In the afterlife of art and literature, in the sweet by and by, I imagine retired Texas Ranger Gus McRae on the porch of the celestial ranch house teasing Ramona the Pest and whistling for that old dog Ribsy to run the pigs out of the yard.
Two literary giants, Beverly Cleary and Larry McMurtry, died on the same day, March 25, 2021.
Cleary was 104. During her career, she sold more than 90 million copies of her books, most of which chronicled the adventures of Ramona (the Pest) Quimby, her big sister, Beezus, Henry Huggins and his dog, Ribsy.
McMurtry was 84. The Pulitzer Prize winner penned dozens of books, including “The Last Picture Show,” “Terms of Endearment” and the greatest western adventure ever written, “Lonesome Dove.”
Here’s how these two masterful storytellers intersect in my life.
In fourth grade, my teacher was Mary Jo Miller, who was on the backside of what would be a long career in education. She was different than my previous elementary school teachers — funny, sarcastic and irreverent. Perhaps with retirement in view, she was more tolerant than most of the whims of fourth graders.
I don’t know what today’s curriculum is like, but I do recall during that year I learned all the words to the Guess Who song “American Woman” (it was the only rock 45 we had to play at music time), organized a checkers league based on Mid-Atlantic Championship Wrestling (including world champion and TV champion belts) and participated in a sidewalk dissection of two fish someone brought — dead — to school for show and tell.
After lunch on most days, Mrs. Miller, smelling faintly of cigarette smoke from the teachers’ lounge, would read us a chapter of a book, almost always something by Beverly Cleary. Between the wonderful writing and Mrs. Miller’s delivery, the characters came to life in my head.
These were not frivolous tales. As noted in a Wikipedia entry, Cleary follows Ramona from nursery school to fourth grade, “touching on social issues such as a parent losing their job, financial instability, the death of a family pet, school bullies, divorce, marriage, sibling relations and experiencing the addition of a new sibling, and more, all of which explore growing up in middle-class America.”
In other words, what everybody in our class was experiencing.
Years later, I would give a half-day’s wages to hear Mrs. Miller read this line to us: “Anyway, whacking a surly bartender ain’t much of a crime.”
That comes from McMurtry’s “Lonesome Dove.” McMurtry was a prolific writer, and I’ve read most of what he left us, but “Lonesome Dove” is simply an American classic.
Hollywood loved McMurtry’s writing. Movies based on his works earned 34 Oscar nominations. The miniseries “Lonesome Dove” won seven Emmy Awards.
As good as it is, as amazing as Robert Duvall is as retired Ranger Capt. Augustus “Gus” McRae, the book is even better.
It won a Pulitzer Prize for Literature and nearly universal acclaim. And, showing that McMurtry could be as salty as his characters, all that attention kind of made him mad.
“It’s hard to go wrong if one writes at length about the Old West, still the phantom leg of the American psyche,” he wrote in the preface to the 2000 edition. “I thought I had written about a harsh time and some pretty harsh people, but, to the public at large, I had produced something nearer to an idealization; instead of a poor man’s ‘Inferno,’ filled with violence, faithlessness and betrayal, I had actually delivered a kind of ‘Gone With the Wind’ of the West, a turnabout I’ll be mulling over for a long, long time.”
That sounds a little bit like a grown up Ramona the Pest on a melancholy day.
I wish Cleary and McMurtry well on their journeys through the cosmos. And I will end this right now, right here. As that old Ranger Gus McRae said, “Anything gets boring if you talk about it enough, even death.”
Scott Hollifield is editor and general manager of The McDowell News in Marion and a humor columnist. Email him at email@example.com.