Hard to Have Heroes
When fourteen-year-old wannabe cowboy Noah Odell and his widowed mother leave rainy Gold Hill, Oregon, to join Noah’s flamboyant uncle Bud on a ranch in New Mexico, they find themselves in the middle of nowhere with daily temperatures in excess of 100 degrees; enough rattlesnakes, buzzards, and hungry coyotes to start a zoo; a dozen scrawny steers; and a smelly outdoor toilet overrun with black widow spiders.
When Bud presents Noah with a cantankerous mule named Brimstone, the adventures begin. Accompanied by his new best friends—an unlikely cowboy philosopher named Marvin Couch and a precocious tomboy prodigy named LaDonna Hawthorne—Noah and his mule encounter some of the Chihuahuan Desert’s strangest characters. Green space monsters, eccentric Apache college professors, jackalopes, royal Spanish ghosts, and an inept gang of local bullies assure that the days are never dull, especially when the U.S. Army lawyers and MPs try to confiscate Bud’s ranch to expand a top-secret rocket-testing facility at nearby White Sands Proving Ground.
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Hard to Have Heroes, the first novel by Buddy Mays, is a wonderful and whimsical depiction of the American Southwest and its people during the mid-1950s. Written for adults but also perfect for younger readers, I hope this book becomes standard reading fare for high school literature classes.
The book begins in rainy southern Oregon but quickly switches to an isolated cattle ranch near Tularosa, New Mexico, where Noah Odell (the book’s 14-year old main character) lives with his widowed mother and favorite uncle. Tularosa must have been an interesting place in the late 1950s. For instance, the local wildlife included an animal called a stubblybuk? Mays describes this strange critter as resembling a common mule deer, except that:
Whereas mule deer are able to move laterally, vertically, horizontally, or diagonally across a hillside, stubblybuks can only go around a hill. The reason for this seemingly limiting motivation is that a stubblybuk’s front and rear legs on one side of its body are nearly a foot shorter than its legs on the other side. The legs on a male stubblybuk’s right side, for example, are shorter than the ones on its left side. Females are just the opposite, with shorter legs on the left side and longer ones on the right. Scientists believe that this evolutionary gender dissimilarity enables males and females to travel in different directions and consequently to make eye-to-eye contact when they pass instead of eye-to-anus contact, which would be the case if the legs on both sexes were identical.
There are other animal characters just as weird in this wonderful novel, along with an equally bizarre menagerie of human beings. One such person is Noah’s foul-mouthed, beer-guzzling, hot chile pepper loving uncle, Bud Boggs. Mays describes him this way:
Habitually dressed in grubby bib overalls, a sleeveless undershirt, and scuffed leather boots, he usually concealed the smell of sweaty and infrequently washed armpits with a strong dose of bay rum, and shaved only enough to keep from being arrested for vagrancy. A large nose and fanlike ears decorated three sides of his leathery face, and a thin, white, knife scar—the result of a barroom brawl over a pretty señorita, or so Bud claimed—ran a crooked path southward from the top of his forehead to the bottom of his cheek. He also had a notable beer belly, one that usually strained his overall straps to the breaking point and reminded Noah of a large, ripe watermelon.
Spicy with tales of lost outlaw gold, spooky Spanish ghosts, crazy roosters, and talking coyotes, Hard to Have Heroes examines a good bit of Apache Indian history in the southwest, and explores the outright thievery of private ranchland by the U.S. Army, so prevalent during the 1950s and 1960s. It is a superb adult novel that older kids will love too.
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