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Footnotes in Texas History

It Still Reigns

At 50, Elmer Kelton’s ‘The Time It Never Rained’ remains ‘a book of the heart’

We should all be grateful that Elmer Kelton was a poor cowboy. When he was a young man, the now-famous writer said his inability to rope and ride well pushed him toward reading and then writing. Had he been a better cowboy, he told a reporter in 1984, “I’d still be working out on some ranch on the Pecos River.”

It’s been 50 years since The Time It Never Rained, Kelton’s classic novel, was published. Many Texas literary critics consider it one of the best novels written by a Texan about Texas. It was also Kelton’s favorite book and what he called his signature work—of the nearly 50 novels he wrote before he died in 2009.

The novel received the Spur Award and the Western Heritage Award.

The book is not your run-of-the-mill Western. There are no shootouts. No one dies. Wallace Kaufman, who taught at Duke University, wrote that the novel should rank “with Faulkner’s work as the local made universal.”

Author Shelley Armitage grew up in the 1950s in the Texas Panhandle, when and where the novel takes place.

“To see oneself and one’s landscape so accurately and aesthetically rendered was life-changing—as it remains today: a book of the heart,” Armitage says.

Mike Cox, author of 14 books on Texas and the West, notes that Kelton covered the terrible 1950s drought for the San Angelo Standard-Times and began writing fiction on the side.

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“He used what he knew about the dry spell for The Time It Never Rained, a novel I don’t believe he ever expected to become a classic,” Cox says. “I predict that as the West continues to get drier and drier due to global warming, his book will become even more important.”

For prolific author Wyman Meinzer, Texas’ official state photographer who once shared a book signing with Kelton, his “words conjured memories of blinding dust storms, dry stock tanks and a land void of palatable grass.”

Jac Darsnek, the man behind the much-loved Traces of Texas accounts on social media and a ubiquitous traveler and photographer of Texas, was 17 when he discovered the novel. He still draws inspiration from Charlie Flagg, the novel’s admirable protagonist, whom Kelton created from his own cowboy father.

“Elmer Kelton’s tale of hardship and endurance and main character Charlie Flagg’s astonishing self-reliance resonated within me in a place I never knew I had, and his descriptions of ranch life spoke to my inner Texan,” Darsnek said. “Decades later, when confronted with some obstacle or tough choice, I’ll ask myself, ‘What would Charlie Flagg do?’ ”

Steve Davis, curator of the Southwestern writers collection at the Wittliff Collections at Texas State University, says The Time It Never Rained is one of the most important Texas novels and a masterful example of eyewitness literature.

“Kelton was on the front lines when the great drought devastated the land and people he knew intimately,” Davis says. “His resulting novel, richly observed and deeply empathetic, stands as the truest, most profound portrait of that era.”