Book Review: Trails Plowed Under: Stories of the Old West (Charles M. Russell) : WW

Trails Plowed Under: Stories of the Old West, by Charles M. Russell, Univ. of Nebraska Press, Lincoln, 1996, $12 paperback.

This Western classic, originally published by Doubleday & Company in 1927, is proof positive that Charles M. Russell was more than just a mighty fine Western artist. He was also one heck of a storyteller. Russell writes well, even though he often insisted, as Brian Dippie points out in the introduction to the new Bison Books Edition, that he was “deaf an dum” with a pen. “If you want to know a man, get him drunk and he’ll tip his hand,” Russell writes in the section about whiskey. He begins his yarn about “Lepley’s Bear” this way: “Old Man Lepley tells me one time about a bear he was near enough to shake hands with but they don’t get acquainted.” And Russell begins another section, “Speakin’ of liars, the Old West could put in its claim for more of ’em than any other land under the sun.” But Russell (1864­1926) was no liar. He lived out West and picked up the lore and the cowboy vernacular. His yarns are full of sentiment and humor. “Nostalgia colored Russell’s writing as it colored his art,” writes Dippie. Russell’s distinctive illustrations are included, as is the original introduction written by another humorist of note, Will Rogers. Shortly before his death, Russell wrote: “To have talent is no credit to its owner; what man can’t help he should get neither credit nor blame for–it’s not his fault. I am an illustrator.” But that was not his only talent, as Trails Plowed Under clearly demonstrates.

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