Monday, May 12, 2008

The Bone Pickers - A My Town Monday Book Review

First off, Happy Mother's Day to all.

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 i
s 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

Barrie Summy -- Tells us about Carolyn Wheat, a mystery author from San Diego, California

Linda McLaughlin -- Orange County, California

Clair Dickson -- Livingston county, Michigan

Lyzzydee -- Welwyn Garden City, England

Debbie Lou -- Bishops Stortford, England


The Anti-Wife said...

This is really interesting. I screwed up and did a regular MTM post. Sorry!

Terrie Farley Moran said...


That is some story!


We'll probably all visit anyway!


pattinase (abbott) said...

Do you think the book feels contemporary because Amarillo hasn't changed much? I think that would be true of Grosse Pointe as well, but not Detroit by a long shot.

Clare2e said...

The Women of Mystery have a regular one up, too, since Nan covered a novel in her MTM last week. So far behind we're ahead of our time?

Design Goddess said...

I think that's a very cool idea. However, I don't think there is a book that takes place in my town. Although Marilyn Manson did mention a "Little farm town" he used to visit on Football game nights in his auto-bio. Does that count? :D

Josephine Damian said...

Part 2 is up:

Back later.

Anonymous said...

Wow, thanks for a fascinating review! The Bone Pickers sounds like an excellent read.

WordVixen said...

The intrigue of the family rumors and the store not being allowed to order in the book is absolutely delicious!

I didn't do the MTM book review since the only books that I'm aware of that are set in Lancaster County involve the Amish, and tend to not be to my taste. I did, however, post up an MTM post about the local movie theater. Figured I should stop writing about food every week. :)

Barrie said...

Well, if this is one of the best 50 Texan book, it's a must-read. Plus, I'm all over character. :)

Hey, Travis, My Town Monday is about Carolyn Wheat, a local mystery author. Thanks! I am still having so much fun with these posts.

Miladysa said...

I LOVE a bit of mystery and I understand why you have investigated the one surrounding this book. How interesting!

Are the family still living locally?

Chris Eldin said...

This is soo cool!!! Now I want that book more than ever.
Why is it called The Bone Pickers? It seems ominous, but is there a specific reason?

Travis Erwin said...

Sorry everyone for not getting the links poosted quicker.

Anti-wife -- No problem. I look forward to reading more about Seattle.

Terrie - Yes it is.

Patti - The town has changed phsically but I don't think it's peopel ahve all that much. Image is still something mnay are a slave to and in my first novel I tackeld this smae issue though not nearlya s well as Dewlen did which is jsut one of teh reasosn the novel is as yet unpublished.

Clare2E -- I look forward to reading all the MTM posts book realted or not. i've learned a ton about New York and I hope to continue doing so.

DG -- It all counts. You should do a psot on it.

Josephine - You are an over achiever this week. :)

I'll be back in a bit to answer the rest of y'alls questions.

Ello - Ellen Oh said...

Ok wow that was absolutely fascinating! And wow what alot of work for this post!

Today is my last day of finals and then I've got a 2 week window til summer classes start where I am working on my WIP. However, this is so cool, I will definitely work on joining you next Monday. after all, I can choose between New York and DC. Lots and Lots to choose from!!!

Travis Erwin said...

Thomma Lyn - thanks it is a great read.

WordVixen - Seen any good movies there lately you'd like to recommend?

Barrie - It truly is a Texas classic.

Miladysa - Yes there are still mnay of their descendants in town though the players in the novel may all be dead. Interesting enough, a high percentage of those family tree are now lawyers which is exactly why I didn't state their name in this post.

Chris - Like the novel the title has many layers. When the family gets together to discuss business they say they have a few bones to pick but it also is indicative of their scavenger like qualities.

Ello -But it was fun work.

Charles Gramlich said...

this is a cool idea, but I don't think there has been any novels published that feature my home town. The town of "Deerhaven" in my "Cold in the Light" thriller is basically Charleston, Arkansas so I suppose that counts.

Charles Gramlich said...

Wait, there was a nonfiction book set mostly in my home town, "Best lawyer in a one laywer town" by Dale Bumpers

Linda McLaughlin said...

Very interesting, Travis.

I did a regular My Town Monday post because I didn't have time to read a book set in the area. Maybe next time.


Clair D. said...

I did a MTM post, too.

Lyzzydee said...

I looked but couldn't find a single book based in Welwyn Garden City , so I did a regular MTM.

Yours was an interesting story though!!

Michele said...

This is a cool idea!

I can't think of any novels set in my town...Near my town, sure. In Orange County, absolutely. Lots of songs and TV shows set around us, though. Although, it was the oil boom that brought everyone out around the turn of the twentieth century.

holly said...

ooooh. i love a bit of possibly-true scandal fiction. gonna have to get a read of that.

and what a great idea for a theme. although i' pretty sure no books have been set in my town. would state count? i think i have a book set in my state. not my current one, as i'm in wales. my home one.

oh wait. it was just this week, yeah? no way i'm reading that book and posting about it tonight. i'll just enjoy yours. :)

Jess said...

Hey T- Boulder Theater is actually one of the few venues I've gotten to check out while living in Colorado. Very cool, should be an AWESOME show. If we were staying here and knew what was up with the house, etc. I would SO go to the show- I've had my eye on it! Steve Earle is great anywhere, but yeah, it would be worth a trip to the Boulder Theater. :) IF we are still here (and please don't take it personally, but Lord, PLEASE don't let us be here!) we'd love to meet y'all at the Rio for margaritas!

Jess said...

Oh- RE: Boulder Theater:
Smallish venue, great sound, sort of Boulder ecletic. A friend of mine had a CD release party/concert there and it was fantastic.

Debbielou said...

Amazing story - I had trouble this week writing about a fiction event so twisted it a bit to write about a true account of a book written about the execution of a local man !

Bubblewench said...

More oddities from the Panhandle... hmmmm.. interesting.

Josephine Damian said...

TE: I was wondering how this book compared to OIL by Sinclair Lewis/basis of THERE WILL BE BLOOD. Did you read that? See the movie?

I'll check out both books and the flick.

debra said...

A day late due to traveling, my post is up. I'll be back later to read.

WordVixen said...

Travis- The only movie I can think of is Witness. Certainly not recent, but parts of it were filmed in the fields along my school bus route.

Britta Coleman said...

Mine's up. Sort of. :)

Anonymous said...

I did grow up in the 50s in Amarillo and I can identify with the characters from The Bone Pickers, some were my neighbors, some were just the "family from the ranch", but all were well known in some form. There may have been some exaggeration in some descriptions but that family still lives on and has pretty colorful characters.

Anonymous said...

Ahh, yes. I know that book well. I've only read it once but the copy I read is a legendary piece of my family's personal library.

As for your two theories on why the novel disappeared as fast it came, from what I recall, it was a little bit of both. Not only were the Whittenbergs wealthy, they owned the town newspaper. As I remember being told, the Whittenbergs bought every copy they could find as well as sicking their lawyers on the author and publisher.

It is a good book and well-written. Some of the scandals seem tame by today's standards but the dynamics of a rich and powerful family ring true.

Anonymous said...

It is very interesting for me to read this article. Thanks for it. I like such themes and everything connected to this matter. I definitely want to read a bit more soon.

Anonymous said...

I've just stumbled onto this review. This book, and the story of the Wittenbergs has been a legend within my family. My mother grew up in Borger Tx, about 50 miles north of Amarillo. A story that holds from my grandad was a time when all the locals were called upon (nay, expected) to go searching for "crazy" Jake Wittenberg. They searched all through the night only to find out that he had been hiding in the barn all along.

The stories about pulling the books is true. Not sure how Tech got to republish it, but supposedly the family bought up the rights. I'm reading the book for the first time, my grandmothers 1958 copy. Lucky thing about having family from the area for so long.

It is strange to read a book so deeply vetted in your community. The town has changed, sure. But the way people behave and the social contracts between your neighbors is still present, especially in smaller surrounding towns like Pampa.

Unknown said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
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skv said...

I received my copy of the Bone Pickers today, and am so excited just to have it in my hands. You see, I have waited 56 years to read this book. I was born in Borger,TX in 1953 and after moving to Amarillo in 1958, I remember overhearing my parents discussing this book(yes, I was five, but I have phenomenal long term memory. Couldn't tell you what I had for lunch yesterday,but what I was up to 56 years ago is no stretch). I am not sure why it stuck with me, except that I certainly found the name odd, and oh yeah, my mother couldn't find a copy in Amarillo. That little fact was something I never forgot.

Anonymous said...

Amarillo Public Library has multiple copies of THE BONE PICKERS, and has had for decades.

Anonymous said...

Amarillo Public Library has multiple copies of THE BONE PICKERS, and has had for decades.