We all know that one of the most compelling themes in literature revolves around human struggles with the planet. Many carve out their lives in the extremes of heat and cold, the deadly swirling blasts of winds and water, and through the violent quaking of the earth’s surface. Naturally, the earth itself is a great (and inevitable) canvas for artists.
Texas novelist, Elmer Kelton, unfurled one part of that canvas — the enormous expanse of the 1950s West Texas drought — for his 1973 novel, “The Time it Never Rained.”
I read this sprawling and gripping novel of West Texas early in the morning, during lunch breaks, in the mid-afternoon, in the evening, and anytime I woke up during the night. It sunk it’s hooks into my mind and would not let go till I finished the last page.
Charlie Flagg is a salt-of-the-earth, overweight, fifty-plus, good guy rancher near the fictional town of Rio Seco, Texas. Part of Kelton’s mastery is that he lets the story unspool in the easy rhythms of agrarian life. We slowly get to know Charlie, his family (including the Hispanic family living on his place), his neighbors, banker, waitress, and others in his community… people gnarled by the meteorological and economic realities of West Texas.
But, this is far more than a story about surviving drought. Kelton attains an operatic power in this saga of land, family, community, traditions, and the new (1950s) intrusions of government and banking regulations. “The Time it Never Rained” is a “perfect storm” of life-crushing forces.
Strangely, this 1973 novel about events 20 years earlier carries a potent message for anyone living into the 21st century: government is not your friend! Bureaucracy is not merely incompetent and bungling; it is vicious and deadly. The reader feels caught and utterly helpless to stop the inevitable destruction of ranches and businesses trapped in the government’s juggernaut. At one point, you can see a suicide coming and it breaks your heart. Kelton said every story in this novel is true.
In “The Time it Never Rained,” we see a thriving culture of free, wind-in-your-face, religious, familial, self-reliance. And, we also see the sinister forces which tried (and still try) to kill it. I almost never use a highlighter in a novel. But, I used up two highlighters on this one.
This novel got under my skin. You can smell the horses and their saddles, feel the dry dirt running through your fingers, see the bleached landscape, and hear the bleating of dying lambs.
“The Time it Never Rained” carries a rare emotional power.