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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):

“Every year 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 home.
That is the problem: Who has the right and the power to own and control this land? We have not even begun to settle that basic question in the West, let alone what responsibilities come with ownership. Maybe rodeo is like a piece of candy. A sweet taste that comes and goes. Tempting and teasing, it distracts us from the politics of where we live. It tries to satisfy the hunger that drives this land, but it never lasts. Its peoples are still left fighting over who belongs.”

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):

“Larry McMurtry 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.
McMurtry also reminds us that the lies about the West are often more powerful than the truth. And in that I agree. I have certainly come to understand during this project that hardly anyone likes the truth, especially the truths of history. …
From a distance, I could see the rodeo queens lining up to charge into the arena and wave one more time. I thought about how at her worst the rodeo queen was like a jack-in-the-box who burst out of her container ready and willing to repeat the tired script of pioneer conquest. A ventriloquist of white nationalism, she mimed the hard-hitting action of a make-believe West and then disappeared in a flash. With a snap, the box closed.”

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: Queens.htm


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