Texana Book Reviews -- May 1997
(by Mike Cox)


Into the Frontier
(May 30, 1997)

At 70, when most of his hard work should have been behind him, George Wythe Baylor got up before dawn to walk the streets of Guadalajara, Mexico hustling newspaper subscriptions and selling ads for the equivalent of a dollar a day.

He was an old fighting man trying to make a living in his sunset years through more traditional, non-violent means. But he had been a lot better at fighting Indians, Yankees and outlaws than he ever was in the business world. Unfortunately for him, the concept of a paid retirement had not yet been invented.

What Baylor should have done was write a book. Actually, he did write a book, but the 52 newspaper stories he wrote over a period of years about his colorful experiences on the frontier and during the Civil War were not intended as a book. Now, decades too late to do anything for its author other than to generate some long deserved recognition, his wonderful stories have been published between hard covers.

The stories, collected, edited and annotated by historian Jerry D. Thompson, have been published by the University of Texas at El Paso's Texas Western Press as "Into the Far, Wild Country." The 442-page book sells for $30.00.

Not only are Baylor's stories well-written, they are excellent historical material. With Thompson's annotations, they will be appreciated by Civil War historians and anyone doing research or merely interested in reading about the Texas frontier.

In addition to his editing and annotating, Thompson wrote a biographical introduction on Baylor, who came to Texas in 1845 and found plenty of adventure. From 1879 to 1884, he was a Texas Ranger.

The only thing missing from Thompson's introduction are the details of how he found and collected Baylor's newspaper writing, which was published from 1899 to 1906 in the El Paso Herald. Maybe Thompson got the idea from reading the work of another writing Ranger, James. B. Gillett, who in his book "Six Years with the Texas Rangers" said of Baylor: "He was highly educated, wrote much for papers and magazines, was a fluent speaker, and a very interesting talker and story-teller."

But no matter how Thompson first cut Baylor's literary trail, he deserves the thanks of anyone interested in Texas' frontier history for having done so. The stories, which range from accounts of Baylor's Indian fighting days to mini-profiles of other colorful frontier figures, demonstrate the importance of newspapers in preserving history.

Since the indexing of newspapers is only now becoming fairly common (thanks to computers), there's no telling what other great stories lie hidden away in yellowing bound volumes or on microfilm. Historians like primary records, of course, but those can be dryer than the mountain air at El Paso.

Baylor's accounts are the vivid recollection of someone who was there. Anyone reading Baylor's description of the last Indian fight in Texas, in which he and his Rangers killed a dozen Apaches in the Diablos Mountains in the winter of 1881, quickly will find himself along on the trail, feeling the bitter cold of January, smelling the roasted mescal leaves left by the Indians as Baylor and his men drew closer and hearing the rifle fire that ended an era in Texas.


Cowboy Boots, Spurs, and Rope
(May 23, 1997)

Been out in cowboy country a lot lately.

In West Texas, the distances are long and the spoken sentences tend toward the short. From the Caprock in the Panhandle to the Pecos River, there's much more land than people. A fair amount of those inhabitants are cow and horse people. Naturally, boots -- or, as a certain 3-year-old of my acquaintance calls them, cowboy shoes -- are still as common out here as jogging shoes are in Austin.

Three observations about boots:

None of these points are made in Irvin Farman's new book, "Standard of the West: The Justin Story," which is why they are offered for free here, but it is a well-done history of a Texas institution.

Notice the word "boot" is not in the title of this 260-page book, published at $26.50 by Texas Christian University Press. Not long after Joe Justin came to Spanish Fort on the Red River in 1879 and started making boots, "Justin's" became a Texas synonym for boots. The business he started has grown into a much larger operation, now engaged in everything from making boots to making bricks.

"Standard of the West" is a readable business biography, a book that carries the Justin story from the days of the cattle drives to the present.

Over the years, many a pair of Justin boots -- and other brands -- have been augmented by a pair of handmade silver and steel spurs made by Adolph Bayers. Bayers, who died in 1978, is the subject of a publishing project as ambitious as the 200,000-acre Pitchfork Ranch is big: "Artistry in Silver and Steel: The Adolph Bayers Legend."

This 351-page book, compiled by J. Martin Basinger with text and illustrations by Ben Miller, is as unique as the custom-made cowboy hardware Bayers used to make. It is the first of a projected five-volume study of this cowboy craftsman and the spurs he made, which though still functional have now become highly collectible as well. (A pair of Bayers' spurs, which in the 1960s would have cost someone $30, now go for from $1,600 to $3000.)

Included in this first volume is a biography of Bayers, who had his shop near Gililand in Knox County, and sepia-tone reproductions of more than 250 of the design drawings Bayers did for his custom spurs. The rest of the book features photographs of Bayers, his shop, various of his spurs, drawings by Miller and a section on the famous Pitchfork Ranch, one of the largest in Texas.

The first volume, published by J. Martin Basinger Companies, Inc. of Slaton, sells for $49.95. Because of its content and design quality, this is a book likely to appreciate in value almost as much as Bayers' spurs. Future books will include the rest of Bayers' spur designs and information on four other big Texas ranches. If you're a serious collector of books dealing with the cattle industry, I'd lasso a copy as soon as possible.

Speaking of roping, West Texas writer John R. Ericson, creator of the "Hank the Cowdog" series, has written the first-ever study of ranch roping, "Catch Rope: The Long Arm of the Cowboy." The 208-page book is published by the University of North Texas Press and sells for $26.50 in hardback.

What's ranch roping? That's the term that covers the utilitarian use of a rope, as opposed to the kind of roping done in the rodeo arena. Using a rope in animal husbandry is not unique to Texas, of course, but like many other things associated with the Old West, Texans perfected the technique.

Ericson's solid book, along with the other two, ought to be in your saddlebag if you're interested in cows and horses.


Larry King
(May 16, 1997)

The classic way to describe what constitutes a story is to say that it has a beginning, a middle and an end.

By that definition, each of our lives is a story. We are born (the beginning) we live our life (the middle) and we die (the end). But some of us have more story to our lives than that.

Some of us have a story so powerful it defines us. Larry L. King has that kind of story.

King has written 10 non-fiction books, one novel, a children's book, numerous magazine articles and several stage plays, including The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas, but he has not told his big story until now, in "True Facts, Tall Tales & Pure Fiction." Published by the University of Texas Press as part of its Southwestern Writers Collection Series (in cooperation with the Southwestern Writers Collection at Southwest Texas State University in San Marcos), the 232-page book sells for $34.95 in hardcover and $15.95 in paperback.

The book, as the title implies, is a collection of essays by King (the true facts), some enhanced essays (the tall tales) and out and out fiction -- four short stories. So how does a person tell the difference from truth and fiction, given that good fiction contains truth?

As King writes, "Truth is a matter of shadings. It has that in common with its low-born cousin, lies, which may be born little and white or big and mean and soul-darkening. Nobody much understands this except writers, lawyers and politicians."

He adds, however, that few writers, lawyers or politicians will admit this.

Being a fan of country-western song lyrics, King's piece on "Cheatin' Songs" was the first item in the book to catch my eye. It is included in the Tall Tales section of the book, though the songs he writes about are real, as are the situations they describe. The piece is funny and well-written.

Coming right after this essay, and logically enough, is "A Fling At Sinning," another essay King choose to put in the Tall Tales section, though he writes on both cheating and sinning (going from the particular to the general) with great empathy. (King says he's known a lot of people with considerable insight into these two areas.)

Browsing from Tall Tales to True Facts, I read King's take on recently-retired Texas Congressman Charles Wilson, a readable essay called "Good Time Charlie." Wilson, as King points out, has never tried to hide the fact that he has had a passing knowledge of what some would call sinning, though he continued to be elected term after term.

So far, I had been enjoying King's work, drifting from piece to piece like a laid back flyfisherman slowly working his way downstream. All of a sudden, a great white shark -- lurking in a piece of literary water where I'd only been expecting trout -- grabbed my line and pulled me in with it. I had started reading an essay called "Happy Birthday to a Fine Boy" and had not even had time to yell before I was under water, figuratively speaking.

The title had not done much for me, but in the table of contents, set in italics, is this teaser: "Now go off and brood over a haunting old family tragedy for the rest of your life." How a "haunting old family tragedy" tied in with a birthday for a fine boy whetted my interest, so I had turned to page 71 and by the fourth paragraph, when I realized King had begun his piece with something dark that happened in 1900, had jumped ahead to 1941, and then back to 1900, I was hooked.

By the 17th paragraph (he's using dialog so some of the paragraphs are no more than sentences) I don't believe I could have stopped reading "Happy Birthday to a Fine Boy" if someone had come into the room and told me I had just won a multi-million dollar lottery.

This essay, innocently hidden away in the first third of this book, simply blew me away, to abandon fishing analogy. It is one of the most powerful, compelling pieces of writing I've ever enjoyed in more than 40 years of reading.

Trust me, Larry King has a story and he tells it well. I won't subtract from anyone's reading pleasure by even hinting at the essay's content. Here's the truth about "True Facts, Tall Tales & Pure Fiction": It's an excellent book.


Big Bend Country
(May 9, 1997)

Yes, we are on the verge of a new century. Yes, we can sometimes cure cancer. Yes, information races around the world on the Internet.

But in the Trans-Pecos, there are still places where beepers don't beep, radio and television signals don't reach, where cellular telephones are useful only as paperweights and where wild burros, mountain lions and bear still wander around in the high country.

The Big Bend country (in West Texas, "country" means area or region) is, as an Alpine radio station puts it, is the "last frontier." At least the last frontier in Texas. The deer and the antelope are still playing, and though an occasional discouraging word is heard these days, there are still not very many homes on the range out here.

Several good books have been written about the Big Bend over the years, but the best overview remains Ron C. Tyler's "The Big Bend: A History of the Last Texas Frontier."

Tyler, executive director of the Texas State Historical Association, wrote this book for the National Park Service in the early 1970s. It was published in 1975 by the U.S. Government Printing Office but has been out of print for some time.

Now Texas A&M University Press has republished it as a trade paperback. The 286-page book sells for $15.95.

Tyler covers the Big Bend from the time of its exploration by the Spanish to the development of the Big Bend National Park. The book is excellent, but this new edition could have been made even more valuable with the addition of another chapter bringing the story of the Big Bend up to date: The acquisition of the Big Bend Ranch by the state, the growing problem of pollution from Mexico and other developments in the region in the last 20 years.

Still, reading Tyler's book is the best starting place to begin developing an understanding for this vast area.

A good companion to this A&M Press reprint is a new book from the University of Texas Press, "The Story of Big Bend National Park." Written by John Jameson, the 196-page book sells for $12.95 in paperback.

While Tyler concentrated on the history of the region in his book, Jameson's story focuses on the 800,000-acre national park, which is bigger than Rhode Island. Founded in 1944, but talked about for years before, the park sees more than 300,000 visitors a year.

Jameson shows how the park came to be, and then examines the park at its half-century mark. In addition to the worsening air pollution, there is the perennial difficulty with funding.

Though not problem-free, the Big Bend and the area around it is some of the prettiest real estate in the world. These two books are must reading for anyone who wants to begin to understand Texas' last frontier.


Ink Ruins Books
(May 2, 1997)

Book restorer Don Sanders looked down at the slim green volume and shook his head sadly, like a doctor about to pull the sheet up over someone he tried heroically to save.

"I'm sorry, there's nothing I can do," Sanders' look said.

And indeed there wasn't.

Someone -- a young child or someone trying to see if their pen worked -- had scriggled in blue ink all over the hard cover of the book. The ragged, overlaid Z's on the cover had transformed a $25 collectible book into one worth a dollar or two, if that.

One of the ironies of the book world is that books are printed with ink and can easily be ruined with ink.

Sanders, who like a seasoned surgeon can perform biblio- miracles with his hands and equipment, said an ink eradicator and some sanding might make the book a bit more presentable but it would cost more than the book was worth to make it happen. Even at that, the impressions made by the pen would remain. The book was now what the trade calls a reading copy, a horse with a broken leg.

So, if you want to protect the value of a collectible book, don't let small children around them and don't use them for doodle pads. Only water is a worse enemy of books.

Some people put ink in a book in what they believe is an acceptable way: By jotting notes or comments in the margins or inside the covers. When a book dealer or scholar (sometimes these are even one and the same) comes across such a book, he or she will note that it contains marginalia.

Of course, most people who write in books are not making erudite comments. They are underlining favorite passages or marking them as they study the book. Underlining also ruins the value of the book.

The answer is to use stick-on notes to mark passages, or use pencil -- very, very lightly. Another technique, even if you own the book, is to photocopy the pages you need for reference and underline on those copies as much as you want.

Even marginalia detracts from a book's value, unless the person doing the writing is famous or will be some day.

Some for instances:

  • A book dealer in San Antonio bought a book written by a military officer who had served on the border during the U.S. Cavalry's pursuit of Pancho Villa in 1916. The book was valuable enough as it was, but when he started flipping through it, he found it contained detailed marginalia. The book had been General George Patton's personal copy. Patton participated in the so-called Punitive Expedition as a young lieutenant. His later-day annotations turned a $100 book into one worth thousands.
  • Folklorist and writer J. Frank Dobie liked to write comments in books. This is no surprise to anyone who knows much about Dobie. He was a man who seldom lacked for an opinion. Someone once contemplated doing a book of Dobie's marginalia, but a lawyer fearing a defamation suit for his client talked the person out of it.
  • Mark Twain was another writer whose urge to create often extended to someone else's printed page.

When someone well known writes in a book, they are adding to its value, both as a collector's item and as a contribution to the world of letters.

But unless you have a premonition that you're name will be a household word some day, don't write in a book. If you're already famous, scribble away. Your children and grandchildren will appreciate it some day.


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