Of Cattle and Men: A Review of The Big Drift, by Patrick Dearen

“In the early days storms drove the cattle irresistibly before them; the cowboys not able to handle the frightened and half frozen animals were forced to drift with them, often for a hundred miles, living as best they could.” –Frederic Remington

“A bovine was what made a cowboy a cowboy, with the help of a horse, and to lose one that bore his outfit’s brand meant that he had failed.” –Patrick Dearen, The Big Drift

The “cattleman western” has a dynamic and powerful blend of themes. For every trade novel with a stock greedy cattle baron, hard-bitten cowhands, and [insert gimlet-eyed staunchly individual protagonist here], we get Red RiverShane, and Lonesome Dove to give dimension both to plain folks who believe we need to all get along and those who seek their own path come hell or, well, high snows. The Big Drift by Patrick Dearen (Texas Christian University Press, 2014) is filled with cattlemen and cattle—the latter lowing and frightened as they drift and freeze to death before the winds of the calamitous blizzard of 1884, and as ghastly hills of dead matter, an omnipresent presence of beasts that represent both economical gain and physical obstructions to be contended with.

cover, Big Drift

The aftermath of this singular blizzard also tried men’s souls, the “six-bits-a-day” cowboys rounding up scattered cattle that had flooded the Great Plains and tallying up the dead animals for the owners. The blizzard and the vast roundup is the backdrop of another story, that of Zeke, a freed slave who has become a capable cowhand, and Will, the white cowboy who falls in reluctantly with the man who has saved his life. Will’s reluctance stems from a dark childhood event that has saddled him with guilt he can’t bear to face–yet he finds that Zeke also carries a heavy burden of sorrow and tragedy, a realization that begins to undermine his concept of how races interact and, eventually, allows him to find honor and acceptance with himself. “Me and you, we’s kinda alike, ain’t we,” says Zeke one dark night after they both have nearly succumbed to the cold. “We’re not nothin’ alike,” declares Will. Yet no matter what he feels, they must work together, facing the elements and their inner demons, to bring the cattle home.

Black cowboy with horse (c. 1890). Courtesy Western History:Genealogy Department, Denver Public Library

As in Dearen’s book To Hell and the Pecos (review here!),  the West is not a blissful paradise to escape to but a purgatory one must traverse. The blizzard is not only a driving force in bringing the “lost souls” of dual/dueling protagonists Will and Zeke together but also a way to test them, to bring them to acknowledge a force infinitely greater than themselves that is also infinitely wiser and more merciful. While westerns come in all spiritual flavors (the neo-pagan return-to-nature of Dances with Wolves, the humanist community of Stagecoach, the nihilism of every spaghetti western ever), The Big Drift has a powerful Christian theme of being reborn out of suffering.

Drifting Before the Storm, Frederic Remington, Collier’s Magazine, July, 1904

The Big Drift has struck a chord in readers of westerns; it’s recently gone into its second printing (congrats!). No matter how successful a book may be, however, writing westerns can be as hard than wrangling cattle, so I always like to celebrate these authors, especially those who combine respect for western history and conventions with the courage to confront them. Patrick Dearen (website here) is a well-respected historian and folklorist whose interviews with men who cowboyed before the 1930s and decades of archival study enrich his craft. He was kind enough to answer questions as far-ranging as research, character development, and the inevitable (for moi) “which actor would play which character” query.

Dearen mug, close-cropped, 2013

The author! Patrick Dearen, 2013

Bucko: You use the historical calamity of the Big Die-Up to explore how people can be pushed to their limits and find a way past them. What drew you to that event? It’s a well-known historical fact, but you bring it to fierce life. Was there a point in your research when you discovered a crucial, little-known fact or confirmation of what you hypothesized that helped you create your book?

Patrick Dearen: I like to think that my nonfiction research into the American West has enriched my dozen novels, not just by providing ideas and background details, but by unearthing prototypes for characters. I’ve produced nine nonfiction books, with a tenth set for release in March 2016. I’m particularly drawn to the history of West Texas, to which my cowboy-grandfather emigrated in the 1880s. I suppose that my deep roots in the region have led me to try to tap the soul of the nineteenth-century West Texan, a figure who needed courage and grit to cope with the harsh landscape, the recurrent droughts, and the sudden blizzards.

One such winter storm pushed hundreds of thousands of open-range beeves down into West Texas in 1884. This big cattle drift and ensuing roundup on the Devils and Pecos rivers tested the mettle of every cowhand involved. In my research into the Big Drift of history, I was struck most by the unparalleled work ethic of cowboys who stayed with those drifting cattle hour after hour as fearsome winds howled across an 18-inch snow. It’s been said that a cowboy would cling to a herd long after the actual owners would have given up, and accounts of the actual Big Drift bear that out.

In my novel, the cattle drift allowed me to push my characters to their limits and beyond. I’m not speaking of a mere physical journey, but also an inner journey through crippling memories that can destroy as surely as a blizzard. To push ahead through adversity until an inner voice screams “Not another step!” —and then to take that step—is to live, say philosophers. But even as that moment might tell a person who he really is, it can also mean death.

B: The characters seem to emerge from the blinding snow fully formed. But how did you begin to build them? When did you “see” Will and Zeke? 

PD: Before a novelist writes the first sentence of a new work, he needs to know his major characters inside and out. As a character leaps into his first scene, he should reflect reality, and an important aspect of that is to give him a past that has helped shape who he is. I saw a need for my 1884 versions of my white cowhand Will and his black counterpart Zeke, but I got to know them by reaching into their past and creating a common, racially charged element that haunts each man. This immediately established the all-important man-against-man conflict that would play out against the man-against-nature backdrop of the Big Drift and ensuing roundup.

I found the prototype for Zeke in Sam James Washington, a former slave who cowboyed for his onetime master after the Civil War. As Washington related in a Work Projects Administration interview, a killing might have occurred if his employer hadn’t intervened when a drunken cowhand confronted Washington outside a whites-only tavern. As a novelist, I asked myself, “What would the consequences have been if Washington and the drunken cowhand had scuffled over a revolver and it had discharged, killing his employer?”

My white character Will, meanwhile, grew out of my interviews with 76 men who cowboyed in West Texas before 1932. For the one event that shaped his life more than any other, I reached into his childhood and crafted a horrid moment for which he still felt responsible, even though he had been a bystander too young to be accountable.

B: What is your impression of the role of faith (whatever religion one had) in the cattlemen and cowboys of the late 1800s? Were they a religious group in general or a go-on-Holy-Days kind of group?

PD: I’ve already referenced my interviews with 76 old-time cowhands. I supplemented that research with more than 150 archival interviews with nineteenth-century cowboys. One almost universal trait among all these men was that, in the strict sense of the term, they were not religious during their cowboying days. This is not to say they didn’t believe in God; it was more a case of not having an opportunity to know Him well. Isolation on the range ruled out church attendance and thus any instruction in spiritual matters. But the very fact that cowboys were honest and trustworthy—not to mention respectful toward women—meant that they had a moral foundation that led the vast majority of them to become spiritual in later life.

Doubtless, a cowhand had things in his past for which he yearned for forgiveness. The need for redemption is something that’s common to all of us, and the search for it is what drives my characters Will and Zeke.

B: And again, I have to ask! Your novels are so cinematic. Who do you see as playing essential characters in your novel if it were to be made into a film? 

PD: This is fun to think about, but I’m a realist when it comes to the daunting odds in Hollywood. I’ve had screenplays of my novels When Cowboys Die and The Illegal Man floating around producers’ offices for quite a while now. I do have renewed hopes for The Illegal Man, dealing as it does with the tribulations of an illegal Mexican alien who crosses the Rio Grande into Texas in search of ranch work in order to support his family in Coahuila. Texas Christian University Press (TCU Press) will reissue The Illegal Man as an ebook in Spring 2015, so I’m hoping that this new exposure will reignite interest from Hollywood, where it was twice optioned.

Inasmuch as The Big Drift is concerned, I think Matthew McConaughey would be a natural for my character Will. As a Texas native, he already has the appropriate accent and bearing, and he has the lean build and hewn features that I picture in a nineteenth-century cowhand. Even more importantly, McConaughey has the sensitivity and depth as an actor that the role would demand.

Agreed.

Agreed.

Dearen’s gift is that he can write a novel that does double-duty. It fits into the established canon of western romance–not the “sexy cattleman” type, please, but the genre in which a charismatic yet reader-identifiable protagonist overcomes deep self-inflicted obstacles, in which there is such a thing as true feeling, in which there is a “way out.” Yet his research and experience flesh out the mythological Cowboy. Zeke and Will and the other characters evince the canny adaptability of Owen Wister’s formidable “knights” but their wrestling with fear, self-preservation, and despair is very real life.

Purchase The Big Drift in print here or in ebook form here (easier to round up cattle on a Kindle, no?). Purchase, read, enjoy!

 

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