Hank Nuwer excels at creating a vivid, atmospheric sense of place, both in Spain and Idaho. His pacing is by no means brisk, but rather than being a detraction, it highlights the introspection and attention to detail throughout the story. The dialogue has a few awkward moments…However, readers will likely gloss over these issues in favor of Nuwer’s keen eye for detail and historical accuracy. With its focus on teenage characters and specific exploration of bullying and hazing, this book has considerable appeal not only to fans of Westerns but to young adults as well.
Informed, unpretentious and attentive, this Western breathes life into little-known historical events.
Veteran Investigative Journalist Vic Ryckaert interview with Hank Nuwer for the Indianapolis Star.
Vic Ryckaert: Why did you write a Western novel?
Nuwer: Once, long ago, I took leave of my senses and decided that getting a Ph.D. at Nevada-Reno was a great idea. My two main doctoral areas were the New Journalism and Western American Literature. One of the guest speakers in a Western Lit class was the great American novelist Wallace Stegner who wrote “The Big Rock Candy Mountain,” and I interviewed him and went out to dinner with him and Bobby Clark, the son of Walter Van Tilburg Clark of “The Oxbow Incident” fame. I vowed then and there at that very table that I would write a literary Western. A mere 43 years later, I have written one. And no, I never got that Ph.D. Instead, a hazing death happened at Nevada-Reno right before I quit the program, and my life’s course as a writer took a turn I never had wished for and certainly never expected.
Ryckaert: Are any of the characters based on people you met?
Nuwer: Yes, and no. The old sheep herder and camptender Tubal in “Sons of the Dawn”was based on Jacinto Madrieta, a Basque I “trailed” sheep with from the high country of Nevada to the low country of Nevada on two magazine assignments when I was young—and on Lucien Millox, a Basque herder who brought in 2,000 sheep with a broken neck after a twister lifted up his sheepwagon and rattled it like corn in a popper. In addition to teaching me to herd sheep and protecting me from a sheepdog who wanted to sink his fangs into a Hank rump roast, Jacinto told me of his horrific experience as a boy surviving the bombing of Guernica in the Spanish Basque country by Hitler’s air force in collusion with the evil prime minister Francisco Franco. By the end of the book, Tubal’s personality, however, drastically changed from Jacinto’s serious world outlook into the personality of my late fishing buddy Jimmy Dale Noble, an ex-sheriff’s deputy and ex-logger, who was one of those competent, tart-talking human beings who viewed the world with sarcasm, wit and a “no B.S.” world view. But back to Jacinto– the sad ending of the book , moving from the Idaho outback of 1898 to the Basque country of Spain, was carved from a first-person recollection of the bombing that Jacinto had told me about in his Basque sheepwagon over a couple shots of bad Four Roses whiskey. Both my Tubal and the real Jacinto considered herding sheep as a sacred trust. To lose even one out of negligence or even carelessness was an unpardonable sin.
Ryckaert: How did your sabbatical in the Basque Country of Spain inspire you?
Nuwer: The Guernica Peace Museum (Museo de la Paz de Gernika) may be one of the last thoughts on my mind when I leave this world. It affected me so. In one exhibit the floor is glass and underneath is the actual rubble of Hitler’s bombing—things such as a child’s shoes, a rosary, everyday things charred and burnt. There were very old people from Guernica who had survived the bombing, and they were crying so hard. The museum used red stage lighting to make it seem like the room was afire. It was an astonishing experience. Last January, while in Madrid on Franklin College business, I saw Pablo Picasso’s masterpiece “Guernica,” and the sabbatical experience in Guernica made that painting all the more inspiring and meaningful for me.
Ryckaert: You have built a reputation as a national expert on hazing and more generally, bullying. Are there any bullies in this novel? Tell us about them.
Nuwer: Oh, yes, there is a savage rancher named Faro Sinclair who has lone shepherds burned in a circle of fire. That really happened, by the way, and I read about it in an old newspaper clipping as a graduate student at Nevada. Another character who works for Faro tried to cut off the queue of a Chinese minor, which is a horrific insult for someone of a certain culture at that time. My hero Anton Ibarra steps in as a bystander and dumps the would-be hazer into a water trough.
Ryckaert: Name some of your favorite authors.
Well, Kurt Vonnegut is the most meaningful, and I am writing his biography for Indiana University Press, stressing his life as a Hoosier, author and war veteran. A small grant from Franklin College sent me to Dresden, Germany, and I retraced Vonnegut’s own steps as a prisoner of war before and after the bombing of Dresden by the allies. But in terms of Western authors, I have a great deal of respect for the work of Louis L’Amour who wrote “Hondo” and Jack Schaefer who wrote “Shane.” Their books can be read by adults or teens, and I had those two in my mind when I targeted my novel for an audience aged from 14 to 99.
Ryckaert: What’s your favorite Western?
That is such a hard question. I have driven three times to the Zanesville (Ohio) Zane Grey Museum because his life spent traveling the world inspired me so. Then there is Willa Cather whose “Death Comes for the Archbishop” is a book I so want to teach one day because its every page is perfection. Recently I read a great mystery novel by Gwen Florio called “Montana,” and I was predisposed to like it because Gwen is a journalist and former war correspondent. But in the end I go back to my graduate school days and select Walter Van Tilburg Clark’s “The Oxbow Incident,” which was made into a classic film starring Henry Fonda. On one level it is a straightforward novel about vigilantes who hang an innocent man as a rustler. On another level, it is a life’s lesson in that every community ought to learn to be skeptical of its leading citizens since arrogance, greed, abuse of power and blind insistence on obedience can destroy a community if the ordinary citizens do not speak up and say, “Hold enough” and “What you’re proposing is immoral or amoral.”
Ryckaert: After authoring so many serious, scholarly articles and books, I’m guessing you had a little more fun writing a work of fiction, am I right?
Nuwer: Nearly ever word of the novel was written between 2 a.m. and 6 a.m. It was my dog Casey, me and the coffee pot. The academic garb is gone, replaced by baggy sweats, a gimmee cap and a tee shirt badly in need of washing. I’d read a passage aloud and my dog Casey would look at me with these stern eyes. “You’re right, Casey,” I joked once. “Too many adverbs.” Yes, you’re a writer, Vic, to just have the freedom to do your best work at a crazy hour day after day was exhilarating. On a serious note, you also worry that you’ve boxed yourself into a corner. You are writing about under-represented people in the Basques and Chinese. Your buckaroos are scum. Will readers accept Basque herders as heroes? While writing about the Basques in 1979, one of them gave me a green-and-white baseball cap that said “I am a sheep herder” on it. No one in the Gillette, Wyoming restaurant I visited with that on either threatened me or made me take it off, but a couple patrons asked me if I was trying to start a fight. All this took a much more sinister turn when a couple ranchers murdered Lucien Millox one night in Wyoming. My old Basque sources, ranchers and common herders, phoned me at the time, and I realized that the Old murderous West is still here in modern-day cow and sheep towns.