Albie's Note: Today I will begin yet another series where I will take brief looks at stories, novels and non-fiction works that have been awarded the SPUR AWARD by The Western Writers Of America.
I have collected together-- from my all-too-vast paperback library of western fiction-- several past winners of that prestigious honor and will review them as I read them. Most are novels and book length long non-fiction.
Today, however, I will start with some short stories that I have already read. This area is dear to my heart, anyway. It is my long-held opinion that the "genre western" was actually never better than it was when rendered by a true master in the short story form. I further believe the 2 great past masters of the western short story were Ernest Haycox [who died before the award was started] and Dorothy M. Johnson [who won once, in 1956.]
Here are five past winners, though, that truly deserve to be hunted down:
1. "Log Studio of C.M. Russell" [1964 winner] by Lola Shelton
This one was kind of a "docudrama," giving a poetic glimpse of legendary western painter Charles M. Russell's marriage through the story of the building and maintaining of his famous log studio in Montana. A very charming tale that would have made a great episode of one of those old western anthology shows like Death Valley Days or Zane Grey Theatre. I really liked it.
2. "Westward-- to Blood and Glory" [1969 winner] by Cliff Farrell
Oddly, this one won the Spur in 1969 but was originally published in a pulp magazine back in 1937! In '69 it was re-printed in a WWA anthology and proved so popular the voters just gave it that year's award.
This one is a true classic, containing all the elements of the best frontier fiction. From the very beginning, where a midwestern river town chooses to turn away a ship of travelers suffering from cholera, to the exhilirating climax on the Gold Fields of California, this story really delivers. It is the story of Zeke Rust, a very well-drawn frontier Tarzan-like character (a savage amidst civilization) who is drafted from the local jail to serve on the doomed ship and who eventually becomes leader of the ship's passengers and ultimately helps the few survivors on their way West to new lives. It doesn't sound like much from that synopsis, but it was a rousing tale, exciting and wonderfully atmospheric.
This one has been collected many times but is probably most easily found in a recent Farrell anthology called WHITE FEATHER, under its original title "The Brave March Westward."
3. "Gun Job" [1953 winner] by Thomas Thompson
This "high noon-ish" story of Marshall Jeff Anderson trying his best to retire won the very first Spur award for short fiction. It is so simply told that it takes you by surprise, and it has a great moral about what makes life worth living in the long run. I don't know if this one was ever filmed but it should have been. Another dead-on classic.
[For the record, I like "Gun Job" way better than either HIGH NOON or its original story "Tin Star" by John Cunningham. But then again, I actually hate HIGH NOON. I should blog about that someday :) ]
4. "The Guns of William Longley" [1967 winner] by Donald Hamilton
I first read this one many years ago in an old Fawcett Anthology [also edited by Hamilton] called IRON MEN AND SILVER STARS. Reading it makes you wish ol' Don had turned to westerns much more often than he did [although he left five really fine frontier novels among all the pulp mysteries and spy sagas.]
A witty story that leans toward the tall-tale quite often [just how I like 'em best!], "Guns" is really an interesting examination of the power of myth [a theme central to the endurance of the entire genre] as the titular firearms are key to the perceived power of the protagonist. Reading this one more than once yielded great reward, which is one definite mark of really fine fiction.
5. "Lost Sister" [1956 winner] by Dorothy M. Johnson
I can't believe DMJ [possibly the greatest hand ever at western short fiction] never won for "A Man Called Horse," "The Hanging Tree," or "The Man Who Shot Liberty Valence," but she certainly deserved her award here, anyway.
Picking up her favorite theme-- whites living among the Indians-- Johnson here takes on the perspective of a pioneer family being reunited with a sister re-captured from 30 years of Indian Captivity. Nowhere has the clash of cultures been better shown than in this poignant story of the painful attempt by a white family to re-integrate a sister who had gone completely native over the passage of time, and whose highest desire was to return to the life and place she had come to know as "home."
[Warning: If you're sensitive, as I tend to be, the ending WILL make you cry. ]