Portraits of the frontier West: A review of Western Heritage

by Erica Wetter

Western Heritage: A Selection of Wrangler Award-Winning Articles
Edited by Paul Andrew Hutton
305 pages, softcover: $19.95.
University of Oklahoma Press, 2011.

Geronimo, Crazy Horse and the Texas Rangers all have dramatic cameos in Western Heritage, Paul Andrew Hutton's anthology of award-winning essays. Since 1961, Oklahoma City's National Cowboy and Western Heritage Museum has given its annual Wrangler Award to what it deems the best article on frontier history and culture. This volume celebrates the award's 50th anniversary with some of its brightest winners.

Written by a range of scholars and journalists, the articles -- of varying length, approach and literary merit -- are loosely arranged into classic Western categories: cowboys, Indians and gunfights. There aren't many women to be found here, either as writers or subjects. But what the book lacks in female perspectives, it makes up for in weapons and warfare. In editor Hutton's page-turning account of the fall of the Alamo -- intriguingly titled "It Was But a Small Affair" -- at least one man is "tossed on enemy bayonets like so much hay." When Jeffrey V. Pearson describes the murder of Crazy Horse -- the Lakota war leader "screamed with agony, 'They have stabbed me' " -- history becomes almost painfully vivid, a visceral experience.

Less violent but equally absorbing is William Broyles Jr.'s epic story of the King family and its sprawling Texas ranch, which is bigger than Rhode Island. Broyles' piece is the book's longest and also the most engaging and practically cinematic in scope. It's no surprise that Broyles' screenwriting credits include feature films like Apollo 13.

Other pieces are more scholarly. Environmental historian Dan Flores grapples with the decline of the bison as well as the effects of the early American horse trade, and his fluid and accessible prose proves that historical analysis needn't be embellished to be readable. "Outside my door is a classic western landscape that, at first glance, seems very little different from what the Salish and Kutenai buffalo hunters saw. The mountain valley and its sagebrush foothills haven't gone anywhere, and neither -- in places -- have the fescues and bluebunch wheatgrasses, the cottonwood and aspen groves along the river. But, in fact, I inhabit an impoverished nature," he laments. Essays like Flores' offer us richly detailed portraits of the historic West. We're often reminded that we need to learn from the past; current and future generations can learn a lot about the West from these pages.

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