Teamwork Tells the Tale

Empire on the Platte, by Richard Crabb



If this post’s title confuses or leads astray, I’m sorry. Nebraskan Burt Sell, a home-grown historian, provided much of author Crabb’s fodder for this book, by the author’s admission information important to the tale. And a great tale it is.

We first follow the lives of the Olive family, beginning with patriarch James Olive. Most of the story, however, is built on the life and times of James and wife Julia’s son, I.P. (Isom Prentice) Olive, known familiarly as Print. The Olive family settles in western Texas in the early 1800s and make their name rounding up wild longhorn cattle – something of a cowboy Garden of Eden. Despite competing cattlemen and rustlers, the Olives make a fortune on the backs of these longhorns. Soon, however, farmers begin coming in droves, and the Olives pick up and move to Nebraska. There they come to loggerheads once more with settlers intent on farming, and we see developing the conflict between cattlemen and sodbusters, which has been made into virtual cliche in early cowboy movies.

The Olive family’s part in this conflict along the Platte River is a central one, and it summons controversy. As Crabb tells the Olive story, Print murders a pair of farmers in gruesome fashion. Some of those involved in the killings turn state’s evidence, and Print is sent to jail.

The rest of the century-long conflict between farmers and ranchers isn’t told here; Crabbs story is built myopically about Print, and with his conviction this chapter of the long-running western conflict ends. Crabb gives us a chronological tour of this story, and he offers a multitude of details without the book becoming cumbersome. For historians wishing to find out more about this chapter of the U.S.’s westward expansion, the book is a must. And it’s eminently readable for the casual nonfiction reader.


My rating: 17 of 20 stars


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The New Jim Crow/The Millions

I tend not to include political broadsides here (and this really isn’t one), but it’s hard these days to ignore the increasing-although-somewhat-subtle racial-moves-of-resistance in the U.S. as the nation slowly morphs from a WASP-populated and controlled nation to a truly diverse one. The book profiled in this link might be a good one to read in order to come to grips with such things.



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A Novel Hanging by Many Threads

Let The Great World Spin, by Colum McCann


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This is about as complex a novel as you’re likely to find these days. That’s not praise, exactly, but neither is it a complaint. It’s about New York City in the grander perspective, probably why it was honored with a National Book Award.  And it’s written disjointedly, in the stylish structure of Jonathan Franzen, David Foster Wallace, and Thomas Pynchon. Another thing in its favor in the book award sweepstakes. 

It begins with an Irish man looking for his brother in New York, the brother some sort of sidewalk saint, who, well, does what he can for the down and out. In and out of this story walk many characters: several hookers, some office workers, a Guatemalan nurse, a judge, and a high-wire daredevil, to name a few.

The book’s coherence, as much as it exists, concerns a man walking a tightrope between the two World Trade Centers, as New York collectively looks on. Incidentally, McCann’s dialogue between the watchers is some of the most vivid I’ve read, and that’s definitely a compliment. Imagining this guy's high wire act almost gave me vertigo. 



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McCann juggles his memorable characters admirably, his dialogue is taut and evocative, and  his prose often sparkles. The pitfalls with this sort of story are those of coherence and detail. His strung-together story often hangs by one of several threads, but in the end, he makes it work. Still, all too often there are details to the book's goings-on, to the characters’ lives, that take us nowhere but deeper into minutiae. Maybe that's New York fer ya.


My rating: 15 of 20 stars