Outlaw Tales of Oregon by Jim Yuskavitch

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Over the holidays a friend gave me book entitled Outlaw Tales of Oregon: True Stories of the Beaver State’s most Famous Infamous Crooks, Culprits and Cutthroats by Jim Yuskavitch. I must say I looked at it with a jaundiced eye since it looked like one of the books that you give children that has a sterile, sanitized version of history, somewhere between Paul Bunyon and George Washington cutting down an apple tree.

I have to say that I was very pleasantly surprised. The stories were interesting, well researched and well written. They covered the nitty gritty of what the criminals did and made no excuses or whitewashing their actions for them.

The 12 stories covered a wide range of topics from vigilante gangs, range wars, mass murders, train and stagecoach hold ups and more. There are criminals that even the most casual reader wandering through the pages would recognize such as Black Bart and Butch Cassidy, as well as many that would only be familiar to a fan or Oregon history.

One of the stories that I really enjoyed was entitled Dave Tucker: From Bank Robbery to Redemption. It was about an embittered young man who robbed a bank, was captured and did time. But when he was released he reformed his life to such an extent that decades later he was made president of the bank that he had once tried to rob.

The author mentions some myths, such as one robber was reputed to be the first to say “Hands Up” during the commission of his crime, and then usually dismisses the myth. He has a fine eye for detaiuil noting one criminal was jailed three years for stealing $8, that Oregon had one of the first State Penitentiarys and that one character later committed the first train robbery in Canada, at the relative late date of 1904.

Another nice feature for me was that it mentioned so many cities, counties and areas that I was pretty unfamiliar with I got my map out and followed along to see where much of the action took place. Some of the town names are near where I live in Portland, and yet I had never heard of places such as Goble.

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It is interesting to see that it appears that there is an entire Outlaw series covering a range of states and I might get a few others to see what happened in a few other states, Alaska seems to be one that could be ripe with interesting crime, as does Montana. Interesting that the Montana cover closely resembles the Oregon cover.

The Builders by Daniel Polanski

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A while back there was a Kindle offer for books for some low price and one of them The Builders by Daniel Polanski had been recommended to me by a friend in a somewhat cryptic message. He had said that if I liked Westerns then I would like this, but that it was a western with a twist.

 

That made me a bit leery because if it was zombies, or steam punk or vampires I was not interested. Even the old west version of Tremors, Tremors 4: The Legend Begins never caught my fancy. On the other hand I had not read a western in years and I really enjoyed them. In college I had taken an English Lit class that was all western stories, many of them that were turned into movies such as Stagecoach and High Noon. It was one of my favorite classes and so I figured why not and got the book.

Then it sat on my tablet for a year, and I came upon it the other day as I once again tried to create some sense of order in the chaos that is my digital book collection. So I opened the book and dove in, which could in part explain why the collection is such a mess.

I loved it from page one. It is sort of a mashup of a number of established themes from westerns but primarily old pros getting together to complete some unfinished business. His gang had been on the losing side of The War of Two Brothers, in which two sides had sought to establish a new ruler for the country, which seems to greatly resemble Mexico. A number of movies came to mind such as  The Wild Bunch, The Magnificent Seven, The Professionals, and a number of others as I read the book, or long novella.

However there is one huge difference. All of the characters are animals. The lead character is a mouse. A tough, feared, hard-bitten, wily, experienced mouse that is always addressed as the Captain.  In one shoot out he survives because being a mouse he realizes that other animals are faster and stronger and that the only way that a mouse can survive is with cunning and foresight. The fastest gunslinger is a salamander. A stoat is a clever killer named Bonsoir and is rumored to have deserted the French Foreign Legion. Oh, the two brothers the war was about were toads.

The gang had been defeated at the point of victory due to betrayal in its ranks, and had suffered losses in the war, which had ended five years ago. It was now time to put that right. The captain gathers an owl, possum, mole and others and heads out.

The surprising thing about it is how well it works. These are not Disney animals.  In some instances you forget they are animals and in others it is that animals characteristics (real or in popular culture) that lead it to its downfall.  I enjoyed the plot, starting with the trek to put the gang back together and giving a back story of sorts on many of the characters. Then their assault on the ‘enemies’ citadel and how each animals strengths and weaknesses play a part reads as well as any such attack. The conclusion was interesting, if not completely satisfying, in part because I was hoping for a different ending rather than any shortcoming in the story.

Overall I would really recommend this book, or novella. The writing is clever with a nice level of sly snark. It goes quickly and I found myself wishing it was longer, or even the first of a series. I have read this type of story by others, minus the animals but same plot, but this is by far the best executed version I have seen and it is not only worth reading but probably rereading.