Saturday, April 07, 2007

Jericho's Road

For the past several decades, Texas author Elmer Kelton has been one of the finest writers of western novels out there and, although he turns 81 in just a few days, he doesn't seem to be slowing down much. But because so much of what passes for western fiction today is cartoonish in nature, and actually more suitable to the graphic novel genre, Kelton is less known than he deserves to be. In fact, the Western Writers of America have given him seven Spur awards, a record, and have voted him "the greatest Western writer of all time" over better known writers such as Louis L'Amour and Zane Grey.

Jericho's Road is book six of Kelton's Texas Ranger series and it is set in south Texas along the Texas-Mexico border just a few years after the Civil War. The Rangers faced the near impossible task of enforcing a border that was resented by Mexican citizens and that served as little more than a line to be crossed from both sides of the river by raiding parties on the cattle herds belonging to the other. When young Ranger Andy Pickard is reassigned to South Texas, he finds himself in the middle of a conflict between Jericho Jackson, owner of most of the land and cattle just north of the river, and Guadalupe Chavez who owns a similar spread on the south side of the Rio Grande.

The clash between these two powerful men is fated to end in violence and there is little that a few Texas Rangers can do to prevent that from happening. But the beauty of an Elmer Kelton book is what happens along the way. As the best historical novelists do, Kelton recreates the past by focusing on the daily problems and concerns of the ordinary people who lived those times, real people with all of the prejudices, ambitions and weaknesses that we recognize in ourselves today. There is plenty of gunfire in Jericho's Road, and as exciting an ending as any fan of western writing could hope for, but I'll especially remember the book for its insights into an 1870s border clash that largely explains the tensions still felt along the Rio Grande today.

Rated at: 3.5

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