Monday, May 18, 2009

Reviewed by Kansas Notable Book Committee

Alf Bolin was a real person. An article by Vickie Hooper of Forsyth, Missouri, stated, “During the Civil War in Taney and Ozark Counties in southern Missouri, he was the cruelest man alive.” So when I picked up a copy of Hellfire Canyon by Max McCoy, I expected to read a bloody account of Alf’s escapades.

Instead, I was surprised by the touching tale of a young boy who endured sights, sounds and events that no child should ever have to experience. The book brings back familiar memories of Little Big Man telling his story.

The author, Max McCoy, begins the telling of one viewpoint of Alf’s tale by having the young boy who could have been Alf’s victim speak for himself to a reporter in a fairly modern-day bar. Alf becomes Jacob Gamble’s mentor. Jacob is a 12-year-old fiddle player who finds himself needing a “protector” and Alf fits the bill. He learns from the “expert” when it comes to cruel acts. Yet, Jacob maintains some of the tender heart he glimpsed occasionally from his Mother.

Do not misunderstand me. There is violence and it is bloody, but the story would not be as moving — you would really not to be able to feel what Jacob felt without the horror of Alf’s actions and his overall meanness.

Hellfire Canyon has now been awarded the Spur Award. As an avid reader who doesn’t usually read Westerns, I almost missed this one. Don’t let the paperback cover fool you; this is not just another cowboy story.