By Gary Cutrer
While completing the September 2009 magazine I received a note from Ross McSwain saying that Elmer Kelton had passed. Though I barely knew him, I was, and remain, a fan.
In the 1980s I read every Lois L’Amour novel ever written, I think, and I thoroughly enjoyed them all. I’d never heard of Elmer Kelton at the time. Then, at a civil court hearing in Rankin, Texas, I met and befriended Paul Patterson of Crane. I had read Paul’s book, “Crazy Women in the Rafters,” about growing up on a ranch near Upland, original county seat of Upton County, and I complimented him on it.
He refused my praise and told me I ought to read a book or two by his former student, Elmer Kelton.
“Elmer who?” I asked.
Paul went on to tell me that he had been Elmer’s school teacher in Crane and that after serving in World War II and attending the University of Texas, Elmer had gone on to become one of the best agriculture writers there is and all along during his career had written a lot of novels—mostly Western novels. It was obvious Paul was proud of his student and admired his work.
I took Paul’s advice. The first Kelton novel I read was “The Wolf and the Buffalo,” a story about the interaction of the Comanches and the buffalo soldiers on the post-Civil War frontier. I expected a Western adventure yarn. I got that and much more.
Kelton gave heft and depth to his characters I’ve rarely seen in the work of other Western writers.
The plot was more than adventure. It was a time capsule view of life of the era, featuring elements of humor, love, betrayal, tragedy and, ultimately, survival.
I had the pleasure of interviewing Mr. Kelton for the Angelo State University student newspaper at his home about 1989. I walked in, nervous to meet a real celebrity. I was surprised at how ordinary his house on Oxford Street, near ASU, was.
Mr. Kelton didn’t act like a celebrity. He welcomed me warmly and we settled in for the interview. At the time he was busily writing “Slaughter,” a novel about the buffalo hunters of the late 1800s. His tiny office in his modest home was spartan save for an old desk, a couple of chairs and lots of books—and a computer, a DOS model with a blue-screened word processor showing on the monitor, a few sentences evident. There it was, one of those magical books in progress, I thought.
Kelton was down to earth, helpful, and didn’t even complain when the staff photographer for the school newspaper barged in to take his photo.
I’ve since read scores of Kelton books and experienced West Texas through his eyes. I’ve ridden along with him through familiar places in his books and met characters who I swear I’ve met on ranches and in small towns around West Texas.
It’s not too late to get to know Elmer Kelton—through his writing. If you haven’t read one of his novels, you can get one at a bookstore or at your local library. I guess we’re remembered for what we do and who we are and what we leave behind. Elmer Kelton has left behind quite a legacy. He will be missed.