In Freedman’s biographical note, the author says that he “became a cowboy at an early age” while he was growing up in California during the Great Depression. As a boy, he was a voracious reader of dime novels about the cowboy. As a result, he thought a cowboy was a “fellow who says ‘yup’ and ‘nope,’ who never complains, who shoots straight and whose horse comes when he whistles.” A few decades later, when he began research for this book, he found that many of his romantic notions about the cowboy were contradicted by the facts.
Nevertheless, Freedman’s love of cowboy lore has clearly survived the correction of his misconceptions. He clearly admires the real cowboy who can be found beneath the veneer of the dime store novel and Hollywood Western. He writes with great respect about the realities of life on the range.
As a distinguished, award-winning biographer and historian, Freedman shows a concern with historical accuracy throughout the text. The book is like a documentary, and Freedman tries to let primary materials such as photographs and etchings, diary entries and interview excerpts, do most of the work of describing cowboy life. Despite the book’s factual tone, Cowboys of the Wild West makes history comes alive through personal stories and specific details that paint an engaging and complete picture of the cowboy’s world. The author pays scrupulous attention to the realities of the ranch and the range....
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Russell Freedman, a former journalist, has written dozens of books on topics ranging from animal behavior to the daily lives of various cultural groups and prominent Americans. He is considered one of the foremost contributors to children’s and young adult nonfiction writing.
Cowboys of the Wild West is a solid contribution to historical nonfiction and fills an important niche that is of interest to young adults. Although it did not receive the critical acclaim of many of Freedman’s previous and subsequent efforts, reviews of the book were strong, and it stills enjoys a wide readership and considerable play in school book clubs and other forums.
Freedman’s book Children of the Wild West (1983) won the Western Heritage Award and was selected as an American Library Association (ALA) Notable Book for Children. Cowboys of the Wild West is a sequel that takes a look at a topic of more general interest. Freedman’s subsequent writings continued to be highly distinguished, and he won a Newbery Medal for Lincoln: A Photobiography (1987). His book An Indian Winter (1992), which chronicles the Mandèan experience in the winter of 1833, was cited as an ALA Best Book for Young Adults, an ALA Notable Book for Children, an IRA Teachers Choice, and a notable trade book in the field of social studies. In 1993, Eleanor Roosevelt: A Life of Discovery won these same awards and was also a Booklist Editors’ Choice and was listed among the School Library Journal Best Books. With Kids at Work: Lewis Hine and the Crusade Against Child Labor (1994), Freedman continued his use of photography and first-person excerpts to create a powerful depiction of the life of child laborers. Cowboys of the Wild West, like the body of Freedman’s nonfiction work, demonstrates that rigorous historical documentaries can be written that are engaging and informative for young adults and that make a significant contribution to an understanding of past eras and ways of life.