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January 1, 2011

Elmer Kelton’s The Time It Never Rained

This is Charlie Flagg’s story – a decent, honorable, small-time Texas rancher caught in the unrelenting grip of the 1950s seven-year drought. Charlie’s struggle with the lack of rain subtly stresses the other pressures brought to bear on the self-reliant Flagg and his neighbors. As the drought grows more intense, these increasingly desperate men face a growing dilemma – accept the questionable assistance of federal and state farm aid programs, which will subject them to stifling bureaucratic regulations, or remain free of the inevitable government-imposed constraints on their freedoms. Flagg, with the aid of his increasingly skeptical banker, resists the siren song of government help while his less independent minded neighbors climb aboard the gravy train of “free” government services.

Along with his Hispanic ranch hands and pressed to the limits of human endurance, Flagg struggles to survive this longest and most severe drought in living memory…an unfathomable foe in harsh and unforgiving West Texas. German-origin farmers watch their cotton plants bud, bloom and then wither while neighboring ranchers witness waterholes recede to undrinkable puddles of rancid mud, prairie tall grass curl and die to the roots…even weed patches shrivel, smothered by hot, persistent drought-fed winds.

Underlying this prolonged natural devastation is an ongoing complex human drama, the slowly evolving cultural relationships that preceded the 1950s drought and that would continue to exist long after the rains came. The Anglo and German farmers and cattleman had wrenched this land first from its original occupants, the Comanches and other indigenous tribes, and then from the Mexicans, whose claim had always been transitory, and who – unlike the Indians – adapted somewhat to the ways of these newcomers.

These cultures – white and Mexican – developed a necessary dependency on one other in order to survive in this harsh environment. Yet, they maintained a mutual, uneasy wariness; a deliberate separateness, complicated by the even more transitory presence of still another Mexican subculture – the unending trickle of poor illegal immigrants, the wetbacks.   Despised by second-, third-, and fourth generation Mexican-Americans who were threatened economically by the wetbacks’ enduring presence, and hunted by the whites for the laws they broke simply by trying to escape the unrelenting poverty in their homeland, made worse by the drought…still, they came.

Flagg, a compassionate, law-abiding man, refused to employ the passing migrants. After all, their mere presence represented a law broken. But he fed, clothed, and provided temporary shelter for many of them as best he could, and then sent them on their way. Thus, the multi-layered saga that author, Elmer Kelton, so masterfully brings to life in The Time It Never Rained is more than the seven-year battle to survive a long, dry spell. It spotlights the seemingly endless struggle among the dominant West Texas cultures to resolve their deep differences stemming from language barriers, skin color, and deeply ingrained prejudices based on generations of conflict over land, water and mutual mistreatment.

Complicating the deeply ingrained cultural issues is yet another concern…the new and growing conflict between independent-minded individuals – men like Charlie Flagg – and their growing reliance on different levels of government and the faceless bureaucrats who quickly take control of their lives.

This is a well-written book with deep messages…both subtle and not so subtle…regarding cultural issues and man’s growing reliance on government. I would rate it PG for youngsters, but I doubt that the book would attract many young readers. In my opinion, adults with a propensity for reading westerns and a curiosity about West Texas history would enjoy this book.


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