Wednesday, February 03, 2021

Shadow of a Star - Elmer Kelton

Elmer Kelton was really something. Born on one ranch in 1926, and growing up on a different  one, Kelton had plenty of time to observe the cowboy life through his own eyes. He earned a journalism degree from the University of Texas, and served as editor for various agricultural and ranching publications for most of his life. But what makes Kelton so special is his success with writing western novels. Eight of his novels won the Spur Award given annually by the Western Writers of America in recognition for best western novel of the year. So, the group finally just decided to proclaim Kelton “the greatest Western writer of all time.” Heck, back in 1997 the Texas state legislature even proclaimed a special “Elmer Kelton Day” in his honor. In other words, Elmer Kelton may just be the Babe Ruth of westerns - underrated as I feel he still is even today. 


Shadow of a Star is Kelton’s 1959 western novel about Jim-Bob McClain, a young man still on the cusp of manhood who finally realizes the dream of his life: the sheriff he has admired for most of his young life hires him as his only deputy. In the truest sense of the term, Shadow of a Star is a coming-of-age novel, one in which this young man needs to get things figured out quickly so that he doesn’t die in the process. 


Sheriff Mont Taylor is showing his age now, and he’s recently had to fire his deputy because the man enjoyed the power that comes with wearing a badge a little too much. The ex-deputy doesn’t have that power anymore, but he has a new enemy: Jim-Bob McClain, the kid who replaced him. And he thoroughly enjoys watching Jim-Bob botch the first couple of incidents he’s called upon to handle - especially the one during which the young deputy’s gun is snatched from him as he attempts to handcuff a would-be prisoner. 


The climax of Shadow of a Star finds Jim-Bob McClain fighting to get a bank-robbing murderer to authorities before the locals catch up with him and lynch the man. Also on his trail, is a gang-of-three - including the prisoner’s elder brother - that intends to relieve Jim-Bob of his prisoner. Finally, within two miles of the town he’s so desperate to reach, both groups are closing in on him. And now, he realizes that he doesn’t have much of a chance of making those last two miles in one piece. His head tells him to give up; his heart tells him hell, no. 


Bottom Line: I don’t think that Elmer Kelton necessarily thought of Shadow of a Star as a YA novel, but that’s what I consider it to be today. Because it was written in 1959, it seems tame by today’s standards, especially when it comes to language, violence, and sexual relationships. Things happen, of course, but the details are largely left up to the reader’s imagination, making the novel, perhaps, more appropriate for today’s YA readers than for adults looking for a more gritty representation of the Old West. That aside, Elmer Kelton tells a good western story, and he gives a good feel for what that isolated lifestyle must have been like. Watching Jim-Bob McClain figure out who he is and what his badge represents to him and to the townspeople he protects makes for a satisfying experience for readers of any age.


Elmer Kelton: Texas Book Festival 2007

14 comments:

  1. I love a good western, though sadly I have to admit I have yet to read one written by Kelton. But he's on my list! :)

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    1. I've found that his best ones are the ones built around the time period that the cowboy culture began to reach its final days. Dealing with the trauma, job loss, property loss, and other trauma of the time is something he really excelled at. The earlier novels are more traditional ones, like this one, that were aimed at a particular market.

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  2. This one doesn't really sound like my kind of story (cops)- but I have really liked Elmer Kelton in the Time It Never Rained so I hope to read more of his other works someday.

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    1. Jeane, his earlier books tend to be the more traditional western shoot-em-up. His later books are much more serious and realistic. He developed into the kind of writer who looked deeply into the culture he wrote about.

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  3. You've just helped me add another book to my list. Hope you're not tuckered out from all that arm twisting you had to do! ;-)

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    1. Cathy, let me know if you think this is YA or not. My grandson read it and thought it was pretty tame by today's standards. I remember the censorship of the fifties pretty clearly, so this may have been a typical adult western of the day.

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  4. It never ceases to amaze me how many authors I've never heard of. I grew up on American cowboy series on the TV, seriously loved shows like Laramie, Wagon Train, Cheyenne, Sugarfoot, Maverick and as I got older, The Virginian, Lancer, High Chaparal. I love the sound of this novel, is it set in Texas, Sam?

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    1. I feel the same way, Cath, even to the point that it gets to be overwhelming sometimes. Wow, we grew up on a lot of the same television, looks like. So many of those are now available on the internet stations now, that I've dipped in and out of a few of the series to see how they hold up...and they pretty much do.

      Elmer Kelton is very underrated in this country probably, I think, because there are a handful of western writers like Zane Grey and Louis L'Amour who will always overshadow those who came later.

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    2. Cath and Sam - the Cheyenne episode where there is a rattler in his pant leg I think! Never forgotten that scene.
      I am amazed those shows were on in England, and that people watched American westerns!

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    3. Nan, it amazes me that my memories of those old western shows is still so vivid. Since the pandemic, my wife has been using Bonanza and Gunsmoke as comfort food of a sort. I remember Bonanza as being either the first or the first of a handful of shows to be broadcast in color in the US, but I never took to that one. She absolutely loves it. We agree on Gunsmoke, though, and I'm catching up on that one with her.

      I was surprised that Cath was watching the same stuff back then. Our two countries still trade off a lot of television, and dozens of our favorites are Americanized knockoffs of stuff from the UK, but I hadn't realized it had been going on for so long that way.

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    4. I don't think I ever watched Bonanza. My parents were faithful Gunsmoke watchers. It is even mentioned in my mother's diary!
      My comfort food is most anything British - but not too intense. My emotions are intense enough.

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    5. My comfort food is mostly of the British variety these days, with a good bit of the French stuff thrown in. I am more into the contemporary stuff of theirs than the Victorian dramas and the like, the more intense the better. Watching "The Worriker Trilogy" right now, a spy thing, and really enjoying it...largely because it stars Bill Nighy.

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  5. I'd never even heard of Kelton, but I've been in a Western mood for a couple of months now so I'm going to look for Shadow of a Star. Thanks, Sam. :)

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    1. Jen, Shadow of a Star is not the type of Elmer Kelton novel that ultimately made his reputation. This is one of his earliest ones, and it more reflects the traditional western novel structure than the ones that followed. Books like The Day the Cowboys Quit, Stand Proud, The Time It Never Rained, Honor at Daybreak, etc. cover much more adult themes than this one. I really liked this one, but for different reasons than the ones that first made me a fan of his. Just so you know...

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