Easily the most often "Western" question I get from students and librarians is who are the next generation "Louis L'Amour like" authors or what are some current "L'Amour like" novels? Readers and patrons have simply exhausted his title list. Actually, to the surprise of many, its an easy question to answer. Traditional or formula westerns are better written and more prolific today than since the 1950s. Ralph Cotton is one of those authors. Besides being popular, being nominated for a Pulitzer Prize after his first western foretold his continued critical success.
However, Ralph Cotton is not just a Zane Grey or L'Amour clone. A "Cotton" western has a number of distinct literary qualities: deep and diverse character development, wry sense of humor, and an acceptance of unsentimental and even unjust frontier reality. In fact, as with Charles Dickens, a reader can become distracted from the main story by Mr. Cotton's quirky and entertaining "O. Henry" type supporting characters. Empathy for even the outlaws and killers can develop. But, no worry, the author eventually reaffirms and reinforces the appropriate white/black hat status.
While Arizona Ranger Sam Burrack is trailing the Silva "The Snake" Ceran gang, he comes across the developing town of Wild Wind. Other than the Western Railways office, Sam is the only authoritative figure around especially after the sheriff, and the railroad chief are killed. However, there is a young railroad clerk who does shows some gumption and sand.
Along with plenty of gunplay, a jailbreak, Indians, trackdowns, and a lynch mob wanting a necktie party for the killers of the town doctor, Ranger Sam encounters the gang leader's moll, Kitty Dellaros. She is attractive, seductive and her use of a straight razor doesn't include shaving. Personally, I always thought it was a mistake for the TV writers to have later softened and played down the soiled dove/saloon girl vocation of Kitty in Gunsmoke. Amanda Blake's role could have been so much more interesting. Compared to today, frontier Victorians seemed to have been more honest, accepting and, yes, less prudish of prostitution.
Today we pretend it doesn't exist by keeping it out of sight thus out of mind. Recently, two superb historical novels have illuminated and humanized the frontier whore. Etta: A Novel (2009) by Gerald Koplan is about the Sundance Kid's girl, the beautiful and mysterious Etta Place, and Mary Doria Russell's Doc (2010) acquaints us with the Hungarian Maria "Kate" Katerina, the companion of Doc Holliday. Such books remind us of the limited career opportunities for poor, single women in the West or anywhere in the 19th century. What were your choices if you were a fallen woman or victim of abuse? Think of the Renee Zellweger character in the 2008 movie, Appaloosa. Insecure, no job skills, low self esteem, scared, alone, broke, and stranded in the wild west, what would you do to survive?
With each new "Sam Burrack" novel, a dimension or two is added to his character and personality. He is the anchor and center which both provides the cohesion of story and keeps the subplots from careening every which way. If I had to pick one literary characteristic which separates the old "pulp" formula westerns from today's "shoot 'em ups", it would be the more rounded and multifaceted character development by authors like Dusty Richards, Larry D. Sweazy, Johnny D. Boggs, Richard S. Wheeler, and Ralph Cotton. Fictitious lawmen have always been a favorite of genre and today you could easily form a posse. Besides Ranger Sam, readers can ride with the likes of Lyle Brandt's Deputy U.S. Marshal Jack Slade, Loren D. Estleman's Deputy Marshal Page Murdock, the Deputy Marshal Gideon Hawk series by Peter Brandvold, and the U.S. Marshal Burt Green and Sheriff Herschel Baker books of Dusty Richards. So, for those readers or patrons who have worn out the 100 plus Louis L'Amour titles, saddle up with Ralph Cotton. His TWENTY FIVE "Burrack" books should keep you occupied until at least next year's roundup! 286 pages. Ages 14 and up
Recommended by Robert L. Hicks, Arkansas City High School Librarian Kansas, USA