Tuesday, April 7, 2009

The Goodnight Trail by Ralph Compton (audio book read by Jim Gough) (Trail Drive series)

It took me a while to warm to the "Ralph Compton" style. When I first listened to the audiobook of Doomsday Rider, it seemed too much like the Western cliché for me to really realize what a good read it was, even though I had no trouble finishing it and instantly acquired its sequel, Vengeance Rider (which was even better). Compton's name stayed in my mind afterward, however, and when I was looking for another similar book to fill my commute, I picked up Rio Largo, and that was so terrific I was hooked.

The books carrying on Compton's "brand name" were enjoyable enough on their own, but it seemed time to try out the works of the man himself. Not long after, I came across a copy of The Goodnight Trail, the first in Compton's popular, long-running Trail Drive series. It was also Compton's debut novel and an auspicious one it seems.

June 1865 — Not long after the end of the Civil War, three men — Benton McCaleb, Brazos Gifford, and Will Elliot — hatch a plan to "make the gather" — herd the cattle that had gone maverick while the Civil War was being fought — and drive them up a new trail being blazed by Charles Goodnight and Oliver Loving in what would eventually become known as the Goodnight-Loving Trail. (Goodnight invented that staple of the trail drive, the chuck wagon — not named after himself, as some people think, but because trail food was called chuck.)

But even herding cattle is action-packed for this crew under Compton's pen: they get involved in a family feud (Rebecca and Monte Nash against their father) and side with a Spanish-speaking Apache Indian named Goose in a continuing battle against "bloodthirsty Comanches". This adds three more to their team and offers Compton the chance to show his skill at mixing characters.

Not all of the characters become truly individual, because in general they aren't all that different from one another. They operate by the same code, and tend to react similarly to situations, but they have strong personalities if not necessarily separate ones. The most memorable ones are McCaleb, Rebecca Nash, and Goose. Compton inserts a few real people for variety, too. Charles Goodnight and Oliver Loving play a fairly large role (not surprising, given the title), Judge Roy Bean even makes an appearance to dole out his particular brand of frontier justice.

The Goodnight Trail is a slice of life on the trail, and that's all it pretends to be. Don't expect any character arcs, or any real plot to speak of, and you'll be quite satisfied by this constantly moving combination of history and myth. Compton has an action-oriented style more than somewhat influenced by the pulps, and he makes time to throw in a little bit of a roughneck romance. I also enjoyed his insertion of useful tips on the trail. You will learn (among other things) how cauterize an arrow wound and the many alternate uses for grain alcohol.

If you have the chance, find a copy of the audiobook of The Goodnight Trail (with music and sound effects) read by Jim Gough. His authentic Texas drawl makes the story sound as if it was being told around a campfire, with coffee brewing and bacon frying. (If Gough had read my copy of Lonesome Dove, I may have actually been able to finish it.)

The Trail Drive series was originally conceived as a trilogy (and The Goodnight Trail leads right into the sequel, The Western Trail). But the series has grown (with help from modern writers) to around 20 books, contesting to the popularity of this subgenre. As of this writing, they are as follows.

By Ralph Compton:
1. The Goodnight Trail
2. The Western Trail
3. The Chisholm Trail
4. The Bandera Trail
5. The California Trail
6. The Shawnee Trail
7. The Virginia City Trail
8. The Dodge City Trail
9. The Oregon Trail
10. The Santa Fe Trail
11. The Old Spanish Trail
12. The Deadwood Trail
13. The Green River Trail

By modern authors:
14. The Dakota Trail by Robert Vaughan
15. The Alamosa Trail by Robert Vaughan
16. The Bozeman Trail by Robert Vaughan
17. The Abilene Trail by Dusty Richards
18. The Trail to Fort Smith by Dusty Richards
19. The Ogallala Trail by Dusty Richards
20. The Palo Duro Trail by Jory Sherman
21. The Ellsworth Trail by Jory Sherman
22. The Tenderfoot Trail by Joseph A. West
23. Trail to Cottonwood Falls by Dusty Richards


Gary Dobbs/Jack Martin said...

I read this one recentlt and it really is brilliant - I'd like to get hold of the audio book too but there's no chance of finding it over here in the UK. I suppose I could try Amazon or Ebay

Craig Clarke said...

I'm not sure it's so easy to find anywhere, at least not at a reasonable price. I got it from the library.

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