A month or so back, fellow blogger, Josephine Damian emailed me with a great idea. To do a special My Town Monday week of book reviews where everyone who wanted to participate would post about a book set in their town. I instantly knew which book I would choose ... The Bone Pickers by Al Dewlen.
I'll warn you upfront. This post is going to be a long one, because first I'm going to tell you about the novel and then I'm going to tell you about the history behind the novel which is every bit as interesting as the actual book, a tall order given the the fact that The Bone Pickers was chosen as one of the 50 Best Books about Texas.
Against the flamboyant background of the “Golden Spread,” the oil-rich
Panhandle of the late 1950s, Al Dewlen has poised a full-scale and truly
original novel of one Texas family—the Mungers of Amarillo.
The six Munger siblings are the heirs of hard-drinking, hardscrabble farmer Cecil Munger, who in one generation brought his family from Dust Bowl poverty to unfathomable wealth. Sitting as directors of the several corporations in which their wealth resides, five of the siblings—Spain, Texas, Laska, China, and Bethel—struggle to balance their past with their present, their place in
society, and their obligations to community, to themselves, and to their damaged and dependent brother June, confined to the old homestead.
The above comes directly from the back jacket. As does this bit of blurb taken from W.U. McCoy's introduction included in the most recent edition of the novel.
"... The ambiance and essence of matters uniquely Texan is a
perverse underscore to gripping themes and raw, rending conflicts."
Perhaps the most surprising things about The Bone Pickers, at least for me, was how contemporary it felt and read despite the fact it was first published fifty years ago in 1958. Outside of an odd reference to some bygone bit of culture it is a tale that could be set in today's world. Though the author did use bits of language that were common used in the fifties that are offensive to decent folks these days. Unfortunately, there are still many indecent peopel in this world so the terms live on and in being true to the characters they had to be included in the telling of this story.
I wasn't alive in the fifties, but Mr. Dewlen did an excellent job of painting Amarillo and the surrounding area at least ass far as how I imagine things to have been in that time era. The streets, places, and even attitudes were accurately described. But then again Mr. Dewlen is from the area and at the time he was a local newspaper reporter so one would expect nothing less.
The theme of the novel is Image, though in describing the work, Dewlen acknowledges that word had not into usage when he penned the novel. A quote from the author.
"It struck me that if borne to extremes, this compelling quest for acceptance in other eyes could critically distort, and perhaps even destroy, a life."
The novel itself is funny at times, ironic at its core, and very revealing of the human psyche. The conflicts are predominantly internal, but masterfully presented. The book could be described as slow-paced, in areas, but a reader with patience will be rewarded as every last detail bears fruit somewhere down the line. To give you a taste of the style I'm going to highlight an example of the actual writing that deals with the city of Amarillo since this post is a part of My Town Mondays.
For the Panhandle, more modernly spoken of as "The Golden Spread," 1956 became the seventh year of drouth. Except for one savage blizzard, it had arrived ash dry, and it continued that way. At the heart of the Spread, Amarillo sat at thirty-six hundred feet high, smoking the inflated cigars of incongruous record-breaking prosperity and boasting how it now had fifty-five known millionaires. Drouth could not touch oil and gas. Only a minority of credit-exhausted sodbusters actually suffered. These watched their fields chap and split as their seed blew away; they took blow torched to yellowing prickly pear, burning off the spears so the stock might survive a bit longer. To them, Amarillo's two-eighty-four-a-barrel boom seemed like sin.
$2.84 a barrel oil might sound like paradise by today's standards but little has changed outside of the math.
And one more sample with a bit of dialogue in it.
"Aw dammit, Snake," Papa said the day Spain had the fight at school," what's it gittin' you settin' so thin-skinned all the time? Where yu' think I'd be I ask you, was I always keeping my feelin's on my sleeve? Look at me back there in'17. Three-quarters German an' a quarter English, at a time like that! What you think people said to me? Did I ever have me a fight? Hell, no! Before they could start on me, I said, 'The Kaiser is a sonofabitch,' and then I'd say, ' Them German kin of mine, they rig up the goddamn wars, an' then my limey cousins, they come along behind scavenging up,' and then I tole them, ' Me, I'm a Panhandle Texan, an' I'm raising the beef to feed our Texas boys who'll whip the hell out of one side or both of 'em, whichever needs it!" After which as Spain recalled, papa got up off the couch and took him to the kitchen, to play poker a little while for the ten days' wages owing because Spain had been grubbing mesquite.
I highly recommend the book to anyone who enjoys the inner ticking of humanity. The novel felt so real at times that I almost felt like a peeping-tom peering in at the lives of my neighbors. If I had any neighbors worth upwards of two hundred million that is. But there very well may be a reason why it read so real.
Now, as promised, the story behind the novel.
The Bone Pickers first was released by McGraw-Hill in 1958. That much I can tell you is fact. I have heard two different rumors about what happened next and try as I might I have not substantiated either in my research so I am going to lay both out here. I have hopes that someone who reads this blog and was living during that time can shed some light on the facts.
There is and was a prominent family of Amarillo millionaires who achieved their family fortune from oil after years of struggling to make it as ranchers. So the story goes many of the elements in The Bone Pickers closely mirrored this family's actual history. Everyone I've talked to seems to agree on that. It was how this family reacted to such a close inspection of their past that differs.
Story 1 says the family tracked down and bought nearly every copy of the original novel to stop it from becoming widely read especially in and around the Texas Panhandle. To me there are a lot of holes in this explanation given the things I do know are facts.
Story 2 seems more plausible to me and it is the one I've heard repeated more often. It says that upon The Bone Picker's release the family sued the author and publisher. Demanding certain scenes, dates, and names be changed. Rumor has they reached a settlement that included the promise no more copies would be printed (which might have been when the family bought the remaining copies) and that after a few changes were made the altered book would be released under a new name. A paperback version of a similar story titled The Golden Touch came out in 1959. I tried to find a copy of that book in time to compare but failed.
In 2002 Texas Tech University Press rereleased what is supposedly the original story with the original name, The Bone Pickers. This is the only version I've read, and even it was a bit difficult to procure. I went to Hasting Bookstore where I buy the majority of my reading material. Hastings is a national chain but they are based out of Amarillo. When I asked about order a copy of The Bone Pickers the clerk told me he could but it would have to be shipped directly from the published to my house as it was a title they were not allowed to order for arrival at their store. i've ordered a lot of books from tiny publishers up to the big New York houses and never before have I been told I couldn't pick it up in the store.
The harbinger of political fallout from a novel first published fifty years ago? The pressure of local wealth to take care of one another? Or just a strange coincidence? Who knows, but this is a novel that deserves to be read and I encourage you to do so.
Links to Other My Town Monday Posts
Josephine Damian -- Part 1 of her post about New Rochelle, New York and Ragtime author E.L. Doctorow. *******And part duece.********
The Anti-Wife -- Seattle, Washington
Patti Abbott -- Review of The Virgin Suicides by Jeffrey Euginides a novel set in Detroit, Michigan
Clare2E (Women of Msytery) -- Rye, New York
WordVixen -- Lititz,Pennsylvania
Clair Dickson -- Livingston county, Michigan
Lyzzydee -- Welwyn Garden City, England
Debbie Lou -- Bishops Stortford, England