A Novel about "Guttiness" and Independence from Government

Elmer Kelton, The Time It Never Rained, original publication date, 1973

In accounting, “book value” is the term used to describe the estimated value of an asset that has been held for a long time and has depreciated over the years. It seemed an ideal title for this new book review column, which will revisit favorite old works and rediscover unjustly neglected works in the hopes of reassessing their value in the conversation about liberty and free markets.

Much of the Midwest is only beginning to cool down after a record-setting summer drought that brought temperatures and dryness to levels that haven’t been seen since the Dustbowl of the 1930s. Here at TheFreemanOnline, Steve Horwitz recently detailed the ways in which markets and globalization have prevented this year’s drought from escalating into food shortage or famine. With this in mind, the first Book Value column offers a review of Elmer Kelton’s great western drought novel, The Time It Never Rained.

Much praised within the community of readers and writers of Westerns, The Time It Never Rained won a Spur Award from Western Writers of America and a Western Heritage Award from the National Cowboy Hall of Fame. It shows up occasionally on lists like National Review’s 2010 compilation of the top ten conservative novels. But perhaps because—like murder mysteries, sci-fi/fantasy, and romances—Western novels are consigned to the suspect “genre fiction” shelves in the local bookstore, Kelton’s novel isn’t currently considered required reading for those who love liberty and are skeptical of the State. It’s time for that to change.

Contempt for Government

Set in Texas during the punishing drought that ran from 1950 until 1957, The Time It Never Rained is the story of Charlie Flagg, who is trying to hold his ranch and his family together without accepting any government aid. The narrator’s contempt for governmental influence over the lives and decisions of ranchers is evident from the book’s initial description of the local branch of the federal Production and Marketing Administration (PMA; now the Farm Service Agency):

Here the man of the land came to declare his crop acreage, his past year’s plantings. Here he was told how much land he would be allowed to seed in cotton, in grain sorghums, in whatever other crops might be under federal control. Here he came for price support and to receive checks to help him pay for terraces and water spreading, for water wells and surface tanks, for battling back the prickly pear and thorny mesquite. Here he sold his freedom bit by bit, and was paid for it on the installment plan.

Charlie Flagg’s contempt is more laconic but no less scathing: “What I can’t do for myself, I’ll do without.”

As the drought deepens, and more of Charlie’s fellow ranchers get used to accepting more government aid “like a kid gets used to candy,” Charlie’s determination to do without it only strengthens.  This alienates him from his neighbors, frustrates his ne’er-do-well son, and increases his struggles to run his ranch. For example, since the drought means that grass hasn’t grown on Charlie’s cattle grazing lands, he decides to buy some wheat seed and plant it in hopes of catching what little rainfall may come. He is told, “I can sell you all the seed you want, Charlie, but I’m not sure you can plant it. . . . You can’t grow wheat without you got an allotment.” Conveniently, the PMA official is on hand—as he is throughout the book, a menacing figure of Panopticon-like surveillance—to explain the details. “It’s all right if you just graze it. But once it starts to head out you’ll have to plow it under. You’re not allowed to cut it without an allotment.” The policy is designed to force Charlie to buy wheat from somebody who does have an allotment, in order to control the wheat surplus. Disgusted, Charlie buys unregulated—but possibly less hardy–oat seed instead.

Resentment of Charlie

By the end of the book the full force of his neighbors’ disapproval, the banks’ straitened credit lines, the government’s regulations, and the drought have landed on Charlie. He has sold his cattle and his sheep and is reluctantly raising goats in an attempt to keep what remains of his ranch. His town’s finances are being audited. As neighbor after neighbor is fined for taking too much government aid, their resentment of Charlie’s insistence on remaining in the clear only grows. He is threatened with audits. His loans are called in. And in a final natural insult, Kelton’s novel closes with a torrential downpour that kills off most of Charlie’s drought-resistant, rain-vulnerable goats.

The novel’s mournful close may remind readers of the end of Paradise Lost when Adam and Eve leave Eden hand in hand.  Charlie, sick and exhausted, turns over the attempt to rescue the few remaining goats to the next generation of young ranchers, puts his arm around his wife, turns “his back on all he had lost, and they walked together through the cold rain.”

Stubborn Defiance

The Time It Never Rained is worth reading simply as a beautifully and tersely written exploration of stubborn defiance against government interference in ranching and land management. It also opens up some interesting discussions about immigration and labor mobility. Charlie and his fellow ranchers have numerous encounters with Mexican residents–legal and illegal—who have come to Texas to find work. These encounters, couched in 1950s slang, don’t always make for pleasant reading. They do, however, emphasize that Charlie’s scorn for governmental interference is not just a personal matter. “In his view the wetback was no criminal; he was a hungry man desperately seeking work, and it took a lot of guts to set out across uncounted miles of unknown country in hopes of bettering oneself. . . . [T]his guttiness, he felt, was a character strength which was disappearing from American life. He was glad they still had it in Mexico.”

That guttiness and this book’s ability to inspire us to embrace it for ourselves—that’s the book value of The Time It Never Rained.

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