Elmer Kelton Wrote About People, Not Heroes

[imgbelt img=Keltonsheep.gif]Elmer Kelton wrote The Time It Never Rained to “give urban people a better understanding of hazards the rancher and the farmer face in trying to feed and clothe them.”


Elmer Kelton was born at Horse Camp in Andrews County, Texas, to Mr. and Mrs. R. W. “Buck” Kelton. He grew up on the McElroy Ranch in Upton and Crane counties where he learned to do ranch work. Early on, Kelton realized he lacked cowboying talent. “I was the oldest of four boys and by far the worst cowboy,” Kelton said. “I rode a horse like all the rest, just not as well, so I took a lot of refuge in reading. Westerns were my heritage. . . . By eight or nine, I decided if I couldn’t be a cowboy, I would at least write about it.” 
website of the San Angelo Standard-Times.) 

The novels came from a writer who had spent his life listening to stock raisers and cowboys. “His characters breathe,” wrote Ross McSwain in Ranch Magazine.  “Like many West Texas ranch folks that the author has befriended over decades of covering agricultural news, his heroes are complex, flawed and, in some cases, unlikable.”

Texan Joe Holley, writing in the Washington Post, says that Kelton “avoided the lure of sagebrush nostalgia and the easy indulgence of Old West cliche. Nobody gets shot in a Kelton novel — which are often set in the modern West — and his cowboys and ranchers are not mythic heroes on horseback. ‘I can’t write about heroes 7 feet tall and invincible,’ Mr. Kelton liked to say. ‘I write about people 5-foot-8 and nervous.’”[imgcontainer left] [img:Keltonstudy.gif] [source]San Angelo Standard-Times

Elmer Kelton in his San Angelo home.

There were characters like rancher Charlie Flagg in The Time It Never Rained, a “broad-shouldered man who still toted his own feed sacks, dug his own postholes, flanked his own calves. The scorch of summer sun and wind had burned him deep. His face was so brown he might have passed for a Mexican shearer, had his eyes not been the deep blue of a troubled sky.”

 Self-sufficiency was the recurring political theme in Kelton’s stories. Charlie Flagg warned about taking anything from government. Wes Hendrix, in The Man Who Rode Midnight, stood in the way of a lake planned by the town of Big River. The town saw a future in ski boats and vacation homes. Hendrix thought a life built on cattle and sheep was just fine, and the two, the rancher and the town, settled into a prolonged battle over the meaning of progress.

”When other people can ruin your life, it doesn’t matter if it’s big government or big business,” Kelton told me once. ”Above all, I cherish freedom.”

The Time It Never Rained is considered Kelton’s greatest work. It takes place in the 1950s during a drouth that Texans talk about as often as the Alamo. 

Kelton covered the drouth while working at the San Angelo newspaper. “Most of my friends and many of my relatives were fighting the battle at ground zero,” Kelton wrote. “I watched them, and I bled with them, inside.” 

Kelton contended that the drouth explains to Easterners the politics of the Great Plains, the rainless land west of the 98th meridian. “Those not strong enough either did not cross the line or retreated after being bruised by the demands of that uncompromising land,” Kelton wrote in an introduction to The Time It Never Rained. “Those who remained became tough, resilient and almost militantly independent.”