Today’s featured book is Patrick Dearen’s excellent 2014 novel, “The Big Drift.” It was recommended to me when I was working on my book “52 Weeks • 52 Western Novels” and was such a joy to discover. “The Big Drift” is one of those books you wonder how you missed and then want to run out and tell all your reading friends to pick up a copy. So I’m doing that, right now.
If you like cattle and cattlemen and enjoy reading about lonely and isolated cowboys fighting demons (internal and weather-based), “The Big Drift” is for you. Zeke Boles is a recently freed slave who is tearing himself apart for an accident that killed his boss (who was also his former master), an accident he was not responsible for, but blames himself for. On the run, Zeke stumbles across — and saves the life of — Will Brite, a Slash Five cowboy freezing to death pinned under his crippled horse. Will is also being torn apart by guilt for something he was forced — by his father — to do as a small child.
We read as these Middle Concho Texans, riding for the Slash Five brand, wrestle with prejudice, thieves, murderers and their private demons. This is all set against the background of the brutal 1884 blizzard, which is just as likely to kill Will and Zeke (it did thousands of cattle) as any of their man-made problems. “The Big Drift” is not the typical “gunplay” Western. As a matter of fact, early on in the book, Will doesn’t even carry a handgun. But there is plenty of action to go along with the personal drama.
Patrick Dearen was born and raised in Texas (the love of which can be seen in “The Big Drift”), and like many authors, he started writing in high school, has a significant favorite novel in his past (in this case, Edgar Rice Burroughs’ “Tarzan of the Apes”) and was an award-winning newspaper journalist (for the San Angelo Standard-Times and the Midland-Reporter Telegram) before becoming a full-time author. His 20 books include both fiction and nonfiction books about the Old West.
Many of Dearen’s books (fiction and nonfiction) are informed by the more than 70 oral histories he conducted with old-time cowboys. Both “The Big Drift” and “To Hell or the Pecos” are Elmer Kelton Award winners.
Please allow me a personal note. My grandfather was a Southern Baptist Sunday School teacher in Texas. He was a terrific grandfather, and even though he passed almost 40 years ago, I remember him with love and affection. I also remember that he was prejudiced — not overtly, or meanly, just matter of fact. I thought of him as I read how Zeke, without having to be told, ate dinner alone, knowing he wasn’t welcome to eat with the other cowboys. He could work with them all day as an equal, even be respected for his skills with a horse and a rope, but when the work was done, so was the relationship.
Certainly in his younger days, my grandfather would have been one of those cowboys, unthinking in their prejudice, but prejudiced nonetheless. I know that toward the end of his life, at a minimum, he would have been aware of what was happening, and I like to think he might have walked over and joined Zeke for dinner.
“No use wishin’ down punishment,” said the Negro. “Lord A’mighty deal out plenty on us all by Hisself.”