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 Texas : Features : Books Reviews

The Lonesome Plains:
Death and Revival on an American Frontier

by Louis Fairchild

Texas A & M Press, 2002
210 pages with
82 pages of notes and 16 illustrations


Reviewed by John Troesser

The book might be called: What To Do Until the Drought Comes. It's an unvarnished, unsentimental look at the real Texas Frontier and as a subject, it's about as serious as it gets. Using interviews, diaries and published sources, Mr. Fairchild, a psychology professor at Texas A & M University, Canyon, Texas, explores a rarely discussed subject - the suffocating and omnipresent loneliness of the Panhandle frontier. The frontier was a place of spiritual as well as material deprivation, despite the awe-inspiring sky and landscape.

Since contemporary West Texas and Panhandle life offers many* distractions and diversions, the book deals with the late 19th century and early 20th century - the times of the pioneer and hopeful immigrant. Despite the seriousness of the subject there is something uplifting or memorable on nearly every page.

Diet, infant mortality, burial procedures and etiquette, mourning, and the importance of friendship and neighborliness are all covered by these sobering and sometimes heartrending personal accounts. Also discussed is the way men dealt with these problems and benefits, which predictably, was quite different from women.

The subjects of the book are shown without any romantic embellishment - as people living, coping and struggling in a harsh and unforgiving landscape. Using the actual writings as source material allows for an easy and personal connection with the reader.

The scarcity of settlers in the Panhandle (.06 per square mile in 1880) allowed people to actually know every individual in nine counties. One woman said that she truly felt that her nearest neighbor was God, while another grew to appreciate her only companions - three chickens that a cowboy had given her. Another practiced playing the piano on her husband's desk - probably a laughable scene under other circumstances.

Cowboys rode miles to attend dances or just to see a woman from a distance. Although this is familiar cowboy behavior that you'd expect to see in the movies, what writer could invent a story of cowboys riding miles just to see or hold a baby that they had only heard about - a baby belonging to complete strangers?

Thankfully, the second part of the book is a little lighter and covers the camp or brush arbor meetings / revivals and comes close to explaining why West Texas has so many churches. Here the reader is relieved to find that there was some fun to be had when families would bring their children, dogs and even most of their furniture to these semi-annual events. Getting a year or six months worth of friendship and/ or religion crowded into a few short days is something few societies experience.

Rather than a cover photograph there's a bleak and dismal landscape painting by Harry Carnohan during The Great Depression. This might limit the book's appeal as a gift, but it remains a great reference for writers, sociologists and anyone who takes seriously the study of Texas and Texans. The details of everyday pioneer life are valuable and passages and quotes taken from the letters and diaries are well- chosen. It's a contribution to any West Texas library - personal or public.

You might have to find yourself in the right mood to start reading, but it's not an easy book to forget. It reads like a novel without the drone of academia and Mr. Fairchild's profession is never apparent - although it explains the depth and coverage of the subject.

It's a sober and unromantic homage to settlers of the Panhandle and is highly recommended.

*In West Texas, more than none is many.

John Troesser
December 2002

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Texas Panhandle | West Texas | Texas Books
 
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