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Book review: Southern Utah family's story is beautifully told in Pulitzer-winner's 'The Last Cowboys'

"THE LAST COWBOYS: A Pioneer Family in the New West," by John Branch, W.W. Norton & Company, 288 pages (nf)

My grandfathers wanted to be cowboys. One kept horses at a stable outside the city limits of his home in Rock Springs, Wyoming; the other proudly wore his Stetson everywhere. My husband’s grandfather really was a cowboy. He grew up in Utah’s west desert herding sheep and cattle until he left to make money for the ranch still in the family nearly 100 years later.

It’s easy to romanticize the cowboy life of simplicity, hard work and beautiful country. And maybe it’s the modest cowboy way that makes us skip over the “hard” part of their work and focus instead on the pastoral quality. After all, these days it’s unique for one to make a living off of the land and doing so represents a tradition and lifestyle many believe to be the heritage of the American West.

John Branch’s "The Last Cowboys" examines this heritage through the prism of the Bill and Evelyn Wright family. Parents of 13, the Wrights call Milford, Beaver County, home, but their family has homesteaded and ranched on the land outside of Zion National Park for generations. Their brood spans generations, too, with many of Bill and Evelyn’s grandchildren arriving before some of their aunts and uncles. This burgeoning group live near enough to each other in this rural part of the world and work together caring for the cattle that have long been their family’s livelihood. Bill Wright raised his kids to rope, brand, pen and haul — and they’re good at it.

He also raised his sons to ride the rodeo. And they’re good at that, too — good enough that they, along with some of Bill’s grandsons and a son-in-law, are consistently among the top bronc riders in the world.

New York Times reporter and Pulitzer Prize-winner John Branch will sign copies of his new book "The Last Cowboy: A Pioneer Family in the New West" at The King's English on Saturday, May 19.
New York Times reporter and Pulitzer Prize-winner John Branch will sign copies of his new book "The Last Cowboy: A Pioneer Family in the New West" at The King's English on Saturday, May 19.
W. W. Norton & Company

As a New York Times reporter (and Pulitzer Prize-winner) who often covers sports, Branch enlivens rodeo from its dust to its lights. His descriptions of the Wright boys’ rides are often as breathtaking as witnessing the actual 8 seconds. He offers a primer to the sport early on but because his writing is so good, the important information comes off as casually as a conversation in the cab of a rodeo truck on its way to another late-night event. I found myself having to go back to read it again once I realized the significance of the lulling words.

Branch especially shines as he effortlessly weaves the stories of ranching and rodeo — both fraught with risk, reality and a race against time — into the Wrights' story. Bill Wright wants to keep the cattle and the land in the family because he knows rodeo can’t go on forever. He juggles the increasing permits, the lack of water, the endless transporting, the rising costs while most of his help chases money pots in rodeo arenas from Texas to California to Calgary. In between gigs, the family comes home for a branding day. Injuries that keep them out of the circuit for a while can also render them unable to help move the herd.

Branch makes these realities plain, but this is not what makes the Wrights sympathetic characters. It’s Branch’s way of presenting the Wrights as themselves — as real, living reflections of every true grit aphorism John Wayne, Roy Rogers and my husband’s grandfather made legend — that has a reader rooting for their success. We want this family to come out on top because, as Branch shows, their set-jaw, no-fuss practices are wrapped in a well-worn humility that is gleamingly authentic in our very inauthentic world.

Branch’s narrative makes a beautiful case for why we need the Wright family, ranching, the rodeo and an idyllic vision of the West: They represent the hope and the elbow grease we’ve outsourced to our distractions, our expectations and our plans to get ahead. Branch manages to make the Wrights' story a tribute to the things that matter as well as to the wrestle with the things that don’t.

If you go …

What: John Branch book signing

When: Saturday, May 19, 7 p.m.

Where: The King’s English, 1511 S. 1500 East


Note: Places in the signing line are reserved for those who purchase a copy of "The Last Cowboys"from The King's English.