Writing

Book Review: Journal of the Gun Years by Richard Matheson

I don’t spend a lot of time writing book reviews. Basically, unless I’ve been specifically asked by a friend or a client to do a book review for them, or if I find a book I desperately want to read on Goodreads or on the Online Book Club , you won’t see a lot of my reviews online. Writing book reviews remind me too much of having to write book reports in school. In other words, it’s drudgework to me. I’d much rather be writing fiction of my own or reading.

I have a horrifically long list of books I want to read. (No, I don’t keep the list on Goodreads because that is also too time consuming. Do you sense a pattern here?) I generally average between 15 to 20 books a month, and to be honest, not all of the books I read are significant enough in my mind to spend time writing about them. In fact I start and quit reading perhaps twice that amount because the writing or the story is a disappointment to me. For me to voluntarily write a review on a book means the book seriously affected me and I really want to share a true jewel of literature.

Well, I just finished reading one of the saddest, yet fascinating novels I have ever read. I was totally unprepared for how this book made me feel and that alone is why I am writing about it here.

I’ve always been a fan of Western movies and have enjoyed reading western history john-wayne-394468__340books and journals simply because I am interested in the history. My favorite TV channels are channels that play western movies or classic films. I grew up watching these things on TV in Southern California and never really outgrew them. Currently, I am not watching a lot of TV, despite the fact that I do have cable. I simply have too many other things to do and I enjoy reading books far more than I enjoy TV or movies.

Periodically I get a hankering to watch a western movie, so, rather than turn on the TV and watch a movie I’ve probably seen a hundred times over the course of my 60-odd years of life, I decided to do something I haven’t done in a long time: Actually read a western.

So I recently checked out a series of western novels from51xC0XWN2vL._SX272_BO1,204,203,200_ the library and picked this one out as well. I recognized the author’s name from his TV and movie credits, but I had never read one of his novels before. I decided to check it out, and boy was I blown away by it!

Let me say first off that it is indeed a novel. It is not a real journal, though you may be hard pressed to remember that as you read it. It was written by Richard Matheson, who wrote a lot of science fiction (often referred to by many critics as “space westerns”) and horror, both in written form (sci-fi/horror novels and short stories) and scripts for TV and movies.

Also being a big fan of sci-fi, and having enjoyed a lot of the movies (Somewhere in Time, Hell House, What Dreams May Come, and I am Legend) and TV shows (Twilight Zone) Matheson wrote, I thought reading Journal of the Gun Years might actually be worth my time. I have long been a fan of this man’s unique twists on the world in TV and movies, though I had never actually read any of his written works. I daresay that may be the case for most of us.

All I can say is, I was not prepared for the brilliance of this work.

The story is presented in the form of journal entries written by the fictional Clay Halser, a Civil War Veteran who goes west after the war to find “excitement” and ends up man-and-horses-2389830__340becoming a gunfighter and marshal in the Wild West. Through the course of the book, the character grows from a teenager into a man in his 30s, from a boy fighting an insane war, to a young man trapped in the western range wars, to a mature man trying to put his talent with a gun to some good use, and finally a man trying to come to terms with the deaths he has caused and trying to live down his legend, which takes on a totally out-of-control life of its own.

The changes in the daily entries this character writes as he grows older, wiser and sadder are so well written I had a hard time believing it was a novel. The early entries show a callow young lad with all the innocence of youth, with one glaring exception: He’d spent his formative teen years killing other men in the “War between the States.” Despite this, at the end of the war he does not present as a young man who has been broken by the horrific events he’d lived through. Instead, you see the kid in him shining through, wanting to kick up his heels and find fun and excitement in life again. But being at home again among his family and old friends, Clay finds that everyone else’s plans for him sound boring. In fact, he’s genuinely frightened if he goes along with what is expected of him, he will be trapped and never see anything interesting of the world.

Now I have read a lot of history about this era, and because I have read many journals written about the West by the people who actually traveled across the plains before and after the Civil War, I found this tale full of the truth and sadness of real life. Many of the stories Clay tells in his “journal” actually did happen to many people who lived through that period in our history.

Throughout the novel real people who lived and were legends in the West stumble in and out of Clay’s life, such as when he meets Wild Bill Hickok as a young man and later as the two legends sit down to have a drink and talk about life as legendary gunfighters. Or quickly meeting and losing a young friend to the violence of the range wars who just happens to be the younger brother of Billy the Kid and who wants be just like his big brother.

An interesting theme seems to run throughout the novel. As events unfold in his life, Clay begins to question who or what really is in charge of his life. At first, Clay believed himself to be the master of his fate, but after years of surviving gun battles where everyone else dies or is wounded while he is barely scratched, where it seems like just dumb luck that he manages to survive everything. It seems to him that its a series of strange circumstances trap him in dangerous situations where his only choice is to fight or die. Clay begins to wonder if someone or something else has designed his life to come out that way it has.

In addition to the vividness of the gunfights he’s involved in, the psychological damage that results from the life he’s lived is also strikingly real. Anyone in the present day, especially our returned soldiers, will recognize the symptoms of PTSD caused by a life spent shooting a weapon at other men. In fact, I believe it is Clay’s internal struggle with the guilt he bears for the killings he’s forced to do and his feelings of failure in trying to accomplish something good with the only real skills he seems to have that is the true tale here. His perceptions about how his life turned out are familiar ones to many people today, I think. Much of what Clay describes about his feelings in his journal are very common thoughts in older Americans who look back over the course of their life and are saddened that it didn’t follow the path they intended. What is disturbing about them is how young he still is at the time he ponders these questions.

To anyone who is interested in the West, magazine-2656180__340this novel is a testament to the realities of that overly romanticized period in history. It’s also a thumbed nose to the press and those who would rather believe magazine-manufactured stories about the real human beings than the truth. The press of that period in history wrote total fabrications about the gunfighters of the West and turned them into the superstars of their day.

If you decide to read Journal of the Gun Years, be advised, the tale gets very dark and bloody. But it’s one of the realest Wild West tales I’ve ever read. I highly recommend it.

Oh, and if you have an app for audiobooks, I really would advise you to listen to the audiobook. Stefan Rudnicki does a stellar job of narration. I can imagine the emotional wreck he must’ve been after getting into the character of this young man.

You can check out the particulars of the book here:

 

 

 

Writing

Poppies

IMG_2174 1I have recently taken to starting each day by coloring a drawing provided by an app I downloaded to my phone and iPad. The process I find soothing to my soul. It seems to lend me some measure of creative focus and gives me time to think about the things I want to accomplish during the day. And I find that on days when I have difficulty with pain and depression, the process of coloring apparently shifts my focus away from the pain and darkness that invade my life on a regular basis.

Today’s picture, as you can see above, was the poppy, which I found appropriate for Veterans Day as the poppy has long been a symbol used to remember soldiers who died in warfare. Despite this, seeing it immediately lifted my spirits. You see, the poppy is my favorite flower. You might have already got that impression from the background pictures I have chosen for my website and Facebook page. But you might not understand why.

I have especially loved the red poppy ever since I moved to Europe for three years. In Europe, red poppies cover huge swaths of open fields and grassland. My first sight of the poppy fields in Germany where we lived took my breath away.

selective photo of california poppy flower
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Having been born and raised in California, the only poppie I ever saw were the orange and yellow California poppies that decorate the dry hills and fields of my native state. The California poppy is brilliant and beautiful during its short growth period in Spring, but with few exceptions it does not seem to grow here in the wild abandon typical of the European varieties. And the California poppy’s flowering time is extremely short.

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This poppy is a common weed in Europe and is found in many locations. They are natural perennials that reseed themselves every year, constantly increasing the number of acres they grow in every year. There are a lot of different colors available, but the red poppy has a long history of unique symbolism throughout history.

Poppies have long been used in many cultures as a symbol of sleep, peace, and death. The poppy is a symbol of Morpheus, the son of Sleep (Hypnos) and the Greek god of dreams. This may be because the poppy has been used by humans in a medicinal form since ancient times to aid people with insomnia and cause a restful sleep. The opium derived from the plant and seeds has been used to control pain for thousands of years, allowing the patient taking it to sleep through the worst of the pain. Victorian doctors often prescribed it to help alleviate the pain of grief as well. And patients who used opium described vivid dreams while under its influence.

Poppies were also sacred to Demeter who was said to concoct an infusion of poppies (like a tea) in order to sleep through her sorrow while her daughter, Persephone, was absent from her side. Persephone’s trips to the underworld to visit her husband, Hades, were cyclical and timed to the seasons. Her absence was believed to have caused the winter, and her time in the underworld signified slumber in the cycle of life. The appearance of the poppies in Spring symbolized Demeter’s joy at the return of her daughter.

Poppies hold a special place in Chinese art, as they represent the loyalty and faith between lovers. According to Chinese legend, a beautiful and courageous woman, Lady Yee, was married to Hsiang Yu, a warrior with Herculean strength. When Hsiang led his troops into battle, Lady Yee chose to follow him and stood by his side in every battle. In Chinese symbolism, the poppy represents rest, beauty and success. Red and pink flower represent life and celebration. While white flowers represent innocence and purity in the American culture, they are the opposite in the Chinese culture. White represents death and ghosts to the Chinese people and so white poppies are often found at funerals.

Papaver_rhoeas_-_Köhler–s_Medizinal-Pflanzen-101In Christianity, poppy symbolism represents death as a period of tranquil slumber, and is a metaphor of the resurrection, as the red petals of the poppy symbolize the blood of a sacrificed Christ. Poppies have long been used as emblems on tombstones to symbolize eternal sleep and resurrection.

The poppy that is used for wartime remembrance is Papaver rhoeas, the red-flowered “corn poppy,” so named because of its annual appearance in the grain fields of Europe. Following the World War I trench warfare in the poppy fields of Flanders, these poppies have become a symbol of remembrance of soldiers who have died during wartime. Flanders is the setting of the famous poem “In Flanders Fields” by the Canadian surgeon and soldier John McCrae.

IMG_2178In Flanders fields the poppies blow
Between the crosses, row on row,
That mark our place; and in the sky
The larks, still bravely singing, fly
Scarce heard amid the guns below.
We are the Dead. Short days ago
We lived, felt dawn, saw sunset glow,
Loved, and were loved, and now we lie
In Flanders fields.
Take up our quarrel with the foe:
To you from failing hands we throw
The torch; be yours to hold it high.
If ye break faith with us who die
We shall not sleep, though poppies grow
In Flanders fields.
-Lieutenant Colonel John McCrae (1872 – 1918)

In recent years, white poppies, a purely human creation, have become a political symbol indicating an anti-war mindset. Unfortunately, while this use of the poppy is designed to espouse a positive message against conflict in a war-torn world, white poppies have engendered a lot of controversary and have caused some very negative reactions when used to protest unpopular wars.

Yet, I think the poppy means so much to me because as a genealogist my work has been designed to remember our ancestors who have passed on. While the scarlet corn poppy has developed such a martial symbolism in our society, I prefer to think of it as a symbol of all of those family members who have passed on.

To me, the poppy is a flower which invariably brings to mind all the family whose lives led to the creation of me and my own family. They were the ones who went before us, many of whom died to make this world a better place. Yet many of our ancestors, including the women, worked hard to build a life here in America. Their efforts created a nation that is one of the few in this world where people have the freedom to say and be anything, without fear of government reprisal.

I have ancestors who fought in the Revolution. I have ancestors who fought in the War of 1812, and on both sides of the Civil War, and both World Wars. During the Twentieth Century many of the women in my family became nurses who provided care for the soldiers who were wounded or died as a result of those wounds. But before that there were just as many women who fought alongside their men to build a home in the wilderness. They fought pestilence, severe weather, more dangers than those of us today can even imagine. They often uprooted their families to move across the continent in an effort to make a better life than the ones they left behind.

Despite the problems of our society, I believe they left our country a much better place than it was when they first arrived on its shores.

I consider the poppy an emblem not just to remember the fallen soldiers, but one to be use in remembrance of all of those ancestors whose blood still run in my veins and the veins of my children.

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