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Guest Book Review: Sandhills Boy by Elmer Kelton

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Sandhills Boy by Elmer Kelton

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This is a guest book review by Dan Schneider

On a recent trip to San Angelo, Texas, my wife and I were introduced to the name and persona of Western writer and Texas journalist Elmer Kelton. Well, introduced is a mite too passive a term, for in San Angelo- Kelton’s adopted hometown, one simply cannot avoid the man- his image is on billboards andsides of buildings, and his books take up whole shelves at local bookstores where the man, dead a few years, was a local legend and cottage industry. In one such store, the Cactus Book Shop, after talk and inquiries by me to the establishment’s owner, I decided to take the plunge and bought two of Kelton’s books- his 1970s novel, based on the 1950s drought in Texas, The Time It Never Rained, which I’ve yet to peruse, and his 2007 memoir, Sandhills Boy: The Winding Trail Of A Texas Writer.

In many ways, the book reminds me of interesting memoirs that are not that well crafted, such as the self-published memoir of a black Texas sharecropper named Eddie Stimpson, Jr., My Remembers, or well written memoirs that end abruptly, like poet James Emanuel’s The Force And The Reckoning. Like Stimpson’s book, Kelton’s book has a laid back, Aw shucks! tone that occasionally has some nice twists of phrase, but more often than not bogs down in none too interesting details of functionary life in West Texas in the early 20th Century. Kelton’s book, in many ways, lacks a cohesive structure, even as it contains myriad well written scenes. But, the biggest flaw of the book is that, like Emanuel’s memoir, which is, overall, a better written and more interesting book (mostly because Emanuel is a better writer and led a more interesting life), Kelton’s book ends way too soon, and too quickly. Born in 1926, Kelton brings us almost 300 paperback pages to the early 1960s, when his career as a novelist was just taking off, and then, in a handful of pages, just glosses over the last four and a half decades of his life (he died in 2009), as if this most interesting portion of his existence (his actual creative life) were a mere epilogue to his youth, his service in World War Two, and his courting and marriage to an Austrian single mother and her son, whom he brings to America and adopts.

I always find it curious how so many artists, especially writers, shortshrift their creative endeavors as somehow not being worthy of discussion in their life. After all, why do we care about The Lives Of The Artists, to credit Vasari, if not to get particular insights into their creations, and those creations’ creation? Certainly Kelton’s wartime experiences, as related, are nothing too exciting, as he missed most of the action in Europe, due to his age, so it would seem that a correlation of how his wartime life affected his later writing would be in order, especially since he mentions it did affect some work. But, Kelton never follows up on that premise. And the utter glossing over of his life as a famed and, in his genre, revered writer, and all the years spent as such, seems, again, a very poor choice; and one that a good editor could have corrected. In this manner- the lack of editorial discretion in a book that needed a clear vision, this book reminds me of Frank McCourt’s Angela's Ashes, another memoir that is not as good as it could be, due to poor editorial decisions- mainly a focus on duller parts of a life at the expense of more interesting and personally resonant ones.

At his best, Kelton’s prose it pithy and sentimental, in the best sense, such as in this close to the book’s Prologue:

But in memory all is still as it used to be, perhaps bigger and brighter than the reality ever was. I cannot live there again, but I can visit in my mind. I go every day, for a little while.

But, the book, put out by Kelton’s final steady publisher, Forge Press, is also riddled with poor editing, at a proofreading level- such as this personal bane, from page 15:

From the time he [Kelton’s dad] took on his first paying job, he was loathe to give one up before he had a firm grip on another.

Can you see the egregious error? The word loathe, with a hard th sound, which means to detest or hate, should be loath, with a soft th sound, which means reluctant. Yes, these two words are certainly in the top 5 of English words most often confused for each other, and Kelton himself may have honestly just mistaken the two, or mistyped, but, as mentioned, this is one of many such errors that the Forge edition of this book overlooks- a bad proofreading job.

Nonetheless, Kelton does a fine job of portraying his family when growing up, even if he is loath to venture into his own reared clan:

Dad valued physical labor but distrusted indoor work. He did not acknowledge that anyone sitting at a desk was actually working. He liked to see some tangible end product of labor, whether it be cattle for the market, a crop of cotton, a straight fence, a meal on the table, or even a proper shine on a pair of boots. A pile of papers did not count, for these could not be eaten, worn, ridden or driven.

The book ends on a proverbial whimper, after Kelton’s days as a cub reporter for assorted West Texas newspapers and magazines are explored, but then includes an odd Afterword by Kelton’s wife, Anni Lipp Kelton, that actually recaps some of the things the main book does, with a different perspective, and quite well. While her primitive style could not sustain a book, one wonders why Kelton did not use some of the anecdoture of his wife in his memoir, since her takes on some of the same events Kelton describes are more interesting, and reveal her to be, if not a better writer, a more aware and engaged human being, then her husband. Yet, little of that aspect of his life is explored, save for cryptic remarks about how he could have been a better husband and father, for making his wife a ‘typewriter widow.’

Nonetheless, overall, I can recommend Kelton’s memoir as a diverting, congenial, and self-deprecating read, simply because he does a fine job, at his best, of evoking a since gone time. Don’t expect a book that will change your life, just one that will entertain, for the most part, and makes you feel a little bit more engaged with a small corner of the cosmos than you previously were.

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