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Grassland Once Sustained Both Sheep and Cattle

National Archives at College Park, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

I’m Pat Tyrer from Canyon, Texas for the High-Plains-Public-Radio-Readers Book Club. Today, I’ll be continuing my discussion over Elmer Kelton’s The Time it Never Rained. Today’s discussion concerns the novel’s theme of land use, government policies, and the volatility of Mother Nature.

When the drought hits West Texas, rancher Charlie Flagg, takes stock of his land, his animals, and his neighbors, many of whom have accepted government aid though the farm program. Charlie has always refused to participate, feeling that giving in to the government would restrict his ability to ranch the way he felt it should be done. Charlie owns fifteen sections of rangeland in all—three deeded, the rest under lease, all under the careful management of Charlie and his ranch hand, Lupe. He had raised his own boy, Tom, sent him to college, and now saw him on the rodeo circuit. Lupe handles the day-to-day chores on the ranch with help from his sons and Charlie is both gruff and caring with Lupe’s sons whom he sees as the future of West Texas.

Although it cost Charlie more to run cattle than sheep, he liked to keep a hand with both, hiring shearers to visit the ranch yearly to attend to the many sheep raised as a major source of income. But as the days and months pass without rain, Charlie and Lupe are forced to make adjustments. Without rain, the grasslands turn golden brown, but as weeks and months pass without rain they turn dusty gray, leaving the ground hard and dry.

At this point, Charlie is assailed by his neighbors who attempt to persuade him to go to Washington for help and to negotiate farm subsidies. After much wrangling, Charlie refuses, reminding his fellow ranchers that government money comes with restrictions and strings. With the continued lack of rain, the decision to remain on his own begins to cost Charlie in terms of loss of animals and some friendships. Keeping his sheep which survive more easily in dry weather, Charlie and Lupe sell off both the cattle and the old ewes, but even that is not enough to keep the ranch from going under. In the past, he’s been reluctant to accept the advice of Big Emmett to make changes early, but Charlie has stubbornly refused until he’s nearly lost everything. Without many options, he accepts goats on the ranch, and even though he knows their mohair might be the only way to save his land he resents their presence.

If you’ve ever ranched or farmed and depended on the weather, you will relate to Charlie Flagg’s dilemma. Daily decisions have to be made between what to try to save and what to let go. Unfortunately, Charlie has to make decisions which go against his grain. Without rain, the ranch slowly disintegrates and returns to dry, barren prairie, unable to sustain even the goats.

However, even faced with the worst decisions he’s had to make, Charlie never gives us hope that the rains will return and that it is only a matter of time and adjustments that will see his community through. The novel is increasingly gloomy as the battle to maintain the town and surrounding ranches continues against the belief that the rains will return, but it’s not without hope. It’s filled with desperate consequences, but Charlie is not desperate. He’s a character of great hope and belief in himself and the power of the land. Amidst all the troubles and difficult decisions he’s had to make to maintain his land, Charlie never deviates from his core belief that a man who relies on himself is assured of a good life even if it’s a hard life.

I’m Pat Tyrer from Canyon, Texas for the High-Plains-Public-Radio-Readers Book Club. Please join me again for my further discussions of Elmer Kelton’s The Time it Never Rained. This next time I’ll be looking at the issues at the border and how Charlie Flagg’s belief in the rights of all men, come up against an unstable border and the laws governing immigration.

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