Books provide window into past

Our quiver overflows with gratitude for Mike Stephens of Blevins, who delighted us at Christmas with a box of classic hunting literature.

We love to journey back to a wilder, less commercialized world when our predecessors were not primarily motivated by selling widgets. Ernest Hemingway and Robert Ruark went on safari for the experience of hunting dangerous game in dangerous places. Their prose conveyed sight, sound and even scent; the scent of the veldt, the scent of excitement, and most of all, the scent of fear.

I am convinced, like Robert E. Lee at the Battle of the Wilderness, that these guys had death wishes. Contemporary big game hunters go to obtain trophies. Ruark, Hemingway and others of their age intended to be killed by the game they hunted, and it made them very angry when the game didn't win.

That is evident in "Horn of the Hunter, The Story of an African Safari," by Robert Ruark, the first book in Stephens's stack. Ruark also supplied his own illustrations and photos. They are utterly fascinating.

We adapt the way we read and perceive when we delve into these pages. Most contemporary outdoor writing is formulaic and concentrates on esoterica. Articles are promotional pieces touting the outfitter, the ammunition and the firearms supplied by the companies that sponsor the writer.

In these old books we divert our gaze from the game and from the means by which the game was taken. There is a lot of that, of course, as a participant in this safari was Harry Selby, the most renowned of Africa's professional hunters. A detailed account of Ruark and Selby hunting together is truly an historic document.

"Horn of the Hunter" takes place in Kenya, which banned big game hunting in 1977, Tanzania, Zambia and the Congo. Hunting in Africa was a grueling process in the 1950s, when this book was copyrighted. Getting there was difficult and expensive. Bush camps were primitive, and traveling the rugged country in dilapidated jeeps was uncertain. Ruark and Jack O'Connor often hunted with their wives. The enthusiasm with which they endured the deprivations of a safari earned them immense respect.

After all the adventure, the excitement, the toil, and fear, "Horn of the Hunter" ends with Ruark tracking a cape buffalo he shot for more than three miles. He finally finds the bull dead. There is no celebration. No whooping it up and high-fiving with the P. A., no propping the animal's head up for a glorious trophy shot against an azure African sky.

There is only this: "I hated him for not being alive, for not charging, for not making me prove out loud what I had already proved inside me. He was lying dead like a damned old cow in a pasture, under the shade of an acacia ... He was an unworthy enemy and he had degraded me by working me up to the point of desperate courage and had then cheated me of the opportunity to prove my courage."

A smaller, uglier bull had fought and nearly killed Ruark. Its horns adorned Ruark's wall.

An appropriate followup read is "Ruark Remembered -- By the Man Who Knew Him Best." That man -- the author -- was Alan Ritchie, Ruark's personal secretary for 12 years.

This goes beyond Ruark's hunting exploits and personalizes the caricature. Ritchie opens the scrolls to a complicated personality and its myriad conflicts and emotional nemeses. Again, writers like Ruark and Hemingway saw and experienced horrible things in the Spanish Civil War and in World War II. They coped in the way they lived, with their passions and pursuits, and they processed it through their writing. One can judge them through their work, or one can understand the period in which they lived through their work.

The last of Mike Stephens's Ruark Trilogy is "Robert Ruark, The Lost Classics." This compilation of 27 magazine articles made Ruark famous among the American public. Jim Casada edited the book. Casada wrote for me when I was editor of four magazines in the Southeast, and he provided me some initial guidance when I began writing my book, "St. Tom's Cathedral, A Turkey Hunter's Quest for His Best."

Stephens's gift contained three other books, "Man-Eaters," by Jim Corbett, "Jack O'Conner, The Legendary Life of America's Greatest Gunwriter," by Robert Anderson, and "Adventure Is in My Blood," by Russell Annabel.

These will keep me busy for the rest of the year, and they remind me that our readers are the best.

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