Book Review: Sons of the Dawn–A Basque Odyssey

Buckaroos vs. shepherds in the Old West by Jim Garlits

Franklin College professor  Hank Nuwer’s Sons of the Dawn: A Basque Odyssey has all the dusty bravado and high noon tension of a Wild West shoot-em-up. But it’s more than a genre exercise. Due for January release by Shalako Press, Nuwer’s Western novel tackles weightier topics such as cultural diversity in 1890s Idaho, and the related issues of hazing and bullying (Nuwer is known internationally as an expert on bullying).

Sitting relaxed in denim and flannel as he devoured a turkey sandwich and sipped black coffee in a donut-county café, Nuwer talked with NUVO about his days as a pickup truck-and-typewriter freelancer scouring the Western landscape for stories.

After the interview, Nuwer followed the reporter, a former journo student of Nuwer’s at Ball State University, to kick the tires of a used “C” class RV he thought might serve as his address for upcoming travels and research for his follow-up novel on Chinese miners in the West. The howling wind bounced sheets of rain off of a corrugated steel roof over our heads as Hank pondered whether his black lab Casey would go with its Travels with Charley-style furnishings.

NUVO: What compelled you to write a Western novel about sheep herders who hailed from a part of Idaho inhabited by Basque emigres?

Hank Nuwer: About 40 years ago, I read in a 19th-century Nevada newspaper that buckaroos [read: cowboys] captured a herder, and put him in the center of a ring of fire to kill him. At that time, irate cowboys who thought sheep were eating the good grazeland were driving sheep over cliffs to drive out the sheep ranchers and homesteaders. So the central image in my book is based on a true occurrence. If I’ve done my job, it is about one of the classic battles of the American West, the cattlemen vs. the sheep herders, many of them Basques from Spain and France. My idea in this novel and future novels is to highlight underrepresented minorities in the West as protagonists.

When I was a graduate student at Nevada-Reno, the very first course I took was Western American literature, and though I loved literature, I found grad school stultifying and creativity deadening in spite of my 3.9+ grade point. The head of the University of Nevada Press, Robert Laxalt, probably the best Basque fiction writer of all time and a contributing writer with National Geographic, said, “Hank, you ought to quit grad school and go out and be a writer.”

I quit school, went out to Los Angeles, and started writing. One of the proposals to various magazine editors was the culture of the Basques out west, so I abandoned my Topanga Canyon cabin, hopped in my pickup with camper, and went herding sheep with Basque herders out on the trail for a couple magazines.

NUVO: Your character Tubal Buscal in particular just leaped from the page for me.

Nuwer: Tubal changed dramatically from the original character that I had based on an old herder from Guernica that I herded with in the Ruby Mountains of Nevada and had stayed with at his sheep wagon. Some of the things about his character are present in Tubal. You treat your animals first to a meal before you treat yourself. You set down big boys or flat rocks when you find water, so the next herder comes through won’t die of thirst. You can’t expect to take care of 2,000 sheep if you don’t take care of your camp. So he started on the page from a real person, but it amazed me how he changed into a complicated, fictional character who bore little resemblance to his inspiration.

NUVO: People probably know you best from your time as editor of Arts Indiana magazine. How would you explain the work you are doing now to that audience?

Nuwer: Well, I do have a home in central Indiana since I am a prof at Franklin College, but I have acreage in Alaska and Nevada. The two years that I got to spend as Arts Indiana editor demanded that I learn a lot about music and art. I had an appreciation for both, but the job forced me to go in and learn about painting and making every brush stroke count–just like every word in a story counts, and I learned the importance of shadows and detail and sticking to a theme. Hemingway used to say that if you wanted to learn how to write fiction, go stare at a single painting by Cezanne.

Kurt Vonnegut was on our advisory board. Just before Arts Indiana, I got a chance to interview him, and then I ran into him while giving a talk in New Hampshire, and he and I got to sit at a bar and talk some more. What is so darned interesting is that Vonnegut was Indiana through and through, but lived in New York City and Long Island. I am West through and through, but I have been planted in Indiana more or less since 1982.

NUVO: Does Sons of the Dawn strike you primarily as a Western, as historical fiction, or what?

Nuwer: The class I took at Nevada-Reno way back in 1972 with a guest lecturer named Wallace Stegner, a fine novelist, taught me that the West is an excellent setting for complicated literary fiction if it is written with breadth and depth, well developed characters, a plot that is not simplistic, and incredible detail — and speaking of detail, I think you may learn more about sheep herding in my novel than you want.

In terms of geographic setting, I’ve been all over Idaho, once having lived there, but I have also been out to the Basque country in Spain to do the research in Guernica at a museum honoring the Basques, and also a Peace Museum dedicated to memorializing the bombing of Guernica. I went to Madrid to look at the painting of Guernica by Picasso twice. I think all of this elevates the book from a shoot ’em up western to a far more complex novel than anyone will expect.

NUVO: You’ve found a way to add a scene to the novel addressing the topic of hazing. It flows very well.

Nuwer: This Chinese man, one of the characters who may appear in the sequel novel, meets a buckaroo who tries to cut his queue [or ponytail] off. The queue was sacred to a lot of these ethnic miners, and was an offense that could get somebody hung back in China. Anton, my Basque who lifts 600-pound boulders for fun, throws the buckaroo into a water trough and dunks him under to teach him a lesson: he’s standing up for the little guy, for the hazing victim. It’s interesting because now in this chapter we’ve got two newly arrived Americans, Chinese and Basque, who are standing up against so-called “real Americans” who with their racism have lost the humanity that Anton and the Chinese miner possess.