Cover image for The last cowboys : a pioneer family in the new West / John Branch.
The last cowboys : a pioneer family in the new West / John Branch.
First edition.
Publication Information:
New York : W.W. Norton & Company, [2018]

Physical Description:
277 pages ; 25 cm
Branding day -- King of the rodeo -- Cowbells in the fog -- Blood and tradition.
Presents a portrait of the Wright family of Smith Mesa and their achievements as successful rodeo champions and cattle ranchers, tracing their battles against natural obstacles and injuries and how the changes of the twenty-first century are challenging their future.
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Geographic Term:


Call Number
Material Type
Home Location
791.840922 WRI BRA Book Adult General Collection
791.840922 WRI BRA Book Adult General Collection

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For generations, the Wrights of southern Utah have raised cattle and world-champion saddle-bronc riders--some call them the most successful rodeo family in history. Now Bill and Evelyn Wright, parents to 13 children and grandparents to many more, find themselves struggling to hang on to the majestic landscape where they've been running cattle for 150 years as the West is transformed by urbanization, battered by drought, and rearranged by public-land disputes. Could rodeo, of all things, be the answer?In a powerful follow-up to his prize-winning, best-selling first book, New York Times reporter John Branch delivers an epic and intimate family story deep in the American grain. Written with great lyricism and filled with vivid scenes of ranch life and the high drama of saddle-bronc competition, The Last Cowboys chronicles three years in the life of the Wrights, each culminating in rodeo's National Finals in Las Vegas. Will Bill and Evelyn be able to hold the family together as rodeo injuries pile up and one of their sons goes off on a religious mission? Will their son Cody, a two-time world champion, make it to the finals one last time--and compete with his own son? And will the younger generation--Rusty, Ryder, Stetson, and the rest--be able to continue the family's ways in the future?This is a grand and compelling work of reporting that, like Buzz Bissinger's Friday Night Lights, offers deep insight into American ritual and tradition. And in telling the Wright family's story, from branding days to rodeo nights to annual Christmas gatherings, Branch captures something vital of the grit, determination, and integrity that fuel the American Dream.An unforgettable book by one of the finest reporters of our time, The Last Cowboys is a moving tribute to an American way of life.

Author Notes

John Branch is a reporter for the New York Times. His feature article about an avalanche in Washington State, "Snow Fall," won the Pulitzer Prize; he has been featured three times in The Best American Sports Writing; and his first book, Boy on Ice, won the PEN/ESPN Prize for Literary Sports Writing. He lives near San Francisco.

Reviews 3

Publisher's Weekly Review

Pulitzer Prize-winning reporter Branch (Boy on Ice) develops his 2015 New York Times article on a successful rodeo family into a full-blown tale of modern life on the range in southern Utah. The book focuses on the Wrights, a family of cattle ranchers and world champion saddle-bronc riders, as they struggle to hang on to land that's been in their family for more than 150 years. It's also the place where Bill Wrights and his wife, Evelyn, raised their 13 children, including seven sons, all of whom have gone on to become famous rodeo riders. But the older Bill gets, the harder it is for him to look after the land, especially amid numerous conflicts with the Bureau of Land Management and a flurry of buyout offers from commercial developers. Branch writes with immediacy when describing cowboy life, whether branding and castrating cattle (the "dirt-covered testicles... looked like dusty pearl onions") or attempting to last eight seconds on the back of a wild and angry mustang (a fallen rider "crashed clumsily on his left shoulder, and the pain shot through him like electricity"). Branch's fly-on-the-wall reporting and evocative prose renders this a memorable tale of family and the American West in a state of flux. (May) © Copyright PWxyz, LLC. All rights reserved.

New York Review of Books Review

KEITH HERNANDEZ DOESN'T like baseball memoirs. "It feels like they've become a paint-by-numbers exercise," the former first baseman laments at the outset of his own entry in the genre. He's confident you know about the time the 1986 Mets won the World Series. He doesn't want to trot out the old war stories. What he offers instead is an impressionistic account of his baseball boyhood, a kind of "Remembrance of At-Bats Past," complete with a baked good to set the memories in motion. When Hernandez was growing up in Pacifica, Calif., his father worked as a fireman. After an overnight shift, he would bring home fresh sourdough bread from a bakery in San Francisco. It was "soft on the inside with a crust that made your teeth work just the right amount." Hernandez aspires for his book to be like that bread: "Something that you set your teeth into and say, 'Keith, that's pretty good. More, please.' " I'M KEITH HERNANDEZ: A Memoir (Little, Brown, $28) IS by turns crusty and soft. It's pretty good, too. If you've ever listened to Hernandez in his current capacity as a color man for the Mets, you know that he can be unapologetically cranky. He eyes with suspicion the statistics wizards now found in every team's front office. "It's no wonder, NASA, your space program is stalled," he writes. "All the smart kids went into baseball management." But he cuts the crustiness with a surprising soft side. Hernandez cries in this book - kind of a lot. He cries when fans razz him during ?-ball. He cries when he gets sent back to Triple-A after a cup of coffee in the bigs. He cries when he gets called up again but rides the pine. Don't these fans and managers know he's Keith Hernandez? But he's not yet Keith Hernandez - not a National League M.V.P. or a bon vivant who dines at Elaine Kaufman's and dates Elaine Benes - and therein lies the pleasure of the book. For most of its pages, Hernandez alternates between glimpses of his childhood and scenes from his days as a prospect in the St. Louis Cardinals organization. As a boy, he is taught the game by his father, who played ball with Stan Musial in the Navy. The elder Hernandez is by turns nurturing and imperious, the kind of father who builds a makeshift batting cage in the garage so he can critique his kid's swing. He can make Earl Woods seem laid-back. In the chapters devoted to Hernandez's minor-league years, we follow along as he struggles to meet another set of lofty expectations, those that attach to a top prospect. Hernandez writes honestly about his struggles - with pro pitching, with a Kahlua-swilling roommate, with being a kid far from home. The best stretches feel a bit like Jim Bouton's "Ball Four," only less glamorous. Some of Hernandez's stories have a tail-tale quality - one senses this material was workshopped during long bus rides between Texas League ballparks. At one such park, in Midland-Odessa, the local team has just installed new lights, which help Hernandez make out the pitcher's stuff but also attract "the region's vast tarantula population." Only after the grounds crew dispatches the spiders with long rakes can the game resume. Elsewhere, Hernandez is the rake. His Triple-A debut is marred by having to confess to his new manager that he's contracted a venereal disease. (After two shots of penicillin in the posterior, he still makes the start.) Road-tripping home from his sophomore season with the Cards, he contracts scabies from a young lady in Denver, or possibly from her large wolfhound. Some amount of hanky-panky is to be expected - this is baseball. Eventually, though, the boys-will-be-boys escapades shade into something that feels uncomfortably like bedpost notching. No more, please. Susan Jacoby is a Mets fan. This independent scholar and author of acclaimed histories of American secularism and the barnstorming 19th-century agnostic Robert Ingersoll believes in the team from Flushing. Her faith in baseball, however, has been shaken. The assertive title of her new book, why baseball matters (Yale University, $26), belies the author's concern that it might not matter, or not for long. Baseball, Jacoby writes, is a sport beset on one side by digital distractions inimical to the long bouts of concentration it demands and on the other by reformers who would sacrifice baseball's essence to persuade a young audience to log off and play ball. Jacoby is right to be concerned - a cord-cutting, smartphone-wielding generation of fans threatens to upend the business models of all the major sports, and baseball, with its antique traditions and languorous games, is in particularly dire condition. Recent strokes of good luck - the Cubs' dramatic World Series win, for example - have papered over a steady decline in attendance, as well as the graying of baseball's (very white) fan base. If the sport is to remain relevant, however, it will need more open-minded emissaries than Jacoby. "I do not think that everything about the game was better several decades ago," she insists in her introduction; she claims, throughout the book, that her views are not colored by nostalgia. But her reader will be hard-pressed to find much about the sport's present she prefers to its past. She adopted the Mets - after a Chicagoland childhood spent rooting for the White Sox - in part because she considers the designated hitter to be an abomination. To demonstrate her progressivism, she registers her disdain for the reserve clause, repealed in 1975. As a historian, Jacoby appreciates that baseball's stakeholders have often mistaken cultural and technological upheavals as the death knell for our pastoral pastime. Team owners thought radio would eat into their ticket sales. Instead, it expanded the sport's reach and made a burbling ballgame one of the sounds of the American summer. But when Jacoby regards Major League Baseball's innovative app, or the nerdy pleasures of fantasy baseball, she apparently sees not a point of entry for a new cohort of wired fans but an end to the analog era she would preserve in amber. If Jacoby is right and the American mind will soon be too addled for a three-hour baseball game, perhaps we'll all just become rodeo fans. By rule, a bronco ride lasts a mere eight seconds - and that's if the rider manages to stay on his horse. As readers learn in John Branch's remarkable new book, THE LAST COWBOYS: A Pioneer Family in the New West (Norton, $26.95), even the greatest bronc riders frequently find themselves in the dust well before time is up. Branch's book chronicles the Wright family, a sprawling brood of Utahans enjoying an unprecedented run of domination in the sport's saddle-bronc division. Cody, the eldest boy among Bill and Evelyn Wright's 13 children, is a twotime world champion. His brothers Jesse and Spencer have also taken home bronc riding's grand prize: a gold belt buckle. Shortly before the book went to press, Cody's son Ryder won the 2017 championship. Branch explains that saddle-bronc riding is "the classic, original rodeo event": It mimics the act of a cowboy trying to tame an unbroken horse. To do it well requires "balance and rhythm, brains and guts." Yes, brains: Cody Wright's success is partly the result of the detailed notes he keeps on every ride, notes that will give him an advantage the next time he draws that horse in a competition. Mostly, though, it's guts. The Wright brothers are constantly being hurtled from rearing broncs with names like Risky Business and Lunatic From Hell. Over the course of the book, shoulders are popped from their sockets. Arms and legs are broken. Rods and pins are inserted into bones. " I got a fair amount of metal in me," Cody tells Branch, with characteristic understatement. His legs are practically bionic. Branch, a reporter for The New York Times who first covered the Wrights for the newspaper, embedded with the family for more than three years - access nearly unheard of at a time when athletes prefer to tweet than talk to reporters. The book also has uncommon ambition: It's a story not just of rodeo, but of the contemporary West. Interspersed with chapters on bronc riding are ones devoted to Bill Wright, who runs a small cattle operation near Zion National Park. The Wright family has raised livestock in these parts for 150 years - Brigham Young officiated at the (second) marriage of the family patriarch. But with herds of cattle giving way to herds of mountain bikers, the cowboy way of life may finally be drawing to a close. Besides, there's more money in rodeo, if you're as good as the Wrights are. To his credit, Branch avoids the sentimentalism that can seep into such a tale. He also does an impressive job of making the rodeo life come off the page. The art of bronc riding can be mystifying, especially for those of us who haven't earned our spurs. Old hands see in a well-executed ride an eight-second epic of horsemanship, but it can be difficult to capture what separates a middling showing from a transcendent one - especially when the best riders make it look easy and carry themselves with a cowboy's stoicism. "Cody never said much," Branch writes. "He always thought he could learn a lot more by listening than by talking." It's a maxim the best reporters live by as well. There must have been some serious stretches of silence between author and subject on the long Western roads between rodeos. Reticence suits the Wrights. For black athletes, there has always been an imperative to speak out. As Howard Bryant, a senior writer for ESPN the Magazine, writes in THE HERITAGE: Black Athletes, a Divided America, and the Politics of Patriotism (Beacon, $26.95), black ballplayers were among the first Americans of color allowed to attend white universities and to move into white neighborhoods. With those advances came a heavy burden: to advocate "for the people who had not made it, for whom the road was still blocked." "The Heritage" is the informal name for that responsibility, one that carries considerable risk. Those who mix athletics and politics are often told to shut up and play. Bryant charts the history of the Heritage, from its origins in the activism of Paul Robeson, who had been a football star at Rutgers, through the late-20th-century stretch when many black athletes rejected its demands. (As O. J. Simpson infamously put it, declining any responsibility to advocate for his race: "I'm not black. I'm O. J.") Lesser stars kept the tradition alive - players like Craig Hodges, the Chicago Bulls sharpshooter who, visiting the White House after the Bulls' 1992 title, presented President George H. W. Bush with a list of the black community's concerns. For his efforts, Hodges found himself a man without a team, as Colin Kaepernick does today. Bryant's account of this tradition is bracing. He's at his fiercest, however, when he arrives at the present and exposes the fundamental hypocrisy of the shut up and play directive. Since the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, the United States military has become a fixture of major-league sporting events, with flyovers, football-field-size flags, camouflage-uniform days. In an era of controversial wars in multiple countries, why, Bryant asks, should we view these loud displays as "patriotism" and Kaepernick's silent protest as unseemly politics? Kaepernick's detractors might ask themselves whether their real problem is the mixing of politics and sport, or the politics of the Heritage. In the version of baseball's integration trotted out each April 15 at ballparks around the major leagues, Branch Rickey signs Jackie Robinson and, with the stroke of a pen, the sport's shameful history of segregation is erased. The real story, of course, is far more complicated. "Integration was a process that involved hundreds of players on dozens of teams in tens of leagues across the country and over decades," writes Amy Essington, an instructor in history at Cal State Fullerton. Though many black players came to the majors having already played professionally in the Negro leagues, most began their careers in the minors. In the integration of THE PACIFIC COAST LEAGUE: Race and Baseball on the West Coast (University of Nebraska, paper, $19.95), Essington undertakes the first comprehensive account of black players joining the RC.L. In 1948, a catcher named John Ritchey became the league's first black player when he signed with the San Diego Padres affiliate. Unlike Robinson's, Ritchey's story has been all but erased from history. When Essington reached out to the president of the P.C.L.'s historical society, she learned its archival holdings had been inadvertently de-accessioned ("a move back East, the back of a truck opening on the highway"). Largely from secondary sources, including coverage in black newspapers, Essington pieces together the story of a talented ballplayer who was routinely derided by the opposition - one pitcher walked him on four straight brushbacks - and forced to room by himself while on the road. A former teammate recalls Ritchey's easy smile, but the trials of being a pioneer, particularly the unwelcoming treatment in his own dugout, wore on the catcher: "I never observed hostility, but I did observe a coolness, a distancing that was very apparent to Johnny. The smile on his face disappeared." This, too, is the story of integration. Laurent Dubois, a scholar of French colonialism at Duke, describes his new volume, the language of the GAME: How to Understand Soccer (Basic Books, $26), as a love letter to football. But that description doesn't quite get at its wonderfully odd approach. It's more like a commonplace book - a collection of wisdom gleaned from a lifetime of reading about his beloved sport. The book is divided into chapters dedicated to the various participants in a soccer match: the defender, the manager, the referee and so forth. Each chapter revisits legendary matches and sketches great players. (Zinedine Zidane, the French midfielder of Algerian descent, is naturally a favorite.) If your soccer fandom needs a tuneup before the World Cup, this book will more than suffice. But the real pleasure comes in Dubois's attempt to arrive at a kind of philosophical ideal for each position he describes. Consider the "eccentric art" of the goalie. That turn of phrase belongs to Vladimir Nabokov. The novelist, Dubois reminds us, played keeper at university and left behind his impressions of the position in "Speak, Memory." Nabokov noted the goalie's strange isolation from the game unfolding around him. He is "less the keeper of a soccer goal than the keeper of a secret." To illustrate the goalie's ethos of detachment, Dubois offers an anecdote from his trove. It's Christmas 1937, and the English teams Charlton Athletic and Chelsea are facing off. During the match, a dense fog descends over the pitch, leaving the Charlton keeper unable to see past half field. "While he stood there alone, he thought 'smugly' that his team must be giving Chelsea 'quite the hammer' at the other end of the field." Only when a policeman emerges from the fog and asks the young man why he is loitering on the field does the goalie realize the game was called owing to weather a quarter-hour earlier. Occasionally, the reader can struggle to keep up with Dubois's flights of fancy. Noting that Albert Camus was a goalie as well, Dubois posits, with seeming seriousness, that "one might even attribute the entire structure of his existentialist thought to this fact." From the keeper's inevitable failures - the certainty that an opponent will eventually beat you with a well-struck ball - Camus may have learned something about "the inevitability of death and the concomitant absurdity of life." Do we have goaltending to thank for "The Stranger"? Perhaps. Dubois allows that the Uruguayan novelist and soccer journalist Eduardo Galeano had a more prosaic explanation for Camus's affinity for the position: The impoverished young writer played goalie because "your shoes don't wear out as fast." JOHN SWANSBURG is a senior editor at The Atlantic.

Library Journal Review

This elegantly written account of the extraordinary Wright family of southern Utah succeeds in showing the challenges facing modern Western American ranchers. Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Branch (Boy on Ice) integrated himself with the family to produce an intimacy with world-class rodeo saddle-bronc riders, government land administrators, and hundreds of bawling cattle. Branch relates how rodeo prize money dramatically saved and improved the Wright's traditional ranching business, even while battering family members with uncountable broken bones and sacrificing critical family time. Far less political than James Pogue's account of the Bundy family (Chosen Country), Branch's take nonetheless portrays ranchers faced with restrictive federal government land policies and a significant increase in recreational users of the same lands they lease for grazing rights. VERDICT A dramatic and personal account of the Wright family and how they developed a second business in the modern rodeo circuit to support their family ranch at Smith Mesa. Recommended for understanding 21st-century American cowboy culture.-Nathan Bender, Albany Cty. P.L., Laramie, WY © Copyright 2018. Library Journals LLC, a wholly owned subsidiary of Media Source, Inc. No redistribution permitted.

Table of Contents

Prologuep. 1
Part 1 Branding Dayp. 5
Part 2 King of the Rodeop. 49
Part 3 Cowbells in the Fogp. 133
Part 4 Blood and Traditionp. 195
Epiloguep. 260
Acknowledgmentsp. 273