You know, sometimes you CAN judge a book by its cover, more or less. Case in point – “Shalom on the Range” by Michael Katz.
I mean, yeah, you can glance at the cover and guess its subject matter easily enough. Jews in the Old West. It features a guy in cowboy garb, wearing a Star of David in lieu of a sheriff’s star. And the title’s not exactly subtle.
But that intentional lack of subtlety is crucial. Both the cover art and the title promise a fun ride. And the book delivers.
Let’s face it. Jews on the American frontier? That subject matter could all-too-easily veer into Important Book territory. Oprah-endorsed, middle-brow, local-library-book-discussion-group-fodder. Soon to be an Oscar-nominated film that your girlfriend insists you’re somehow obligated to watch on a Saturday night even though you’d just as soon see “Shaun of the Dead” again.
I’m thinking newspaper book section reviews along the lines of …
“’Broken Windows,’ by Michael Katz: The title derives from the Jewish proverb ‘If God lived on earth, people would break his windows,’ and references the spiritual uncertainty that awaits the protagonists at every turn. Fleeing oppression in their native Europe, a group of Jewish settlers seeks a new home on the American frontier. With the existential emptiness of the plains serving as a stark backdrop, they embark on both an inner and outer journey as their ZZZZZZZZZZZZ! Huh? Wha… Sorry. Just nodded off for a second there.”
Fear not. “Shalom on the Range” is nothing like that. It starts out with a harrowing and vicious train robbery. Then it follows railroad detective David Goldstein on his mission to find the bandits responsible.
David’s a tough, canny and resourceful sort, but the American West is not his home turf. So he’s got to find a tour guide, in the person of bounty hunter Red Parker. Along the way, they encounter all the situations you’d want and expect from a pulpy Western – barroom brawls, shootouts, and … well … more shootouts.
Here’s the sneaky thing about it, though. The book is actually educational, too.
The plotline, an outsider getting indoctrinated into the ways of the Old West, gives Katz lots of opportunities to work in little details about his characters’ way of life. I’m no expert, but I’ve read some books on the history of the Old West, and it seemed pretty accurate to me.
The book also recounts an angle of Old West history that you don’t hear much about. If I’d ever given it any thought, I would have figured there were Jews in the Old West. Gentile that I am, though, it never occurred to me before I read Katz’s book.
In between the barroom brawls and shootouts, he works in some genuine history about the Jewish experience on the frontier, and even includes some cameo appearances by real historic figures. Yes, he does mention the anti-Semitism of the time, but doesn’t get overly preachy about it. (And as he makes clear, it’s not like the Chinese or Indians were treated like rock stars either.)
So give it a read. Yippie-ki-ay? No, my friends. Yippie-ki-OY!