A kinder, gentler cowboy

Ric Lynden Hardman revives the cowboy genre with "Sunshine Rider: The First Vegetarian Western" -- a picaresque, cocky, playful coming-of-age novel.

Published June 4, 1998 10:04AM (EDT)

When you get out those scribbled-over copies of your childhood favorites to read to your kids, glance through them first. You may be shocked. Pippi Longstocking, Mary Poppins, Doctor Doolittle, Tintin, Babar and Nancy Drew all have characters, scenes, pictures or entire plot lines that many contemporary judges find appalling -- racist, imperialist, far from green. Even Mark Twain, who seemed to have made it securely into the canon, has been under attack for using the N word. Some current editions of old children's books omit chapters, change names or quietly amend an illustration; some publishers let the old text stand but tuck an apology into the preface. These new attitudes have sparked a lot of debate: Are the books truly racist? Which ones? What's the best thing to do about it -- buy expurgated editions, hand over the unabridged versions with plenty of discussion, ban them altogether? (I'll save my opinions on such matters for a future column.)

These attitudes have also had a profound effect on new books. Now that savage redskins and cannibals dancing around the pot are no longer acceptable fare, thank God, children's literature has had to find alternative sources of rip-roaring adventure. The genre most affected by the new rules may be the western. Genocide and environmental rape cast an unflattering light on Ma, Pa, Laura and the rest of the "Little House" crew. Short of putting black hats on all the cowboys and turning all European settlers into villains -- an idea that admittedly has much to be said for it -- can the genre be salvaged?

Ric Lynden Hardman thinks so. To that end, he's written "Sunshine Rider: The First Vegetarian Western," a picaresque, cocky, literate, playful coming-of-age novel for 12-year-olds and grownups with taste. Don't be put off by the crunchy-granola-sounding title. "Sunshine Rider" substitutes conscience and humor for the earnestness and sentiment that PC young adult books often dish up. This western has all the elements of the traditional kind: an enterprising young hero still wet behind the ears; a dark, drawling, magnetic man of mystery; a lady love or two; a selection of Indians; snake oil; gunfights; and plenty of cactus and cattle. It also has a number of elements you won't find in your average Zane Grey.

Each chapter, for one thing, begins with a recipe, setting the tone for the action to follow. Here's the first one, for porterhouse steaks: "Raise a tripod of three stout poles about 12 feet off the ground with a rope and pulley at the crown. Catch a well-fleshed steer, about eight-hundred-pound weight. Bind its rear legs, trip it off its feet and stun by a blow to the head with a four-pound sledge, being careful not to crush the skull. Hoist the steer to the tripod and place a washtub under the head. Open the jugular vein and let the heart pump the blood until the steer is drained. Skin the steer and open the abdominal cavity, being careful not to spill the guts. Concentrate fecal matter in the lower colon and tie this off in two places ... With a sharp butcher knife and cleaver remove the short loin ... Cut loin into porterhouse steaks ... Fry ... to taste ... Feeds 15 men." Here's one near the end of the book, for pigweed greens: "Gather new pigweed leaves and rinse. Add tumbleweed sprouts if available. Steam greens in closed pan until tender. Drain and fry in butter. Add salt and vinegar and serve. A woeful dish." In between -- during the chapter headed "Scrambled Brains and Eggs," to be precise -- the narrator, Wylie Jackson, succumbs to his growing love for a heifer catalo and becomes a vegetarian.

It's 1881. Wylie, an orphan living with his schoolteacher aunt in Odessa, Texas, has always daydreamed about joining the annual cattle drive to Wichita, but he doesn't think Aunt Clara will ever let him go. So he's astonished but eager when she tells him that a friend has arranged for him to join the drive as an assistant cook. His schoolmate Alice asks him to deliver Roselle, her pet catalo -- half cow, half buffalo -- to her cousin in the Oklahoma Territory. Reluctantly, he agrees. Roselle can come when called, sit on command, lie down and roll over, but only when Alice asks. With everyone else, she's stubborn as that other famous hybrid ruminant (the mule). To make Roselle comfortable with Wylie, Alice bullies him into taking something of hers: "I raised my hand and Alice put the article in it. It was warm. It was soft. It was embroidered. It was Alice Beck's drawers."

"When I'm gone," Alice explains, "she'll think you're me."

The first few weeks of the drive are a dream come true for Wylie, who gains the grudging respect of the cowboys by toughing out their practical jokes and cooking unusually edible food. He even develops a curious rapport with Mr. John Boardman, the drive's strong, silent leader. Then comes Wylie's first crisis of conscience, when his boss sends him to kill the calves that have been born along the trail and collect their brains for breakfast -- newborn calves can't keep up with the herd and their mothers won't leave them behind. Wylie loses his taste for meat. He finds that he's become too fond of Roselle to risk seeing her sent to the slaughter yards, so with the help of Alice's drawers and Mr. Boardman's horse, he takes her and runs.

Though some of the book's recipes sound like People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals propaganda, Wylie isn't squeamish. He continues to cook meat even after he stops eating it, and he develops a fascination for anatomy, turning his butchery chores into experiments in dissection. Drawn to the medical arts, he proclaims himself a doctor. He uses his new identity to fast-talk himself out of more than one hot spot as he tries to lead his bovine friend to safety. But as in any good coming-of-age road story, his larger task is to become the man he pretends to be. Along the way, a series of mothers and fathers stand in for the parents he never knew. Hardman manages his growth so skillfully that his true identity, which Wylie learns at the end of the novel, seems both surprising and inevitable.

Hardman plays with the genre, teasing his readers for their expectations. In a double reversal of tradition, for example, he introduces an Indian missionary -- a Sikh from the Punjab who's bent on converting the meat-eating heathen nations to vegetarianism. Majul Majul is also a con artist, a peddler of dangerous patent medical devices. Hardman's main Native American character, Tim-oo-leh, is a much more serious healer, the president of the intertribal Medicine Men's Society. Both Indian doctors make important contributions to Wylie's medical education. Hardman paints all of his characters, including the Indians and Wylie himself, with evenhanded exaggeration that should absolve him of any charges of stereotyping. Hardman's genius, like that of his literary mentor Mark Twain, is to weave satire and sincerity into a hilarious, moving book that's not afraid to take a stand. Even the apparently sappy title is really a bit of self-mockery: A sunshine rider is a man who likes to admire his own shadow. And quite a shadow it is.

By Polly Shulman

Polly Shulman edits news articles for the journal Science.

MORE FROM Polly Shulman

Related Topics ------------------------------------------

Environment Native Americans Paul Shirley