13 September 2014


Locus Focus: Take One Hundred and Eight

"Our success," Sir Ken Robinson has said, "is always synergistic with our environment." As an education adviser, he was likely talking about schools, although he is best known for a talk in which he explained how they kill creativity. But if we've learned one thing from last week's trip to 1940s Monongahela, learning and thriving don't need artificial structures to coax them out. Never underestimate a good unschooling setting.

And now for a cover that the impeccably artistic Stilwell will never forgive me for . . .

Hill Country Texas, 1866

by Leigh Greenwood

"[Jake is] driving the boys too hard," Ward said . . . "They're exhausted. Somebody's going to get hurt."

"He's not driving them at all. They're driving themselves . . . This herd is all Jake has. It stands for everything he hopes to have."

"But the boys."

"It's much the same with them. They never had a chance until now. Jake's success will be their success. I don't mean the money, though that's important. When they get those steers to Santa Fe, and they
will get to Santa Fe, they will have accomplished something nobody can take away from them. They won't be useless orphans any more, and they'll owe it all to Jake."

It was really this Leigh Greenwood novel, and not any of John Taylor Gatto's books, that inspired this month's Unschooling Challenge. Reading Jake made me think that all teenage boys should go on an old-fashioned cattle drive, as full members of the crew, before they can consider themselves fully educated. I'll bet that most of them would agree to it, too! =P

When school teacher Isabelle Davenport brings eight orphaned boys to West Texas to find them good homes and ends up on Jake Maxwell's ramshackle ranch, she hits the jackpot . . . though it takes her a long while to realise it. The boys, ranging in age from fourteen to eight, get it immediately. Within two days of camping out near his empty corral, the older ones catch the horses they find near the creek and start roping and breaking them. They're not all experts, but they manage. And when the desperate Jake offers them a chance to work as his cowhands, they sense that saving his ranch will also help them to save themselves. (Not in the Pelagian sense, but you know what I mean!)

It may be the solution to all their problems, but it's not the easy way out. Jake, Isabelle and the boys still have to deal with some farmers who greatly dislike ranchers and who aren't afraid to murder children for a claim to the land . . . with Comanches and Apaches who aren't too happy with the white and black men who have been moving out west . . . and of course, with the ornery steers themselves. In other words, no more than what a bunch of unschoolers can handle! Those who don't know how to ride get on horses for the first time; those who have never held a gun learn how to shoot when rustlers attack; and those who have never touched hard liquor learn, to their great discomfort in the morning, why it's a bad idea to get your courage from a bottle. =P Even Isabelle, who has never had to cook a full meal in her life, learns how to prepare beans, bacon and biscuits while on the trail!

But perhaps the best part of the story, from an educational perspective, comes after Jake is temporarily incapacitated and the boys have to work out a way to survive in the wilderness without him. That the novel doesn't turn into The Lord of the Flies at that point is a testament to Jake's abilities as a teacher, although he'd never describe himself as one. It also makes a great case for typical Western settings as one of the best environments for shepherding boys into manhood--a standard that our own schools have been failing to meet for a long while.

Question of the Week: If you could live your childhood over again in another place and time, where and when would you go? 

Image Source: Jake by Leigh Greenwood


Brandon said...

Little-known fact: long-distance cattle drives only very rarely ever happened. Obviously the normal thing to do with cattle is not drive them miles and miles and miles to some distant city but just a few miles over to the nearest railroad station. There was a period of a few years in which all the prior markets for cattle were glutted, and new railroad lines hadn't yet been laid down to where they needed to go; and that was the only time when it ever made sense to do a long-distance cattle drive. But it seems that handful of long-distance cattle drives in that handful of years made some massive impression on people's imaginations.

It could just be the broad similarity of the story material, but this particular storyline sounds remarkably similar to the primary storyline of the John Wayne movie, The Cowboys, except for the girly stuff. And it, too, is a story about education that doesn't rely on schools.

I'm not sure how I would answer that question; so much of the places I've lived inform who I am that I'm not sure who I'd be if I'd grown up anywhere else.

Enbrethiliel said...


Thanks for the historical context, Brandon! I really hadn't known that. =)

I also haven't seen the movie The Cowboys, but I wouldn't be surprised if Jake were Greenwood's homage to it. The series shares the movie's title, after all! I do know that he has said that his Seven Brides series was inspired by the movie Seven Brides for Seven Brothers--and he certainly "covered" the scene in which the first bride turns over the dinner table because her brothers-in-law are being so ill-mannered! And all the shooting tricks in one Cowboys novel are based on Annie Oakley's real-life show.

This "Question of the Week" was dashed off in desperation at the last minute. I had no idea what to ask! =P At the moment, my own vague answer is that I would have liked to live in a place and time where/when girls got taught "Home Economics" skills as a matter of course.

Enbrethiliel said...


Okay. I've just seen the trailer for The Cowboys, as well as a bunch of other clips. It was definitely the inspiration for Greenwood's series, though he put a different spin on the boy with the speech impediment and the character Mr. Nightlinger. And added the noted "girly stuff." =P

DMS said...

The book sounds like it has a lot more to it than I might have first expected.

What an interesting question! If I had to relive my childhood over again I would go to England during the Renaissance. :) I have always been fascinated by that time period.

I would also love to spend my childhood out West- as I have always wanted my own horse.

Enbrethiliel said...


Any place where a child would be expected to have a pony--not as an indulgence but because every adult must know how to ride--sounds great! =D

Paul Stilwell said...

It's amazing how both the images and the titles, with their placement, font and size, equally conspire to produce that...noted effect.

In a very speculative way, any place and time that I entertain is southern and warm (if in North America) or just warm. Old Manila (but more towards the modern end of the spectrum)? Sure. As a child I was very much fascinated by Australia. A semi-outback existence and cooking your exotic food under the ground etc. - heaven. And for that, pretty much any time period I guess, as long as it doesn't go too far back to its this-place-is-for-exiles days.

Bob Wallace said...

Ken Robinson, synergistic with the environment...hmmm.

Brandon said...

Its being John Wayne-inspired almost makes we want to read it to see what it does with it. I only read things with that kind of cover when I have absolutely nothing else to read, though!

Enbrethiliel said...


Stilwell -- I had thought of Old Manila as well! The early twentieth century would be lovely . . . but World War II would break my heart. Or you know, kill me. =P But I wouldn't be a child any longer, so that's beyond the scope of the question! For what it's worth, the late nineteenth century would also be fine: Manila didn't get the brunt of either the clerical abuses or the violent revolts. And she was only a tad less modern--with respect to infrastructure--than Mexico City at the same time.

Bob -- What? You know that I read your blog. LOL! Besides, the quotation had "Locus Focus meets Unschooling" written all over it! Thanks. =)

Brandon -- Oh, those crazy Romance covers! LOL! I remember discussing them with a bunch of other readers on an online forum. We all started out complaining about them . . . and all ended up admitting that if they were toned down, we'd never be able to pick them out from the crowd! =P I guess the publishing industry knows what it's doing. (There are also electronic editions, if you ever do run out of things to read. Including one bootleg copy I found floating around the Internet . . . !)