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“Stick Horses And Other Stories of Cowboy Life”

Author: Wallace McRae

Publisher: Gibbs Smith

Growing up as the third generation on an Eastern Montana ranch provides the fodder for the cowboy poetry that has made Wally McRae a national figure.

It also led him to champion the family farm and ranch and work to protect the land and the water through the grassroots Northern Plains Resource Council.

And his ranch experiences create the basis for his humorous and rich tales in “Stick Horses And Other Stories of Ranch Life.”

Long before McRae began scribbling poetry in high school or reveled in writing limericks, he was a youngster with his imagination riding wild on the family ranch between Forsyth and Colstrip.

The “stick horses” referred to in the title of his first book of prose show just how fertile that young mind was as McRae and his cousin Carol carefully choose the sticks that will become the animals of their herds.

They would gather “imaginary wild cattle (or wild sticks) and pick the appropriate “horses” based on the task at hand: “To replenish gaps in the cavy, would dictate the selection of a big, stout, all heart, no brains' rough ash or gate-stick-sized pitch pine that would ooze pungent 'snot' or 'sweat' into your left palm as you rode. If 'working the herd' was the order of the day, a supple, limber, lightning-quick willow was selected.”

It's a revealing description of children using the materials and lifestyle at hand to determine their play.

Even games of marbles took on that ranch influence, with the big “shooters” becoming “ 'work,' or 'draft' horses and therefore much slower than the smaller 'running' horses.”

The reader easily sees the youthful influences that would mark McRae's popular cowboy poetry and his passionate causes even into his 70s.

In “Stick Horses,” he writes of the heroes of his youth, such as Emmett Boslaugh, a stage driver, who “was Mr. Excitement in our lives,” and grade-school teacher Mrs. Bills, whose favor all the kids sought.

She showed youngsters much about the struggles of others and life beyond the Montana plains.

Especially impressive is Mrs. Bills showing the children complaining about the restrictions on “necessities for our youthful lifes, such as candy, metal toys and chewing gum” during World War II. Hidden behind a stamp on a letter from relatives in Belgium, which was occupied by Germany, “was a tiny message written on the envelope ... that read, 'We are starving.' ”

Three small words in small writing silenced the American children and taught a deep lesson.

McRae's colorful stories of his youth are full of lessons applicable decades later and written with humor and insight.

As he ages in the book, the reflections tell much about the people who populate the sparse land.

McRae talks of the “rough rocks” of the landscape and people's resemblance to those rocks, hewn from strength and shaped by their experiences.

Some of the folks retain the jagged edges throughout their lives, and McRae adeptly describes “characters” in their pain and triumphs. When seen through a child's eye, some who would draw adults' disdain also find redemption in a youngster's less-judgmental world.

A chapter called “Census” provides biting commentary on ranchers' relationship with government hoops and intrusions into their lives.

The chapter is pure gold as the “farm census people” try to get the every-10-years take on farm life and belongings.

Refusal to return “the dreaded LONG FORM” brings a phone call from officialdom that's as comical as it is exasperating. Fine print, precise detail and the truth crumble under the weight of the nitpicking.

McRae fills simple conversation in an interview with rhythms and word pictures of a true poet. And his prose reflects the same artistry.

He has won the National Heritage Award Fellowship from the National Endowment for the Arts and served on the National Council of Arts.

His ability to capture the spirit of the West was honored with a Montana Governor's Award for Folk and Traditional Arts.

And those skills bring alive the people and places of his beloved land in “Stick Horses.”

Contact Chris Rubich at crubich@billingsgazette.com or 657-1301.

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