11-11: Memoir review (Elmer Kelton)

A short while ago I mentioned that I plan to read new types of books this year — eleven new categories of books, in fact — and so far, I’ve read a lot of graphic novels. Which isn’t really new for me, and which certainly isn’t on my list of eleven categories.

But I just sneaked in a memoir, Western author Elmer Kelton‘s Sandhills Boy: The Winding Trail of a Texas Writer, which my father recommended to me so strongly he mailed me a copy from almost 8,000 miles away.

The book is indeed a “winding trail,” wandering almost at random from one topic to the next. Most of the time this meandering follows a kind of logic that feels appropriate to the writer and his upbringing, because the pattern seems very much like the kinds of tales I’d expect old cowboys from my grandfathers’ generation to tell. Lots of anecdotes and asides and short character sketches and narrative jokes:  that’s mostly what got me through the first half of the book.

The problem with such a narrative style is that all those detours and pit stops on the “winding trail” can get tiresome. I sometimes felt like a kid in the backseat of a long road trip. “Are we there yet?” Only a reader enthusiastic for the minutia of historical and cultural trivia would be able to stick it out through the first half. Fortunately, I am such a reader, and I found that just when I was feeling bored and ready to skip ahead, Kelton would throw in some odd but rich detail of life on a West Texas ranch that grabbed my attention and pulled me through the next few pages, and by then the narrative was rolling along nicely again.

I finished the second half of the book in one sitting. All through those first 150 pages or so, I kept thinking, Where is the writing? I was fascinated by ranch life, but I wanted to read about a writer, and in the book as in life, it took a long time for Kelton to focus on that. But about halfway through, he goes to college to study writing, and I thought, Okay, I’ll just get through the college bit. Except halfway through school he joins up to serve in World War II, and I thought, Well that should be exciting! He packs most of that experience into a single, long chapter, so the pages flew by, but before he let me put the book down and go to sleep, Kelton introduces a love story, the tale of how he met and wooed his Austrian bride while stationed in the Alps. The love story is so honest and tender I couldn’t stop reading it, and then there was the saga of bringing her to live with him in Texas, and by the time everything was settled and I could rest easy, I had fewer than a hundred pages to go and figured I might as well press on.

Elmer Kelton at the 2007 Texas Book Festival, ...
Elmer Kelton at the 2007 Texas Book Festival, Austin, Texas, United States. 4 November 2007. (CC) Larry D. Moore. (Image via Wikipedia)

At which point, finally, he gets to his life as a writer, and it’s fascinating reading from there on out.

All in all, I’m not sure what to make of the book. It’s not brilliant prose, but it’s honest, folksy writing that has a quiet appeal to it. It’s not as tightly focused as I’d have expected from a memoir — it’s often more akin to an autobiography, and I know a few creative nonfiction writers who’d probably tell me it is autobiography, whatever it sells itself as — yet, like an old storyteller who indulges the occasional digression, Kelton always brings the attention back to how he got where he got as a writer, even from those long, slow chapters on ranch life.

Best of all, though Kelton makes his big break into novel publishing sound easy (he tries hard to convince us otherwise, but the long, grueling development from struggling journalist to steadily publishing novelist covers all of maybe three pages in the book), he is quick to express how lucky he was to get into writing when and how he did (he was among the last of the pulp magazine generation), and he acknowledges how much harder the business has gotten since. That’s about as fair a treatment of the life as I could ask from any successful author, and in true cowboy fashion, he conveys an almost Zen-like combination of honesty and humility that is not only appealing but encouraging. I’m glad I read this memoir, and I still plan to make a Kelton novel among the first Westerns I read this year.  Thanks, Dad, for sending me the book!  🙂

Already I’m diving back into my category list, this time with an Australian novel, so look for a review of that before the end of the month.  I won’t promise to review every book I read from the category list, but I’ll try to work in a sampling from each category over the course of this year.  And as always, if you have any books you want to recommend, send me the titles or leave a comment here!

For more about my 11-11 project, check out my initial post on the challenge or all the posts in my 11-11 category.

For more on what I’m currently reading, check out my Bookshelf.

Published by Samuel Snoek-Brown

I write fiction and teach college writing and literature. I'm the author of the story collection There Is No Other Way to Worship Them, the novel Hagridden, and the flash fiction chapbooks Box Cutters and Where There Is Ruin.

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