“Genesis” is a long short story—82 pages—tucked into the middle of Wallace Stegner’s Wolf Willow. The tale’s main character is Lionel “Rusty” Cullen, a 19-year-old Englishman who migrated to cattle country in Saskatchewan, intrigued by the romance of the Old West and in search of adventure. It didn’t take him long to realize his notions of cowboy life were misguided:
Already, within a day, Rusty felt how circumstances had hardened, how what had been an adventure revealed itself as a job.
Rusty also realizes he is but a
pilgrim, least among the nine cowboys who ride out on a late fall roundup to
bring in calves for winter feeding. Still, he is determined, even eager, to
give it his best, to prove himself a man among men.
As with many Westerns, landscape and weather are also characters in the story. The roundup is interrupted repeatedly by early blizzards that scatter the cattle time and again. The storms become so violent and the cold so brutal the men are forced to abandon the herd, even the remuda, to race across the plains at a snail’s pace, trying to outrun death itself.
Romantic notions, if any still exist at this point, are further disabused by the awareness that these men, and others like them throughout the West’s cattle country, put their lives at peril:
For owners off in Aberdeen or Toronto or Calgary or Butte who would never come out themselves and risk what they demanded of any cowboy for twenty dollars a month and found.
As much as I like “Genesis” for what it
includes—a realistic look at cowboy life and work, albeit in extreme
circumstances—I like it for what it does not include. There’s not a single
gunfight. No Hollywood walk-down quick-draw contest, no snarling packs of bad
guys shooting up the streets and back alleys and saloons of a wooden town.
There’s no damsel in distress—unless you count mother cows and heifer calves. No
splendid super steeds racing at top speed across page after page with nary a
stop for a blow, a sip of water, a mouthful of grass. And there are no
six-foot-tall bulletproof heroes with broad shoulders, narrow hips, and a
That’s not to say there’s no courage, bravery, or heroics in “Genesis.” But it’s realistic valor, not the over-the-top imaginary superhero stuff so common in Western stories. Stegner sums it up best when, near the end of the tale, he says this about Rusty:
It was probably a step in the making of a cowhand when he learned that what would pass for heroics in a softer world was only chores around here.