Short Story Saturday: Elmore Leonard’s “The Boy Who Smiled”

gunsmoke_195306_v1_n1Before he began writing the wonderful crime fiction for which he became so famous, Elmore Leonard wrote Westerns, mostly short stories that sold well enough to the magazines of the day to allow him to continue writing while he developed the style that would work so well for him later in his career. Elmore would end up writing some thirty Western short stories and eight Western novels before, as he puts it, “television killed the Western.” Fortunately, by the time that happened, Leonard was ready to move on to a very different genre – and the rest is literary history.

This week’s short story, “The Boy Who Smiled,” first appeared in the June1953 issue of Gunsmoke magazine, and I found it in a compilation titled The Complete Western Stories of Elmore Leonard.” The book contains Leonard’s thirty Western shorts (assuming here that “complete” means “complete”), and for what it’s worth, it’s one I’ve enjoyed dipping into since I purchased it back in 2004.

The story’s narrator is a white man responsible for monitoring just over one hundred Apaches who are allowed to live off the reservation because they have always been “fairly peaceful.” The agent is also responsible for Mickey Solner, a white man living nearby who married an Apache and fathered a son by her. As the story opens, that boy, 14-year-old Mickey Segundo steps into the agent’s office and plops a couple of human ears down on the man’s desk.

The ears once belonged to Tony Choddi, the horse-thief who traded a stolen horse to Mickey’s father before running off. Unfortunately for all concerned, the wealthy rancher whose horse was stolen wanted to hang someone for stealing his horse, and Mickey’s father was the only one at hand. So now Tony Choddi has lost his ears, along with his life, and the agent wonders if the wealthy rancher will be the next to die.

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A Very Young Elmore Leonard (Campbell Ewald Company photo)

Five years later, nothing has happened and the agent is still embarrassed that he ever warned the rancher about Mickey Segundo. But then the day comes when a very different looking Mickey Segundo agrees to lead the rancher and another man across the desert on a pronghorn hunt. The agent can tell that the rancher doesn’t recognize Mickey, and even as it’s happening, wonders why he isn’t identifying the boy for the man himself.

“The Boy Who Smiled” is early Elmore Leonard but even this early on, it is obvious that Leonard is every bit as interested in his characters and what makes them tick as he is in the story’s action. His Western short stories were a definite cut above the bulk of what the pulps of the day usually printed.

Saving “The Homesman” from the Garbage Truck

2822481It’s confession time.  I have what my wife would call an embarrassing bad habit (don’t tell her)…if I spot a stack of books sitting curbside on garbage pickup day in any neighborhood I happen to be driving through, I STOP.  And I do it immediately without a second thought as to what the folks who live there might think about it.

Every so often it pays off with a nice find – as it did today when I walked away with a really nice first edition copy of Glendon Swarthout’s great western, The Homesman.  Swarthout wrote this one in 1988 but, good as it is, he was pretty much still only known for his great 1975 novel The Shootist.  It didn’t hurt, obviously, that The Shootist was turned into a 1976 movie starring John Wayne.

The_Homesman_posterNow, with the recent success of the film version of The Homesman (starring Tommy Lee Jones, Hillary Swank, Meryl Streep, John Lithgow, and James Spader), the novel is finally receiving its due.  And I love the idea that today I rescued this one from a painful death in some Houston landfill.

One Thousand White Women: The Journals of May Dodd

Alternate history, that literary genre in which an historical event is tweaked, removed, or reversed, can be interesting.  It is always great fun to play the “what if game” with the actual events of our shared past: “what if the South had won the Civil War,” “what if the Normandy invasion had failed,” or “what if John Kennedy had not been assassinated?”  Much fascinating fiction has originated from those and similar questions.  Jim Fergus plays a more subtle version of the game in One Thousand White Women: The Journals of May Dodd.”  He wonders what might have happened if, in 1875, President Grant and Little Wolf, chief of the Cheyenne nation, had agreed to exchange one thousand white women for an equal number of Indian horses.

Grant is at first shocked and disgusted by Little Wolf’s proposition, but he has to admit that the idea makes sense.  Since, in the Cheyenne culture, children belong to the tribes of their mothers, Little Wolf sees the “Brides for Indians” program as the best chance to assimilate his people peacefully into the white culture that seems destined to overwhelm his own.  Grant, on his part, hopes that the women can influence their husbands into accepting, or at least tolerating, white ways and religions to the point that open warfare with the tribe can be avoided.  Thus is born the secret “Brides for Indians” program, a program that will require Grant’s people to scour mental institutions, debtors’ prisons, and other jails and prisons in search of the one thousand women needed for Grant to meet his part of the bargain. 
May Dodd, resident of a Chicago mental institution, is one of the first women recruited to go west to meet her new Indian husband.  May has been institutionalized by her father for the unpardonable sin of bearing two children out of wedlock to a man beneath her social status.  To her father’s way of thinking, no woman in her right mind could do such a thing – his daughter has to be insane.  Rather than spend the rest of her life locked up, May, ever the adventurer, leaps at the chance to regain her freedom by becoming an Indian bride for the required two-year commitment. 
Author Jim Fergus

One Thousand White Women is told largely in the words of a series of journals May begins to record almost the moment she decides to make her break for a new life.  Through these journals, we meet May’s colorful traveling companions and learn of their adventures and hardships as they begin their new lives as wives of men with whom they have so little in common.  The women, although they will suffer the hardships of winter encampment, inter-tribal warfare, kidnappings, and one horrible night when their men succumb to the evils of alcohol, find that they are learning as much about what is good and proper in society as they are teaching.  But is it all too late to save the Cheyenne from what the army has planned for them?

The audio version of One Thousand White Women is read by Laura Hicks who does a remarkable job with the various accents and languages she has to deal with: two of the characters are Irish, one is Swiss, one is from the Deep South, one is an ex-slave, and some are French.  Hicks handles all of these accents well, in addition to voicing a believable version of the Cheyenne language.  This one should appeal to a variety of readers, among them: alternate history fans, western fans, and those who enjoy feminist novels with especially strong female characters.
Rated at: 5.0