Mama, do let your children grow up reading about cowboys and cowboy days


April 08, 1994|By Molly Dunham Glassman | Molly Dunham Glassman,Sun Staff Writer

No doubt about it: Cowboys are making a comeback.

First came a few bootleg tapes of "Riders in the Sky," with Ranger Doug, Woody Paul and the gang. Then cowboy sheets in the Lands' End catalog and all-cotton cowboy pajamas at Macy's.

It's the latest retro trend for baby boomers' babies, and publishers are doing their part. Here are a few new books to share with the little buckaroos as they settle in for the night after a hard day of ropin' and ridin'.

* "Cowboys: An Album" by Linda Granfield (Ticknor & Fields, $18.95, 96 pages, ages 8 and up) is one of those books kids will have a hard time prying away from parents and grandparents who grew up with Gene Autry, Roy Rogers and Dale Evans and even "Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid."

Ms. Granfield begins by debunking many of the myths perpetuated by movies and television. Cowboys didn't ride around fighting "Injuns" for years and years. In fact, the earliest cowboys were Native Americans, trained by Spanish settlers in Mexico in the 1500s.

The era of the cowboy as we know it lasted only 20 years, from 1866 to 1888. There were fewer than 50,000 of them, and most were far too busy driving cattle from the ranges of Texas to the railroad yards of Kansas and Missouri to rob banks or chase after Comanches.

Vintage photographs capture the faces of these young men -- veterans of the Civil War, boys running away from home, and ex-slaves. Nearly one out of seven cowboys was black, Ms. Granfield writes, and she profiles three of the most famous: Nat Love, John Ware and Bulldoggin' Bill Pickett.

Yet movies about the West rarely depict black cowboys. Ms. Granfield also decries the stereotype of Mexicans as sidekicks tripping over their serapes and of women as "disloyal girlfriends, immodest saloon girls or tough crones who could run a ranch 'like a man.' The truth is that women helped to settle the West, and they faced great hardships and danger while struggling to survive."

Most of all, the book satisfies the reader's curiosity about the difficult, incredibly independent life of a cowboy. There are glossaries of cowboy phrases with their Spanish roots, diagrams of the responsibilities of different riders on a cattle drive and even a recipe for chuck wagon chili.

* For a little more romance, check out "Cowboys: A Library of Congress Book" by Martin W. Sandler (HarperCollins, $19.95, 91 pages, ages 8 and up).

As you might imagine, the photographs are spectacular. Mr. Sandler keeps the text simple, often including song lyrics that are as poignant as the pictures. There are excerpts from "Git Along, Little Dogies," "The Old Chisholm Trail" and "I'm Going to Leave Old Texas Now."

Mr. Sandler includes a few cowgirls and black cowboys, and the text that accompanies full-color posters of the Wild West shows of the early 1900s helps explain how the cowboy became a mythical figure.

* Bill Pickett, the rodeo star famous for his "bulldogging," is included in "Proudly Red and Black: Stories of African and Native Americans," by William Loren Katz and Paula A.Franklin (Atheneum, $13.95, 88 pages, ages 8-12).

Bill Pickett was born in 1870 in Austin, Texas. His father, a former slave, was of mixed African-American, white and Cherokee background. His mother was said to be "black, Mexican, white and Indian." He grew to be a fine cowboy, but he became famous because of his specialty: grabbing a calf by its ears, then biting its upper lip and wrestling it to the ground.

It was called bulldogging because ranchers trained dogs to bite the calves' lips. Pickett made a living by exhibiting his toothy talents in the Wild West shows of the early 1900s.

Others profiled in the book are Paul Cuffe, a sailing merchant who prospered in the early 1800s; Edward Rose, a trapper and frontiersman during the same time period; John Horse, leader of the Seminoles in the mid-1800s; sculptor Edmonia Lewis, and North Carolina Congressman George Henry White.

* Not all the cowboys are gone. "Cowboy Country," written by Ann Herbert Scott, with pictures by Ted Lewin (Clarion, $14.95, 40 pages, ages 5-8), follows a young boy as he spends a day with a modern buckaroo.

The text blends poetry with plenty of facts about a cowboy's responsibilities. The old-timer grows melancholy about some of the changes, though he adds: "I'd be the first to say a pickup comes in handy when you're miles from town."

Mr. Lewin's watercolors complement the reverence and respect that Ms. Scott brings to her subject:

On a night like this you can understand

Why I wouldn't trade my life for any man's.

It's worth the cold and sweat and dust

just to lie back and watch the stars

come blazing their own trail across the sky

and listen to the stream's song and the hoot owl's cry

and wake to coyotes singing in the hills.

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