Wednesday, October 10, 2007

By Frank Bonham

This nifty little anthology (edited by Martin Greenberg and Bill Pronzini, who edit anthologies on an industrial scale) brings together some of the best Westerns of Frank Bonham. The stories mostly date to the late ‘40s and appeared in such magazines as Dime Western, Argosy, Blue Book, and Liberty.

All too often the Western suffered from a lack of place and time. That may sound odd, after all don’t we know when Westerns take place and where? They happen in the old days, in the West. I can’t begin to say how many of those stories I’ve read that take place somewhere between the Mississippi and the Pacific and sometime after Colt developed the revolver. Instead of delving into the rich, varied, and lively worlds (emphasis on the plural) that the hugely divergent settlers encountered on the ever-changing American frontier, too many writers served up routine never-never lands stocked with cookie-cutter characters.

Not this collection. While Bonham sometimes shirks his duty on setting a specific place, his characterization is lively. Bonham brings to life some interesting customs and social conflicts that take these stories out of the routine. Some aren’t even exactly Westerns: “River Magic” and “Plague Boat” take place on the Mississippi and involve clashes between the riverboat men and the little-known subculture of the shanty-boat folk (they’re real, I looked ‘em up). “Trouble at Temescal” takes on the clash between Anglo squatters and the wealthy, but beleaguered Californio land-owners in the aftermath of the Mexican War. “Dusty Wheels-Bloody Trail” recounts the tribulations of a wagon train going from El Paso to Mexico City at a time when both the United States and Mexico were torn by civil war. Though burdened by some overly complex plot business, it’s still an effective tale.

There are tales that don’t rely on shooting, “Chivaree” looks at old time customs and how a man was expected to prove himself before he could be fully accepted. “One Ride to Many” is about modern day rodeo competitions and “I’ll Take the High Road” tells of the clash of cultures encountered by a young couple setting up in the dude-ranch business. There’s also a reminiscence by Bonham about his early apprenticeship to a rather shady pulp-fiction mentor.

If you like old-time pulp Westerns, but prefer to read something that’s a bit more than routine horse opera, One Ride too Many is recommended.

-Dave Hardy


Charles Gramlich said...

I've read a fair number of Bonham's books. One of my favorite's was "The Ghost Front," a WWII book. I didn't realize he'd written a lot of western short stories.

Dave Hardy said...

I've only read one of Bonham's novels. It was good, but not quite at the level of his short stories.

I see a number of authors who are better known for their Westerns or pulp adventues turned up in the Satruday Eveneing Post with sea stories or WWII tales or other stuff. I guess it didn't pay to over-specialize.