Visions of Paradise

Saturday, January 03, 2009

The Time It Never Rained

I am not a particularly big fan of reading westerns. They tend to be routine adventures with a minimum of characterization. When I am in the mood for some light reading, I may choose a Louis L’Amour novel, but not on a regular basis.

But there is one author of westerns who defies the above description, Elmer Kelton. Nor is that just my opinion. Kelton has won far more awards for his writing than any other western writer, including the much more popular L’Amour. The Spur Award is selected by the western writers themselves, the equivalent of sf’s Nebula Award. Kelton has won it 7 times, while other leading authors such as L’Amour, Larry McMurtry (Lonesome Dove), Leigh Brackett (Follow the Free Wind), Richard Matheson and Chad Oliver (The Wolf is My Brother) have only won it once each. Loren D. Estleman has won it three times, and a few authors, including Tony Hillerman have won it twice.

The best description I can give of Elmer Kelton is that his writing style is to western fiction what Kim Stanley Robinson is to science fiction: slow-paced, deliberate, very low emotional key, emphasis on the characters of the western people doing their best to survive amidst all the difficulties of life on the frontier. The Day the Cowboys Quit was about a cattle drive in which all the paid hands went on strike for better wages. The Wolf and the Buffalo examined the relationship between a black cowboy and a Native American.

But the best Elmer Kelton novel I have read so far is undoubtedly The Time It Never Rained. It is set in 1950s Texas and examines the struggles of ranchers during a drought which lasts several years. The main characters are Charlie Flagg, a 50ish rancher who survived the drought of 1933 and who is so stubbornly self-sufficient that he refuses to take money from the federal government, even when it is free and can help him afford to dig another much-needed well during the drought; his long-suffering wife Mary whose relationship with Charlie has cooled considerably over the years so that at times they seem as much working partners as spouses; his son Tom whose dream is to participate in rodeos and who abandons his father’s ranch during the height of the drought to seek his dream.

Kelton explores several relationships in the novel, including that between Charlie and his family, as well as that between the ranchers themselves, and that between the ranchers and the people with whom their work brings them in frequent contact, such as government representatives, the local banker whose loans keep many of them afloat during the drought, and the chota who are border patrol police.

Perhaps the second most important set of relationships Kelton examines after that of Charlie and his family is that between the anglos and the Mexicans. Charlie’s land has two ranch houses, one for his family and one for the family of Lupe Flores, an American citizen who is Mexican and who would be considered Charlie’s manager if their ranch was large enough to employ more than just the two of them as full-time employees. Charlie considers Lupe’s family as his own second family, and he treats them with corresponding care, but their relationship displays the subtle racism of anglos dealing with Mexicans. Lupe and his family all refer to Charlie as “Mister Charlie,” while his family refers to them by first names only. Charlie makes all the important decisions for both families, including occasionally taking care of Lupe’s family in situations they are perfectly capable of handling themselves. But Charlie never realizes he is being condescending, believing he is doing what is best for his employees and close friends, even when Lupe's son rebels against Charlie's attitude towards him.

Although the two families have a strong relationship, it cannot be misstaken by anybody but Charlie as a relationship between equals.

A third group in the novel is wetbacks, illegal Mexican immigrants whom Charlie will not hire, partly because of fear of the chota who are always nosing around seeking out illegals, and partly because the legal Mexicans resent when illegals are given the same treatment and benefits which they have earned legally themselves.

Most of the novel is concerned with the drought and how it affects Charlie’s ranch and his relationships. We watch his large herd of cattle winnow down steadily in size, since cattle are the least profitable animals compared to sheep and even goats, which are the most profitable but considered insulting animals for a rancher to raise. Still Charlie adapts slowly, and somewhat reluctantly, at times forced to make changes by the banker who refuses to extend Charlie’s credit another year unless he take steps to minimize his losses. While Charlie is debt-free at the beginning of the novel–and the beginning of the drought–as the novel progresses, he becomes just another struggling individual who owes his soul to the bank.

Kelton writes some powerful scenes which fit well into the novel. The “wolf hunt” for two coyotes who have been killing Charlie’s sheep; the time Charlie fell off his horse and sprained his ankle, and was unable to return home without the aid of a frightened wetback; the death of young Manual Flores’ young horse. While the novel’s emotional level is tightly-controlled, the emotions do surface at times and are more effective because Kelton does not indulge in them any more than Charlie himself would do so.

The Time It Never Rained is a masterpiece that should be enjoyed by anybody who enjoys either great historical fiction or strong character studies. While Kelton is basically a writer of westerns, the novel’s 1950s settings escapes all the negative connotations of the genre (no good guys vs bad guys, no shootouts, no cowboys vs indians) while retaining all that is strong about the genre. I recommend this novel very highly! It is the first novel I finished reading in 2009, and it is hard to imagine that I will read a better novel the entire year.


  • Nice review. I am using Kelton's novel in my college class on oil, water, and land issues in Texas. I am offering your review as an introduction for the students.

    By Blogger Ken Baake, At 2:48 PM  

Post a Comment

Subscribe to Post Comments [Atom]

<< Home