Ralph Moody, the author of the Little Britches series of memoirs/novels, is Colorado’s memoirist/novelist laureate. Think I’m exaggerating? Check him out. In a Colorado that seems increasingly like a state seized with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, Moody’s gently riveting stories come from a different time. But not a different place-even though Moody might have a hard time recognizing them after the passage of more than a 100 years. Moody’s south Denver environs was ranches, small farms, narrow gauge railroads, and cattle drives. Not housing developments, mega-malls, and golf courses.
I first read the books growing up as a kid living in south-east Denver in the 1950’s. It was a time when on a summer afternoon my friends and I could walk the few blocks from home at 1st and Holly to the gravel road on the north bank of the Cherry Creek-and know that we had gone from the city to the country. And, a few years later, drive to just east of Cherry Creek Reservoir with my Dad and brother and go dove hunting with out bothering a soul.
So picking up the first book in the series as a grade schooler and reading about the hard scrabble life of dry land farmer near Littleton regularly sparked satisfying flashes of recognition of names and places I knew. But, more importantly, the sometimes hilarious, sometimes harrowing adventures of an ingenious, hard working boy about my own age was more than enough- to keep me turning the pages. That the book was beautifully written as well probably went right over my head. But taken together, it went down like a frosty glass of lemonade on a blazing summer afternoon when I had only half finished cutting the lawn with our balky push mower.
With titles like, “Little Britches”, (who remembers the Little Britches rodeo?) “Man of the Family”, and “The Fields of Home”, the series goes on for a total of eight books. I read most of them when I was a kid. But not all. That may have been because Moody hadn’t finished writing them at that time (he would have been about 60 in the late ’50’s) or because (I hope not) I had put “childish things behind me.” While children can, and should, delight in a writer of Moody’s caliber, adults should as well. Unless their tastes have been so corrupted that if they “didn’t have bad taste, they wouldn’t have no taste at all.”
I never forgot Little Britches. But I didn’t come back to it until I had three children of my own-all boys except two girls. I remember the night distinctly. I gathered Byron, about 12 or 13, Lauren, a couple of years younger, and Jocelyn, two years younger still, in Lauren’s room. And began reading. Within the first few pages, this lyrical passage, redolent with memories of my Denver childhood appeared:
“We could see our new house from a couple of miles away. We knew it must be ours because, cousin Phil had told us it was three and a half miles west of Fort Logan-the first house on the Morrison wagon road. From the hill beyond the Fort, it looked like a little doll house sitting on the edge of a great big table, with a brown table cloth smoothed out flat all around it. . . Away toward the south there were brown rolling hills, as though the table cloth had been wrinkled a little. And not far beyond it, toward the west, the hogbacks rose like big golden-brown loaves of bread sitting on the table. High above them the snowcaps of the Rockies glistened in the afternoon sunlight.”
To my dismay, only Lauren stuck with it after that first night. I suppose that Byron, already a voracious speed reader with eclectic tastes even then bending toward sic-fi, found that the pace was too slow. Not quite sure about Jocelyn, but a story about ranch life at a 100 year remove-even a ranch no more than a dozen miles from our home-was probably a bridge too far for a third grade girl. (I am pleased, however, to be able to report that Jocelyn and I read other stories together.)
Lauren and I, however, spent bedtimes for the next two to three years, heads propped on pillows, making our way through the Moody canon. Many nights, she was asleep by the time I finished reading, gave her a kiss, turned out the light, and shut the door. Occasionally, but not often, I had to work to persuade her to stick with it. Her greatest fear, as we drew near the end of the series, was that I would tell her friends that her father was still reading bedtime stories to a seventh or eighth grade girl. I had to swear myself to secrecy. I trust that even if I have now violated that oath, the daughter who has now made me a doting grandfather, will be easy on me.
Within the last year, I went back and read the Little Britches books yet again. They still went down easy. Are they literary masterpieces? You be the judge. But I challenge anyone to show me something by a Colorado author that’s in the same league. And don’t give me any non-sense that these are “kids books”. So is “Tom Sawyer” and “Huckleberry Finn”.
Also within the last year, I read George Elliot’s “Middlemarch”. Considered perhaps the greatest Victorian novel, Middlemarch is a story of English country life. Somewhere along the way I also came across “My Life in Middlemarch” by Rebecca Mead, an English transplant who now lives in New York and writes for the New York Times. Mead so admires Elliot’s book, that she produced what is termed a bibliomemoire-which Joyce Carol Oates defines as “a subspecies of literature combining criticism and biography with the intimate, confessional tone of autobiography.”
Is a bibliomemoire based on “Little Britches” in store for me? Who knows. My daughter Lauren already thinks I’m obsessed with the books. But maybe obsession is precisely what is required for such an undertaking.