John Branch’s new book ... shows...that the ranching life glorified by the sport is full of hard work, and—in the early 21st century—even harder choices ... Like Mr. Branch’s first book, The Last Cowboys is informed by scrupulous and compassionate reporting, casting light on a side of the sporting world typically hidden from view ... The Last Cowboys probes the human connections that play such a profound—if unseen—role in shaping the finished product that spectators consume ... The book will surely find an audience among rodeo fans, for whom the Wrights are household names. But it may be of even greater interest to readers unfamiliar with its subjects.
Branch, a reporter for The New York Times who first covered the Wrights for the newspaper, embedded with the family for more than three years—access nearly unheard of at a time when athletes prefer to tweet than talk to reporters. The book also has uncommon ambition: It’s a story not just of rodeo, but of the contemporary West ... To his credit, Branch avoids the sentimentalism that can seep into such a tale. He also does an impressive job of making the rodeo life come off the page.
Branch...spent more than three years getting to know this unusual clan. The result is a work that’s rich in detail and which consistently rings true. And he writes in a fashion that’s not dissimilar from how these cowboys live: clearly, boldly, and unambiguously, the sharp edges softened with understated humor and pithy observations ... Branch captures not just the thrill of bronc riding, but its absolute unpredictability ... Branch has given us a real-life story that’s not only compelling, but oddly reassuring.
He maintains a reporter’s objectivity that allows him to avoid caricaturing and sentimentalizing a lifestyle so often portrayed as if stuck in the cattle-drive era or worse, a bad spaghetti western. Branch’s legwork is astonishing, and he delivers a visceral sense of both the danger of the sport and the grueling schedule of full-time saddle bronc riders ... The author seems at times reluctant to fully elaborate the issues underlying the area’s transformation, perhaps because he wishes to shield the family from criticism, or to escape reprisal from a West often defensive of tradition and suspicious of the outsider, or perhaps simply to avoid distracting from his narrative. Though drought plays a role in the evolution of ranching, the author delves into climate change only peripherally ... Similarly, though broken bones from bronc riding litter nearly every chapter of the book, Branch shies from directly discussing the safety of the sport. And though wives and girlfriends float in and out of this necessarily male-driven narrative, it might be good to hear from the women who hold their families together while the men spend most of the year away from home, saddling up despite the obvious risks. The narrative is so packed with rodeos, rides and injuries that one misses moments of wider reflection on the quest driving the men. But the pros far outweigh the cons in this timely, clear-eyed examination of rodeo and the shifting culture that has long sustained it.
This book being about a Red State family, a certain reader might wait, tightly coiled, to read the words Donald Trump, Scott Pruitt, Ryan Zinke or Cliven Bundy. But it's only the final name that appears at all—they think of the famous anti-government rancher mainly as a neighbor, and a smart cattleman. Are the Wrights so studiously small in their thinking? Or is it Branch himself who steers his book into feeling like it's more about people you might have over for dinner than a tough look at how powerful forces emanate from Washington and connect to this iconic Western landscape? ... But what Branch focuses on so beautifully is how one remarkable American family navigates the situation of wanting to do dangerous, peculiar and deeply impressive kinds of work.
The nonfiction book is beautifully nuanced and detailed with luscious descriptions of the wild range near Zion National Park that the family has ranched for 150 years ... a thorough journalistic examination of their plight, featuring a deft narrative that puts the reader in the saddle along with these hard-working cattlemen ... mesmerizing and searing.
In a way, The Last Cowboys is one of the most time-stretching books you’ll ever read. Half of it is written in eight-second timelines, as Branch describes the skill, technique, and problems with staying on a rarely-ridden horse long enough to win what could be six-figure payouts ...
As it should, the other side of this book moseys through 150 years of ranch life ... gives readers a chance to dwell in the lushness while reading, with sinking feeling, about its dwindling appeal to newer generations. In the end, the answers are as complicated as are the rules for bronc riding and grazing rights, and readers who cherish the Old West shouldn’t wait to read about this New one.
Branch does a beautiful job chronicling a family as it navigates old traditions in a new, fast-paced century. He’s an unobtrusive writer, letting the family members speak for themselves, and refraining from making any judgments or trying to shoehorn the family into some larger narrative. The Last Cowboys is an excellent, compassionate book that deftly captures the cowboy ethos: 'Life could turn in a moment. You just held on and tried to find the rhythm in it.'
Pulitzer-winning New York Times reporter Branch records in utterly enthralling detail the efforts of a multigenerational Utah ranching family, the Wrights, to survive a shifting American West ... In letting the Wrights’ story slowly unfold itself, Branch conveys the timeless, almost mystical appeal of ranching in America’s west, even as Bill Wright, knowing the economic and social forces against him, decides in the end that it could work to allow women to set up a dozen tents down in the hollow for tourists. Heck, he could charge them (a lot) to help round up his cattle.
Branch writes with immediacy when describing cowboy life, whether branding and castrating cattle (the 'dirt-covered testicles... looked like dusty pearl onions') or attempting to last eight seconds on the back of a wild and angry mustang (a fallen rider 'crashed clumsily on his left shoulder, and the pain shot through him like electricity'). Branch’s fly-on-the-wall reporting and evocative prose renders this a memorable tale of family and the American West in a state of flux.
Packed with fascinating information, lively writing, and a certain pleasant nostalgia, this book is a good candidate for reading one chapter per day; eventually, the narrative becomes unwieldy—too many family members to track easily, too many long drives to rodeo after rodeo, and too many abrupt narrative shifts from cattle to rodeo to environmental degradation.