by Sam Juliano
The cowboy is probably the most masculine symbol of Americana, and as a result is the most unfairly vilified in the culture. There are numerous stereotypes that are mainly perpetuated by western films, John Wayne’s uncompromising persona and a host of characters like Henry Fonda’s ruthless, back-stabbing cold-blooded Frank in Sergio Leone’s Once Upon a Time in the West that are veritable incarnations of evil. In Anthony Mann’s masterpiece The Man from Laramie, which echoes Shakespeare’s King Lear, depicting a house torn asunder by murderous machinations, one of the most fallacious of all western myths -one that posed that guns were rampant when in fact gun laws back in the hey day of the push westward were more stringent than they are today- played out on an epic scale. Just as spurious is the idea that cowboys constantly clashed with Indians and that bank-robbing outlaws in cowboy garb ruled the west. Speaking of apparel, even the ten-gallon hat represents a case where sparse usage came to accepted as the norm, because of the distinctive intimidating aura and it took over as the most emblematic of the cowboy, much as the headdress for the Indians. Finally, the cowboy didn’t originate in the United States, but were originally Mexican cattlemen, but the perception is no worse than one that has persisted even longer, that which contends that the earliest American settlers were “native Americans.” With all these misconceptions it is no wonder that cowboys were for the longest time pigeon-holed as ill educated, ignorant, racist, bullying, homophobic and likely to act first and ask questions later. More recently the accepted stereotypes have taken some hits, none as groundbreaking as in 2005 when Ang Lee’s Brokeback Mountain, a film about two young men – Ennis del Mar and Jack Twist, who carried an an elicit affair – based on a novella by Anne Proulx, helping to lasso old stereotypes and set back the prevailing image of the cowboy on the heels of his boots perhaps for good. The final irony of course is the labeling of these two men living in Wyoming circa 1963 as cowboys, leading some to refer to it as “that gay cowboy movie.”
The poet Kate Hoefler, whose first book this is, has penned a ruminative and lyrical picture book tribute to this most maligned of human species that leaves behind the soulless ramifications of the prior misrepresentations right down to the title she chooses for her collaboration with ace illustrator Jonathan Bean: Real Cowboys. Her steadfast contention that cowboys are part of the human race and act magnanimously from the moment they awaken until they lie down to sleep is presented with an undercurrent of irony, as the author leaves not a cactus stone unturned as she takes to task just about every aspect or activity connected to this iconic western figure that in the past has been transcribed with gross generalization. Through her delicate, metaphorical musings she both both pays tribute to the cowboy and makes a movingly compelling case for people in general and how it is foolhardy to define a person’s actions by jaded perceptions forged by long held prejudices. With hand-stenciled shapes, textured and enhanced by the computer in four colors, Hoefler gets just the kind of impressionist, moodily evocative art that makes her own vision soar. Bean, whose silhouette-laden, multi-layered Good Bye Bad Bye with Deborah Underwood helped to establish state of mind has again brought weather, landscape, clothing and a textured palette, etching a soulful essence to people who are faced with natural obstacles. The darker shadings and saturated color mixes alternate with the brighter hues of sunnier, less difficult days.
The comparatively unheralded starry title page is a gem, taking a middle-of-the-night glimpse of a cowboy asleep, with keys, hats, saddle and other daily equipment hanging on the wall, but perhaps most ubiquitously of all and central to Hoefler’s theme, a photo of his family above his bed. As the darkness yields to daybreak to in a pink-orange tinged tapestry Hoefler first establishes that cowboys start their days with quiet activities like shaving and giving their horses water, that never intrude upon the peace and privacy of neighbors. Bean’s second canvas is deliberately less defined as the point to give visual uncertainty to the author’s depiction of the daunting task to control a herd of cattle during a storm, not to mention “a calf stranded on the ridge.” Then Bean employs a splendid dual-colored canvas that divides day and night at the fold, moving from the a threatening yellow-brown to a tranquil turquoise when according to Hoefler cowboy lullabies induce prairie slumber for the cattle, overriding coyote calls. A wide impressionist canvas of cattle crossing a road gives definition to the claim that cowboys will pay heed to their trail boss and touch bases with their cowhands, while simultaneously keeping abreast of such disparate sounds from “trucks, wolves and running water,” or the more nondescript sound of the world at work. A cowboy is pictured holding a calve under the very hot sun, but is careful not to hurt it nor himself as he avoids tangling in the cactus plants. Colors bleed in one of Bean’s most spectacular tapestries as cowboys are forced to endure camel-like demands on their bodies during arduous cattle drives. Hoefler sizes up this daunting proposition as “Even on a fast horse, they have to move with the slow rhythm of a herd, and it can take long to get places.” Bean envisions this draining scenario as one of a long line of cattle in silhouette, a cowboy exhaustively moving ahead with eyes closing, as the rays of the sun cascade down. Cowboys are not, contrary to what most think, too proud to ask for help using hand and hat signals, and their dogs are invaluable in aiding them in urgent situations like the one where the lost heifer must be contained. Bean’s brown and white Guernsey, at the forefront of the canvas is on the loose, requiring the coordinated efforts of father, child and canine.
Hoefler relates that cowboys do not relish anarchism, and the last event they want is an out of control stampede, one the poet descriptively frames as “where all the cattle spook, and thunder over the earth, and scatter in dust storms.” Bean captures the scene in fleeting impressions, as a blurred charge, with shadings instead of vivid color and discernible shapes. Howard Hawks’s definitive cattle stampede movie, Red River (1948) comes into focus here. Only the stationary cowboy in his red shirt and a bolt of lightening are stationary. Bean goes close-up to flesh out Hoefler’s “But sometimes it happens” and the saturated color bleed is a definition of uncontrolled concerted running as an act of mass impulse. The canvas is dominated by smeary browns and greens. One of the most breathtaking tapestries is the double page spread depicting lost cattle and dogs as specters in the heavens, while the cowboy all alone sobs.
Cowboys faithfully share their nocturnal cattle watching duties with their colleagues, alternating on the periods when each will eat at the chuck wagon and as Hoefler eloquently asserts: “While others stretch out under mesquite moons.” Bean brings in a bright yellow to denote the cowboy’s attentiveness to save water and grasslands by keeping up the pace in driving the herd forward. In a snow scene that recalls Jeremiah Johnson cowboys are seen as rugged and tough, but like Ethan Edwards in The Searchers, who fears for the safety of his brother Aaron and his family, there is profound recall of their loved ones as they travel forward away under treacherous conditions. Bean’s light color etchings dotted with white speckles is resoundingly melancholic. Arguable, Bean’s most extraordinary canvas of all is the one he offers up in response to Hoefler’s Real cowboys are as many different colors as the earth. The diverse ethnic breakdown of the cowboy is a metaphor of the colors seen. on the prairie. A myriad of color heightens the difference in clothes, hats and facial characteristics, yet all are united as outdoorsmen with the same itineraries. And just like policeman and fireman, which were longtime exclusively male professions, cowboys too have women in their ranks. Bean shown one adept at using the lasso in another dazzling stampede tapestry that flies in the face of anyone trying to delineate concrete details.
Perhaps the most glowing of all tributes to this long misunderstood and shortchanged human species is the final one, where Hoefler connects this rugged prairie denizen to the more refined qualities of those artistically inclined:
Real cowboys are artists. They create. They dream. They make up stories for their friends, and horses, and dogs – stories about the world that are bigger than moving cattle to Stillwater or Red Town.
There is no limit to their imagination and their collective capacities to relate, enthrall and educate those in their circles. Hoefler’s cosmic metaphor of the infinite sky is one that mirrors the cowboy’s passing through that once closed door. Truly, anything is possible. The illustrator’s turquoise and red star filled heavens is a true celebration of life on the savanna. Yellow, the color of the sun and of a bright outlook is the proper choice for the end papers, and cover highlights the cowboy’s devotion to his cattle in an especially integrating depiction of a feeding session. It advertises the sensibilities and pictorial style of the inside pages. Real Cowboys is a lovely testament to those who fall under the categorization of this dauntless American figure, and a disqualification of long held stereotypes. The book’s impressionist art superbly establishes mood by way of shapes, colors and silhouettes, opening up a path to the reader’s imaginations. The Caldecott committee needs to look at this picture book masterpiece with impunity. As to Hoefler’s aching humanism, the book is well deserving of Newbery attention as well. It is pretty incredible to ponder that this is her first work.
Note: This is the sixtieth and final entry in the ongoing 2016 Caldecott Medal Contender series. The series does not purport to predict what the committee will choose, rather it attempts to gauge what the writer feels should be in the running. In most instances the books that are featured in the series have been touted as contenders in various online round-ups, but for the ones that are not, the inclusions are a humble plea to the committee for consideration. It is anticipated the series will include in the neighborhood of around 60 titles; the order which they are being presented in is arbitrary, as every book in this series is a contender. Some of my top favorites of the lot will be done near the end. The awards will be announced on January 23rd, hence the reviews will continue till two from the days before that date.