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Friday, June 4, 2010

Hollywood the Hard Way (book review)

Hollywood the Hard Way by Patti Dickinson (1999)

Here's a book that has stuck with me for years. There's nothing quite like it. Dickinson just happened to hear this fascinating piece of American lore from some locals as she was travelling in the west; she tracked its hero down and got the facts of the epic challenge, then skillfully fictionalized the oral history just enough to make it a fully rounded-out and highly readable tale. Wow!

As the story begins, we meet 20-year-old Jerry Van Meter. He is a likeable young man from Oklahoma whose dream of becoming a pilot had been shattered in 1945 when his back was injured. Now he returns to the "Bar R," his grandfather Rolla's Oklahoma ranch, to work as a cowboy. His back is healing but his confidence still shaken when, one night, he rides back home to find his grandfather Rolla, Rolla's partner Frank, and their old friend Jimmy Wakely deep in debate. The three are lifetime friends; Rollo and Frank still work as ranchers, but Wakely went further west, became a successful Hollywood "singing cowboy," and still visits his old friends occasionally, between tours.

Here's the debate, which provides the setup for the story: Wakely laments the passing of the old-style cowboy life, especially the nonstop, 1,500-mile cattle drives  of Rolla and Frank's youth. Rolla and Frank disagree, asserting that their young Jerry could ride from the Bar R to Hollywood--the same distance as the old cattle drive -- and not only that, he could do it in under 50 days. He could get to Hollywood the hard way, not the easy way of spoiled modern youth. They bet on it.

Unfortunately, they haven't considered that though the old cattle drives were indeed a marathon of long days filled with hard and sometimes dangerous work, the cowboys on cattle drives were amply supported with supplies, chuck wagons (prepared meals), extra mounts, and human companionship. And now they are asking Jerry -- still recovering from an injury -- to undertake the grueling challenge alone, with only one horse, and unsupported.

Fortunately, all his life Jerry has been well schooled in survival and horsemanship skills by two of the best: Rolla Goodwinter and his partner Frank "Pistol Pete" Eaton are among Oklahoma's most skilled and legendary cowboys. Jerry agrees to carry their torch (or ride their horse) and begins the journey, leaving his grandfather's Oklahoma ranch with the goal of arriving at Jimmy Wakely's California ranch under the time limit the older men have bet on.

Through Jerry's experiences Dickinson reveals the mood and changing landscape of America after World War II, a postwar country recreating itself in a new image, in the time we now think of as the Fifties. And glimpses of America's earlier history are also embedded in this well-told tale; Jerry's family lore is rich in tales of famous folk and events, and as he rides his memory loops back through this oral history. In vivid vignettes, and with growing suspense, Dickinson tells of Jerry's ride across deserts, over mountains, and through many perils and twists of fate. Of course, his horse is even more of a hero than Jerry, as you'll see when you read this. Through their mutual struggle to endure and survive, the two become spritually fused for a time.

Hollywood the Hard Way is a strange tale of unnecessary suffering, celebrating a past that is in many ways very dark, really, and yet somehow it wins the reader's (at least, this reader's) sympathy. As Dickinson tells the tale, it does become important that Jerry and his horse succeed, if only to justify the effort they've made and the hardships they've endured -- and the kindnesses they've encountered from strangers along the way. Perhaps this is at heart another Sisyphean allegory. The journey matters as it happens, yet in the larger story of Jerry's life, it's only a footnote (if a high point). I still haven't made up my mind what I think of the journey itself; common sense asserts it never should have been done, this pointless challenge to win a foolish bet made by old men denying their own aging and loss of powers; yet it becomes Jerry and his horse's own challenge, and it's meaningful to them. All I know is that I can't forget this book and I want to share it. It deserves a wider readership.

Considering that this is one of the most memorable stories I've ever read, it amazes me how close it came to being lost to the collective memory. I'm so very glad that Dickinson heard about it, got the facts, and has retold it so well. It's somewhat ironic yet fitting that the book itself, like the history it's based on, has remained (as far as I know) largely overlooked. It would make a fantastic film, with timeless appeal, a hearkening back to the glory days of Hollywood westerns, but with a modern kind of nostalgia for an America that no longer exists.

[American Cowboys by C. M. Russell]

From the the book's author's page at Amazon:
Patti Dickinson was born in Oklahoma and grew up in California, where in 1982 she earned her BA in History, cum laude, from California State University Fresno. The author attributes her love of oral history to growing up on tales of her maternal grandfather, half-Cherokee Wild Bill Dickson. The other half of his ancestry, Patti's mother jokingly recalled, was a mixture of coyote and bloodhound.

The author believes it was this background that eventually led her to write Jerry Van Meter's amazing adventure. Patti happened onto the Oklahoma cowboy's story when she stopped for lunch in a Montana bar on her way to a nearby writer's conference. Five years in the making, the cowboy's 1,500 mile ride became Hollywood the Hard Way, a Cowboy's Journey.

[Notes: there is a film with the same title, but it has nothing to do with this story. Also, another unnecessary personal note of the sort I can't help cluttering my reviews up with: maybe the book hit me so hard because I too grew up with Western horses (though not on a working ranch) and the world described here-- at least the California dream the young man finds at the end of his journey -- is the one I spent my childhood in, and for the first time I really saw the land and time of my childhood in its social-historical context. I wanted to go out and buy copies for all my siblings so they could see this too, but knew they'd never get around to reading it.]

above, right: illo I fund on Google, from http://www.art.com/products/p13076445-sa-i2303821/richard-cummins-cattle-drive-sculptures-at-pioneer-plaza-dallas-texas.htm
The image kind of reminded me of Hollywood the Hard Way, in the sense of palimpsest - memory journeying (or persisting) across a landscape so changed that it's become a different world altogether. Though I probably see something rather different in it than the average Texan.

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