Preaching to the Choir

'Roundup' features a handful of Western-writing gems—and too much ho-hum prose

It can't be easy to keep alive the flame of reading Westerns in a world illuminated by computer and TV screens, and stimulated by virtual shoot-'em-ups. That would be the job of the Western Writers of America, and this anthology is an effort to fan it.

Founded in the 1950s—the heyday of the Western in books, film and television—the Western Writers of America has supported writers and put out more than 40 annual anthologies of their work. Roundup!, according to editor Paul Andrew Hutton, is a "sampler of the best" and "not your granddad's Western." Containing fiction, nonfiction and poetry, the book is thematically organized from "Traditional West" through "Native," "Frontier," "Wild" and "Contemporary."

The "Traditional West" section opens with a voice right out of the Clampetts or Joads: "We was lost. I knew it. Ma knew it, shoot, even my little sister Faith knew it." A fairly standard setup with a wandering family, driven by the father's thirst for the next new place, "Left Behind" ends up elevating the wife's role in carving out life in the inhospitable West. The story doesn't break original ground, but we know what to anticipate from the rest of the book.

It's refreshing to see that the nonfiction entry in "Traditional West" actually honors Native Americans. Historian Robert M. Utley's "Chiricahua Apache Leaders: A Comparison" paints sympathetic portraits of five warrior leaders of the Chiricahua Apaches. Utley relates a readable tale of Indian, U.S. and Mexican relations in our own little border neighborhood in the 19th century.

Roundup! includes the work of several Native Americans. The central character in professor D.L. Birchfield's short story "The Fast Dancing People" is a university professor undergoing a midlife crisis. The character's take on academic life is entertaining, but Birchfield's distraction device—throwing in more scientific information than a reader could possibly ingest—hobbles the story.

Two nonfiction Native American pieces in the group prove illuminating. "Murder at Navajo Mountain," by Cherokee historian Kent Blansett, describes 1880s tensions among Navajos, Mormon settlers and prospectors in the Four Corners region. Relating conflicting tales of how one prospector turned up dead, along with how Arizona Territorial courts intervened, it reveals how the Navajo Nation changed the balance of power in the Four Corners region. However, the conflicting tales also muddy comprehension.

Unacknowledged Indian power is the subject of Cheewa James' "Modoc: An American Indian Saga." James, a member of the Modoc Tribe of Oklahoma, is "a professional keynote speaker," and she writes like a storyteller. Her piece chronicles the Modoc War (1872-1883), which she calls "the most costly Indian war in United States military history." It took more than 1,000 U.S. military troops six months to finally subdue 50 to 60 Modoc men, who were accompanied by their wives and children, holed up brilliantly in lava caves in what's now Oregon.

Upstart, unkempt New World explorers challenging Old World aristocracy (Rita Cleary's "The Spaniard and Meriwether Lewis") and early American entrepreneurism (Bill Markley's "Kenneth McKenzie, King of the Upper Missouri") fill out the "Frontier West" segment. They're informative enough tales, exemplifying rugged American values.

For the most part, these are action-driven stories, with the "Wild West" segment featuring a slew of gratuitous shoot-outs.

The writing in this collection, generally speaking, doesn't strut style. It presents a passel of idiomatic cowboyisms, dropped g's and subject-verb disagreements, but it doesn't creatively employ language. There are exceptions, though, including Flagstaff resident Tom Carpenter's nuanced ghost story "The Last Nightmare of Commodore Perry Owens," and Tucsonan Susan Cummins Miller's playful poem "Two Roads Diverged" about a cowboy's proposition not taken. Arthur Winfield Knight's lyrical short story "Ashes" removes the Stetson, taking us out of the Old West and into the New.

Their genre's endangered. Can the Western Writers of America keep it alive with collections such as this? Hard to say. This one is sufficiently conventional yet varied enough to satisfy its longtime audience. But to get other folks, the group might have to offer honorary memberships to the Larry McMurtrys, Annie Proulxs and Victor Villaseñors of the writing world.