Cowboys of the Wild West Analysis
by Russell Freedman

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Cowboys of the Wild West Analysis

(Survey of Young Adult Fiction)

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. These realities serve to debunk many myths of the West, while at the same time inviting the reader to experience both the hardship and the allure of working sixteen hours a day in the saddle and sleeping with one’s outfit under the stars after yet another supper of boiled beans, biscuits, and prunes.

The book thoroughly covers its proposed topics. For example, when Freedman intends to describe the design and contents of the typical chuck wagon, he does so down to the typical medicines the cook would carry and administer and the cowhide “caboose” that was slung underneath the wagon to carry kindling. When he outlines a typical day on the trail, he starts before daybreak with the lighting of the cooking fire and continues through the routine and potential crises of the day such as river crossings, dust, American Indians, and people demanding tolls. He does not stop until the following night, with lively scenarios of both a typical watch and one on which problems such as predators or a night stampede have to be overcome. This specificity forcefully drives home the reality of life for a line rider on a Texas ranch or for a wrangler on his first trip up the Chisholm trail.

Freedman achieves much in this slim volume: The book can be praised as both an interesting overview and a specific look at central topics regarding cowboy life.