Book of the week
The Last Cowboys: A Pioneer Family in the New West
Life for a cattle-ranching family “never seems to get easier,” said Michael Schaub in the Minneapolis Star Tribune. At least not for Bill and Evelyn Wright and their 13 adult children and 30-plus grandchildren, who together manage a herd of hundreds on land near Zion National Park in southwest Utah. Tough and self-reliant, the Wrights have ties to Smith Mesa’s beautiful, forbidding landscape dating back 150 years, but Bill, who’s now in his early 60s, can see that the business won’t likely sustain the family much longer. In The Last Cowboys, an “excellent, compassionate” book by a Pulitzer Prize–winning New York Times feature writer, the Wrights are allowed to speak for themselves, and they never whine about the key challenges they face: drought and the rising cost of federal grazing land. In their world, “nothing is certain for very long.”
“It’s impossible not to find Bill earthy and real,” said Nathan Deuel in the Los Angeles Times. He’s both a rodeo rider and a hands-on rancher, and he says things like “Worst ride I ever had was better than my best walk.” Because so many of his sons and grandsons are world-class rodeo riders at the peak of their careers, he spends a lot of time overseeing his 1,200 arid acres alone, but when they join him, “we fall in love as well with the larger family’s ingenuity and way of life.” They pool resources to keep the ranch afloat and pool knowledge about the broncs they ride in competition. As the pages flow by, “certain readers will hunger for sharper and more debatable insights about range management and the West.” But that’s not the book John Branch has written.
Branch is simply interested in what a single remarkable family does to sustain an idyllic way of life, and rodeo becomes a big part of that group effort, said Amanda Olson in Salt Lake City’s Deseret News. “His descriptions of the Wright boys’ rides are often as breathtaking as witnessing the actual eight seconds,” and when, early on, he offers a primer on the sport, “his writing is so good, the important information comes off as casually as a conversation.” Rodeo is a brutal sport, generating countless shattered bones and head injuries, yet all of it folds seamlessly into a book that “makes a beautiful case” for why our country needs families like the Wrights: “They represent the hope and the elbow grease we’ve outsourced to our distractions, our expectations, and our plans to get ahead.”