Monday, September 26, 2011

In Review – The Life and Adventures of Nat Love

Over the past couple of years I have reviewed quite a number of books for this blog, but this is the first time I have reviewed a book acquired as a digital download.

The Life and Adventures of Nat Love, is a remarkable tale by any measure. The full title of the book – as can be seen in the illustration on the left – includes the additional words: better known in the cattle country as Dead Wood Dick.

Nat (pron: Nate) Love (1854–1921), was an African American cowboy following the American Civil War. In The Life and Adventures of Nat Love, his 1907 autobiography, Nat reveals that he was born into slavery during the month of June, 1854 (exact date unknown), on the Tennessee plantation of Robert Love, an “…owner of many slaves”.

Following the common practise at that time, Nat was given the surname of his owner, as were his two older siblings, sister Sally and brother Jordan. Nat Love’s father was a slave foreman in the fields, and his mother managed the kitchen.

Following the Civil War, Nat’s father, Sampson, rented 20 acres of land from Robert Love, and the family began to farm their own piece of ground cultivating corn, tobacco and vegetables. Nat learnt the basics of reading and writing from his father, whose untimely death a year or so after gaining his freedom, forced Nat to assume the role of head of the family, despite the fact that he was younger than his two siblings.

The family struggled on for several more years, until one day Nat’s luck finally changed for the better when – with a fifty-cent stake – he won a horse in a raffle. The former owner immediately bought the nag back from Nat for $50, and proceeded to raffle the horse for a second time. Incredibly, Nat, who had bought a ticket in this new raffle again won the horse. Once more the owner offered to buy the horse back for another $50, to which Nat agreed. Now armed with one hundred dollars in cash, Nat headed home and giving half to his mother, he used the other half to “…go out in the world and try and better my condition.”

Although he was only 15 or 16 years of age at this time, Nat went west to Dodge City, Kansas, and found work as a cowboy. Because of his excellent horse riding skills, he was soon given the nickname, "Red River Dick."

Nat Love goes on to recount his many adventures involving cattle rustlers, wild storms, marauding Indians, buffalo and cattle stampedes, gun fights, and long months on the trail, and life in general as a cowboy. His many years of experience made him an expert marksman and horse rider, and when, at the age of 22, he entered a rodeo in Deadwood, South Dakota on the 4th of July in 1876 – winning the rope, throw, tie, bridle, saddle and bronco riding contests – he was given the nickname "Deadwood Dick."

In 1890, Nat Love – who had recently married – gave up the life of the cowboy to begin his second career as a Pullman porter on the vast new rail networks that were then criss-crossing their way over the old cattle trails. For 15 years he rode the ‘iron horse’ the length and breadth of the continental United States, and his book contains a paeon to America that is so beautifully written that I will quote it in full in a forthcoming entry.

I was particularly taken with this passage too: “At the present time there are in the United States upwards of two hundred and sixty thousand miles of railroad open and in operation, not to mention several thousand miles now building and projected … while in 1851 there were only…9000 miles.” Later, he adds, “They carry somewhat more than 800,000,000 passengers every twelve months.”

The heyday of rail travel in the United States has of course, long since come and gone. The Wikipedia entry for Amtrak (the National Railroad Passenger Corporation), states that today Amtrak “…operates passenger service on 21,000 miles of track,” compared to the 260,000+ miles and growing in Nat Love’s day. Further, Wikipedia states, “In fiscal year 2008, Amtrak served 28.7 million passengers,” as compared with the 800 million annual passengers when Nat Love worked across the rail network.

Nat Love died in Los Angeles at age 67 in 1921. He lived an extraordinary life that took him from slavery, to the heyday of the American West, to the rise of the railways, and many places in between. He personally knew William ‘Buffalo Bill’ Cody, Frank and Jesse James, Kit Carson as well as Billie The Kid – all of whom he writes about in his book. If ever there was a story crying out to be turned into a great Hollywood movie, the story of Nat Love is it, and why it has yet to be done is beyond me.

Maybe it is because truth really is stranger than fiction.

I only have one major reservation about the autobiography: Nat Love refers to Native Americans and Mexican nationals in quite derogatory terms in his book, where he refers to Mexicans as ‘greasers,’ and when he repeats the widespread cry of the day that ‘the only good Indian is a dead one,’ etc. In his defence, one could argue that he was simply reflecting commonly held sentiments of his era, but to my mind it does detract from the full esteem he surely deserves.

Also, one obvious omission came to mind as I finished this remarkable story: once Nat gives his mother half his winnings from the horse raffles, and heads off to better his “condition,” he never mentions his mother or two siblings again, and I was left wondering if he ever saw them or kept in contact with them over the remainder of his life.

The Life and Adventures of Nat Love is available as a free digital download from that amazing repository of free public domain books, Gutenberg.Org, where along with Nat Love’s autobiography you will find more than thirty thousand other titles that can be downloaded gratis to your iPhone, iPad, Kindle, PC, Mac or any number of other electronic devices.

Highly recommended.

More information

EBook: The Life and Adventures of Nat Love

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