The Time It Never Rained

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This novel was in National Review's Conservative Lit 101 list. Published in 2010, it contained ten novels written by Americans since the 1950s. I had read two already, and I put the remaining eight onto the to-be-read pile. Since then, I've tackled Midcentury by John Dos Passos; The Thanatos Syndrome by Walker Percy; Mr. Sammler’s Planet by Saul Bellow. And now The Time It Never Rained by Elmer Kelton. Four to go!

Kelton wrote a lot of genre Westerns, but this transcends the genre. It's set in 1950s West Texas, over the span of a brutal drought (spelled "drouth" throughout) that actually occurred. The central character is aging Charlie Flagg, a successful rancher of cattle and sheep. We get to know Charlie very well, along with his family (a sturdy wife, a feckless son), employees, and neighbors. He's a good-hearted man, albeit a tad paternalistic to the Mexicans that occupy the same space as the Anglos. His primary characteristic is a stubborn determination to live according to his principles, the main consequence of that being his refusal to be involved in any "aid" programs offered by Your Federal Government. (No doubt this is what caught National Review's attention.)

It's a big book, spanning years, and the backbreaking work involved in running a ranch is described in meticulous detail. The drouth makes everything worse, of course, and one by one the ranchers around Charlie succumb to one form of tragedy or another. Charlie sees his own enterprise gradually whittled away, and he carries on only by pride and fortitude.

It's not unremitting tragedy, however. The mock-insulting dialogue between Charlie and his buddies is hilarious.