Wednesday, May 18, 2011

Wednesday's Western: The Spur Awards, The Best Western Novels, Year By Year

The Spur Awards, presented by the Western Writers of America, can be seen at this link.

I have not yet read this year's winners.  I hadn't heard of last year's winners before the Spur Awards were announced, yet Robert Flynn's Echoes of Glory and Robert Olmstead's Far Bright Star were both read later and found to be excellent.  Echoes of Glory is not to be missed.

The categories of the Spur Awards have changed over the years with the times.  Politics and contemporary events always have their effects on such things.  Arguments arose over the definition of a "western novel," prompting the creation of additional sub-categories.

I noticed that all three nominees of this year's Best Long Western Novel were women.  This year's winner, Lucia St. Clair Robson (Last Train From Cuernavaca), is a veteran of the Peace Corps and long a western novelist.  See her site at this link.

Over the years, the influence of women authors on the western novel has not been ignored.  Lucia Moore won the first Best Historical Western Award back in 1953, the first year the Spurs were given.

In later decades, the definition of "western novel" has expanded, and cross-genre novels have been considered.  The Best Long Western Novel Award of 2008 went to Aryn Kyle's The God of Animals, a western which is at the same time a literary novel, a mystery, and a coming-of-age story.  This year, Elmore Leonard's Justified was nominated for best western drama, even though it is set in contemporary eastern Kentucky.

I thought I might take the time to look at the best western novels never nominated for a Spur Award.  Let's start in 1953, when the winner was Lawman by Wayne D. Overholser under one of his pen names, Lee Leighton.  But not nominated was Louis L'Amour's Hondo, his best novel by far and made into the John Wayne film.  Unfortunately, Louis L'Amour, having made a name for himself, was later given awards for some mediocre novels.

The winner in 1954 was The Violent Land by Wayne D. Overholser, making it two years in a row for this author of conventional westerns.  The best westerns published that year were not nominated--they include Fredrick Manfred's excellent Lord Grizzly, a novelization of the historical adventures of Hugh Glass; that now classic western, The Searchers, by Alan LeMay, later adapted into the John Huston film; and yet another greatly influentional work, Dorothy M. Johnson's Indian Country, from which came A Man Called Horse and The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance.

It was a good year for westerns.
In 1956, the winner was High Gun by Leslie Ernenwein, a conventional western in keeping with the times.  Not nominated was Edward Abby's Brave Cowboy, later made into the excellent Burt Lancaster film.

In 1957, Elmore Kelton won his first Spur Award with Buffalo Wagons, far below the quality of his best novels as he himself would later say.  Not nominated was Donald Hamilton's best western novel, The Big Country, which was then made into a fine film starring Gregory Peck.

In 1958, Noel Loomis won with a fine western, Short Cut To Red River--not to be confused with Bordon Chase's Red River, upon which the 1948 John Wayne film is based.  Not nominated was Oakley Hall's Warlock, one of the finest western novels ever written.  It was made into a fine film, but you should read the novel.

In 1960, Will C. Brown's The Nameless Breed won, but the best western novel of the year wasn't nominated.  That novel, John Williams' Butcher's Crossing, experienced a well deserved surge of acclaim after being rediscovered and republished by the NYRB.  It too is one of the finest westerns of any year.

Westerns would also be influenced by the 1960 film, The Magnificent Seven which was based upon Akira Kurosawa's Seven Samurai.

The winner in 1961 was The Honyocker by Giles Lutz, which I haven't seen.  Not nominated was Elmore Leonard's classic western, Hombre, later made into a fine Paul Newman movie.  Also not nominated was Larry McMurtry's excellent Horseman, Pass By.

The winner in 1963 was Leigh Brackett's Follow The Free Wind.  I haven't read that one, but my favorite from that year is the un-nominated Monte Walsh by Jack Schaefer, later made into the Lee Marvin movie.

The winner in 1964 was Benjamin Capps' fine trail drive novel, The Trail To Ogallala.  Not nominated for an award that year was Frank O'Rourke's excellent novel, A Mule For The Marquesa, later made into an outstanding film and retitled The Professionals, starring Lee Marvin and Burt Lancaster.  Also not nominated was Thomas Berger's classic, Little Big Man.

The winner in 1965 was Benjamin Capps' fine western, Sam Chance, making it two years in a row for him.  Not nominated was Vardis Fisher's now classic Mountain Man, upon which the 1972 Robert Redford film was based.

The winner in 1966 was My Brother John by Herbert R. Purdum.  Not nominated and now my favorite western novel from that year was Paul St. Pierre's Breaking Smith's Quarter Horse.  

The winner in 1968 was Louis L'Amour's Down the Long Hills, but the book that should have been nominated was Charles Portis's True Grit.  The Coen Brothers movie of it won the Spur Award, in a tie, for Best Western Drama in 2011.

The winner in 1969 was Tragg's Choice by Clifton Adams, author of many fine conventional westerns.  Benjamin Capps won again for Best Historical Western, and Wayne D. Overhoulser  and Lewis Patten won again for Best Juvenile Fiction.  Repeat winners and good ole boys from the club, it seems.  Not that they weren't good at what they did.

But what made the year 1969 remarkable for westerns was the publication of The Wild Bunch.  Brian Fox did the novelization, but the movie script was written by Roy Sickner and Walon Green, and amended by Sam Peckinpah.

(to be continued. . .)

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