Monday, May 4, 2009
Book Review: Cowboy Sam
One great reason to have kids is that it gives you an excuse to read the children’s books you enjoyed in your youth. You can find just about any book now through the online resellers, even books long out of print. The first book I ever read was Cowboy Sam by Edna Walker Chandler. I just couldn’t get enough of it, and begged my mom to read it to me again and again until I had it all but memorized. (To this day, if you mention the title she’ll groan retroactively at the remembered tedium of this.) No other children’s book had the same effect on me back then.
Remembering Cowboy Sam’s impact reminds me of the odd compulsion my childhood friend John and I had to listen to Led Zeppelin’s “Stairway to Heaven” over and over. One day we even heard, on a radio talk show, about a child welfare group that was trying to censor the song based on both its addictiveness to teens and its alleged Satanic backmasking. Intrigued, we messed around with John’s parents’ turntable until, to our astonishment, we discovered that the song really does have Satanic backmasking: “My sweet Satan,” clear as a bell. (I probably shouldn’t admit this, but Alexa has taken to the song and now begs us to play it for her. I’m assuming this is based on the quality of the song, not the clever gimmick she doesn’t know anything about.)
Cowboy Sam isn’t quite so compelling to my kids, though Lindsay has taken a shine to it lately and will make me start from the beginning if we’re interrupted during a reading. Yesterday she stared intently for some time one of its pictures, of a herd of cows. “That one looks angry,” she says. And it does—look.
Lindsay goes on to say, “The others are all sad and worried and he’s saying, ‘It’s all my fault!’”
I decided not to psychoanalyze my daughter about this utterance, but I did take a moment to correct her pronoun: “You mean she looks angry.” After all, it says right in the book that these are all cows. And then it hit me: why all cows? Not a single bull in the book, and not a single steer. And meanwhile, not a single female human. What’s up with this oddly compelling book with no women and this very angry, guilt-ridden cow? I decided that, as had “Stairway to Heaven,” this book warranted closer inspection and analysis.
The Truth About Sam
Sure enough, Cowboy Sam starts off like a lads’ mag (e.g., Gear, Stuff), showcasing Cowboy Sam’s possessions. Okay, I’m kidding—that’s a perfectly straightforward beginning to an early readers’ book. But very quickly it becomes clear that Cowboy Sam himself is the sole focus, the other characters serving as mere bit players.
“Look ... SAM’S RANCH,” Lindsay says, pointing at the sign above the corral. “It’s only his, not theirs,” she declares emphatically.
Granted, this book is entitled (literally) to have a central character, but it’s odd how the other characters are described only in terms of their relationship to him. “Here is Big Bill. He makes good things for Sam to eat.” No mention of Bill’s intrinsic value. “Here is Shorty. He is a cowboy, too. He helps Sam.” Nota bene: these two are not united in a common cause—it’s Sam’s world and Shorty just helps. We never even get Shorty’s real name. (You think it says “Shorty” on his birth certificate? What, were his parents clairvoyant?)
Sam, we quickly learn, is the quintessential alpha male. It’s as though he won’t tolerate any other strong male figure in his world. Remember, while cows feature prominently in the book, we never get a single bull. The only other male mentioned is Black Wolf, a clear adversary who must be vanquished. Sam will not acknowledge that wolves naturally eat other animals, including cattle, as part of nature’s plan. He declares his feelings very bluntly: “Black Wolf is bad.” On first reading, or perhaps the first hundred readings, it may seem as though Black Wolf is the instigator in this conflict, sneaking up on Sam and the cows as they sleep. But what is Sam doing sleeping on the ground, in the middle of nowhere, with his cows? Simply this: he has set a trap—using his own cows as bait! When Black Wolf falls for this, out comes the rifle. (Obviously the phallic representation of the gun needs no exegesis, but I will say that I vividly remember being inexplicably thrilled, as a boy, by the fact of, and sight of, that rifle.)
Does the narrator use the Black Wolf episode to take Sam down a notch? Maybe hand him a minor defeat, or at least some unexpected remorse after he takes the life of one of God’s creatures? Of course not. This being a children’s book, the wolf doesn’t take a bullet, but the outcome is even more perfect for Sam: the humiliated creature literally runs away with its tale between its legs! Black Wolf is totally shamed by Sam, run right out of the book. The cowboy’s triumph is complete.
The astute reader may wonder if I’m reading too much into this—could it not be that Sam is just a cowboy, after all, with a less than totally sophisticated view of the natural world? And isn’t it natural to defend your cattle against predators? Well, in the sarcastic words of another macho man, “Isn’t it pretty to think so?” Indeed, closer inspection shows that Cowboy Sam systematically undermines the self esteem of everybody around him, to ensure his dominance within his little realm.
First, we see his contrary reaction to every one of Shorty’s suggestions. When Sam sets out to look for Black Wolf, Shorty asks, “Do you want me to ride with you?” The most logical answer, in my book, is yes—after all, wouldn’t two cowboys have a better chance against Black Wolf? But no, not in Cowboy Sam’s view. He must do this ... ALONE. But if he’s going to deny Shorty, he could at least be polite about it. A simple “No thanks,” perhaps? Instead, you wince at the brittle reproach, worthy of Mr. Ramsay in To The Lighthouse, when Sam says icily, “I want you to work on the ranch.” (In today’s vernacular he’d be saying, “I want you to work on the ranch, bitch.”) Later in the book, Shorty—obsequious as ever and perhaps chastened by his earlier rebuke—asks, “Do you want me to work on the ranch?” Sam, far too imperious and contrarian to accept the suggestion, once again counters it: “I want you to ride with me.”
You may still think I’m quibbling. A coincidence, you might say. Or, perhaps it’s Shorty’s fault—maybe he’s just a pest, maybe he can’t read the situation. Well then, what defense would you give when Sam outwardly disses Big Bill? This happens when Sam is leaving to hunt down Black Wolf. He doesn’t state his true intentions; he says, “I am going to take the cows to water. I will look for Black Wolf.” The implication is that he’s just going to keep an eye out for the wolf during a daily errand. He makes this more explicit when he says, “I will come back soon. I will want a good dinner.” Bill, as accommodating as Shorty, replies, “Good-by. I will make a good dinner.” But one hundred readings later we realize that Sam has no intention of being back by dinnertime. Not only has he brought his dinner along, he’s brought his bedroll! Even after getting rid of Black Wolf, Sam spends the rest of the night under the stars. His petty ego must get some satisfaction in imagining Bill eventually realizing he isn’t coming home, and throwing out his dinner.
A Shocking Revelation
Sam’s snub of Big Bill notwithstanding, the central relationship in the book is between Sam and Shorty. Not only is Shorty eager to please Sam, but he’s openly solicitous—protective, even. Shorty offers him the snake bite box, and Sam replies, “I will take it.” But he doesn’t. Later, when Sam takes leave of Shorty out on the range, Shorty patiently offers him the snake bite box again. This gentle but persistent reminder ... what did it make me think of? Ah, yes ... Walter Mitty’s wife. Shorty and Sam are like an old married couple! No, I’m not going to suggest they’re gay. (Cowboy Sam came out almost fifty years before “Brokeback Mountain.”) But I had a sudden epiphany when I examined this picture carefully:
Shorty looks uncannily small, doesn’t he? The first hundred or so times I saw this, I figured Shorty was somewhat in the background, but then I noticed that the snake bite box is in front of Sam’s arm. Something just looks wrong: men that short tend to be much stockier than that. Something about Shorty’s physique suddenly struck me in a new light, and I quickly flipped through the book looking for other clues. Confirmation came with this one:
There can be no doubt—Shorty is a woman! No wonder she’s content being so submissive—she’s faking it as a man, just to be included in this rancher’s world, and doesn’t want to make waves and have her secret discovered. (In fact, she looks a fair bit like Teena Brandon, aka Brandon Teena, in the movie “Boys Don’t Cry.”) In this context, an odd comment she offers toward the end of the book makes a bit more sense: “I like a cowboy’s work.” And she clearly does.
Whether or not Shorty is in love with Cowboy Sam, she obviously feels a certain tenderness for his fragile male ego; consider her litany of praise at the end of the book: “You did good work. You shot Black Wolf. You looked for water. You shot two snakes. You helped Dandy.” Never mind that Sam didn’t shoot Black Wolf (he missed); that on the occasion in question he never did find water (though Shorty herself did, twice!); that he shot one snake only after it already bit Dandy and shot the other for no good reason; and that he was able to help Dandy only because she, Shorty, had finally managed to get him to take the snake bite box. As far as we can tell, Shorty is by far more competent as a cowboy; unsurprisingly, Cowboy Sam’s response is far from generous: “You helped, too.”
So what, exactly, is the author, Edna Walker Chandler, up to? In 1951, when this book was first published, a book with an outwardly feminist theme could only have served a niche market. To inject a message into mainstream children’s literature, she would have been compelled by necessity to be very subtle, and I think that’s what she has done. The key that unlocks the hidden message is the angry cow that Lindsay noticed. It’s as if the cow is saying, “Look, we’re all getting screwed here by the arbitrary authority of this unenlightened [male-dominated rancher] society, and so long as we allow ourselves to be herded along like this, things will never change.” Only Shorty herself, by infiltrating this society and this book, seems to have taken the first cautious step in turning things around.
Does Shorty’s scheme get us anywhere? Yes, eventually. Eleven years later, in 1962, Shorty finally gets equal billing in the series with Cowboy Sam and Shorty, in which she even has an acknowledged triumph when Cowboy Sam forgets to put gas in his car and Shorty gets to tow him home, with a bunch of other cowboys as witness. Finally, in 1971, came not just one but two books in the series that openly admitted female humans (Cowboy Sam and Sally and Cowboy Sam and Miss Lilly). (I’ll confess that I haven’t sprung for these two titles.)
And what of the author’s undertaking? Was Edna Walker Chandler successful in infusing her children’s books with subversive proto-feminist messages? Hard to say. Who can tell what incremental attitude shifts she may have achieved in the malleable minds of our youth? It’s a much more solid bet, however, that the male-dominated publishing establishment eventually caught on to her little project, for the entire Cowboy Sam series, along with Chandler’s adult title Women In Prison, have long been out of print.