death itself.
“He does not need to be told that what moves them now is not caution, not good judgment, not anything over which they have any control, but desperation.”
Romantic notions, if any still exist at this point, are further disabused by the awareness that these men, and others like them throughout the West’s cattle country, put their lives at peril…
“For owners off in Aberdeen or Toronto or Calgary or Butte who would never come out themselves and risk what they demanded of any cowboy for twenty dollars a month and found.”
As much as I like “Genesis” for what it includes—a realistic look at cowboy life and work, albeit in extreme circumstances—I like it for what it does not include. In all of its 82 pages, there’s not a single gunfight. No Hollywood walk-down quick-draw contest, no snarling packs of bad guys shooting up the streets and back alleys and saloons of a wooden town. There’s no damsel in distress—unless you count mother cows and heifer calves. No splendid super steeds racing at top speed across page after page with nary a stop for a blow, a sip of water, a mouthful of grass. And there are no six-foot-tall bulletproof heroes with broad shoulders, narrow hips, and a steely gaze.
That’s not to say there’s no courage, bravery, or heroics in “Genesis.” But it’s realistic valor, not the over-the-top imaginary superhero stuff so common in Western stories. Near the end of the tale, Stegner says this about Rusty:
“It was probably a step in the making of a cowhand when he learned that what would pass for heroics in a softer world was only chores around here.”
AUDIO BOOK LINK FOR GENESIS FROM BARNES & NOBLE: