Rodeo Queens and the American Dream by Joan Burbick
Rating: ••• (Recommended)
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For a thoughtful perspective on life in the Western United States over the past seventy-five years, be sure to read Joan Burbick’s new book, Rodeo Queens and the American Dream. If Western rodeos representation a version of Western life that never quite rang true, the rodeo queens who attracted patrons to rodeos represented the aspirations and dreams of scores of Western women and the values of the rural communities in which they were raised.
Over the course of a dozen chapters, Burbick introduces readers to selected women who were elected to serve as rodeo queens from the 1930s to the present. Burbick listened to the stories of these woman, paged through the scrapbooks from when they served as rodeo queens. It’s clear that Burbick absorbed these stories, reflected on them, and presented them as representative of the dreams of rural Western women, while showing readers how the myths of life in the West were ritualized and reinforced through the rodeo and its representatives. Alongside Burbick, readers learn about changes in the West, about family ranches, about horsemanship. Most of all, we learn about what selected women thought was important and meaningful for them, and how the rodeo reflects life that never was.
Here’s one way that Burbick describes what she observed in her years of trying to come to understand the rodeo and the women who represented it (pp. 59-60):
throughout the United States, the rodeo plays out a pastoral vision of the
premodern West. It keeps alive a dream that has always been complicated by
race relations, politics, land, and capital – the dream of possessing and
working the land. Yet the dream persists. It’s told again and again through
national stories about American identity. And through these stories, the
ranch lives on, even if it’s long gone. JoAnne witnessed its disappearance,
though she never used rodeo as a way to hold onto her memories. Tenacious,
she kept her connection to ranching by doing odd jobs and keeping a few cows.
She lives for her chance to get back on her horse and do what she knows best.
Her two years as rodeo royalty were an early escape from incessant labor and
an opportunity to play cowgirl apart from the struggle of holding onto the
land. But the land remained the magnet, the place where she felt alive and at
The “JoAnne” in the quote was a rodeo queen in the 1940’s, and Burbick interviewed her when she was in her seventies. Each woman we meet represented her time and situation in ways that remain memorable. An Indian rodeo queen never interacted with the white women who were in the rodeo at the same time. A recent rodeo queen talked about representing moral values, but more than anything else, she showed how the modern West has lost many moral values. Toward the end of the book, the fine writing Burbick presents throughout the book reach new heights (pp. 210-11):
refers to these Old West rituals as games of ghosts, haunted houses mixing
nostalgia and the ridiculous. That West has gone, he says. But I disagree.
Ghosts usually come back to avenge a past wrong or to warn the living. They
trespass on our normal lives, upsetting our sense of reality. Where McMurtry
sees ghosts, I see pantomimes, the performers mechanically gesturing to the crowd
about a West that never was.
Rodeo Queens presents readers with a story that few of us may have given a second thought. Having read it, I find myself thinking more about the myths of America and how they remain alive.
Steve Hopkins, January 7, 2003
ã 2003 Hopkins and Company, LLC
The recommendation rating for this book appeared in the February 2003 issue of Executive Times
URL for this review: http://www.hopkinsandcompany.com/Books/Rodeo Queens.htm
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