Posts Tagged ‘Shalom on the Range’

ShalomHow come we don’t have more Jewish action heroes in popular culture?

I started wondering about that when I posted my recent interview with Michael Katz about his book “Shalom on the Range” – a Western with a Jewish hero.

Actually, I also wondered about it a few months ago after reading an interview with Michael Chabon regarding his (really good) novel “Gentlemen of the Road,” which concerns a pair of Jewish adventurers around 950 A.D.

For a while, Chabon’s book had the working title “Jews With Swords.” When he’d mention that to people, their reaction was frequently to laugh at the incongruity of the concept.

And yet, there’s nothing incongruous about the concept. For better or worse, Jews – like pretty much every culture in human history – went through a time when they ran around getting in sword fights. It’s what people did before guns were invented.

And it’s not like there’s any shortage of real-life Jewish badasses to serve as inspirations in the modern age.

I figure the dearth of Jewish action heroes is related indirectly to the fact that in America, the 1960s TV show “The Green Hornet” was about a square-jawed white hero and his Asian sidekick, Kato. But when it aired in Hong Kong, it was called “The Kato Show” and regarded as a show about an Asian hero and his white sidekick. (more…)

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KatzI recently reviewed Michael Katz’s novel Shalom on the Range. You can see the review here. In short: It’s a fun, pulpy, action-packed Western that also manages to sneak in some genuine historic lessons about the Jewish experience on the American frontier.

I asked Michael if he’d answer a few interview questions. So here goes.
What prompted you to write the novel in the first place?

I started out as an editor – first non-fiction, then fiction – and I never thought I was going to write anything. Especially not a full novel. I was content just feeding people ideas behind the scenes. And this was an idea I had come up with and was going to feed to an author to run with if they were interested, lending them guidance in the background. But a number of people told me I was a good writer and should try it myself.

And when I took time off from my “day job” of practicing law I decided to give it a shot. My now ex-wife had a friend who was a movie screenwriter and also did some adjunct teaching at one of the local colleges. He agreed to read my draft and give me feedback, so I decided if he liked the first draft I’d plow ahead. If he didn’t I’d give up, but at least I would have tried. Turns out he really liked it, although he did teach me quite a bit while I was writing it, and that in turn made me a better editor as well as writer.

When you were working on the novel, were you consciously aware of balancing simple entertainment with historical analysis of an ethnic group’s experience in the Old West?

I was perhaps too consciously aware of the historical aspects of the novel. I was trying to make the book appeal to fans of Western fare, because Western literature is possibly the most difficult to sell, so I wanted to make sure my book was as historically accurate and as chock full of Western lore as possible. I also wanted the book to appeal to the Jewish people because that was another target audience I hoped would latch onto the overall concept and try the book for that aspect even if they were not into Westerns, since only a minority of readers are.

I think I wound up trying to make too many people happy, and it interfered with the flow of the book. So the first two or three chapters overemphasize the historical setting, because I want the readers to be fully immersed before they take off on what I hope is a rollercoaster ride of action mixed with humor and drama.

I actually removed quite a bit of historical detail from the book when I revised it for Kindle and Nook. So if anyone buys it for an electronic reader, they may find a better flow than the paper version. (more…)

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!