Wednesday, August 22, 2012

The Last Camel Charge

Texas Book Lovers we have a special treat today: guest reviewer Doug Baum. I went to high school with Doug a million years ago. He is the proprietor of Texas Camel Corps outside Waco, Texas. He and his family travel with their camels to historical reenactments, Christmas pageants and guided tours of the Middle East every year. Doug is one of the most interesting and genuine people I've had the pleasure to know. Please enjoy his review of The Last Camel Charge.

The Last Camel Charge (2012, Berkley), by Forrest Bryant Johnson, is the most recent book to chronicle the US Army Camel Experiment of the 19th century. This being a topic very dear to my heart, I picked up a copy the minute it was available, hoping to discover something new.
I can’t say I was disappointed. In fact, the book was a page-turner and I didn’t want it to end. Placing the camels’ US military story against the backdrop of the Mormon migration was very creative and helped weave together two different pieces of Western history. The titular “Charge”, too, was riveting and served to teach me, the ol’ camel man, something new (I’ll not spoil that part of the tale). That said, I do have some problems with the book, most of which are borne of my intimate knowledge of this quirky bit of history AND the fact that I make part of my living as a writer. Most of these “flaws”, if you will, are admittedly noticeable by only a few readers and surely this will cement my place in the pantheon of nerds. Still, I consider books to be sacred and authors should set for themselves the highest of standards.

The technical offenses first: The seventeen typographical errors, inconsistent spellings or similar oversights I found were horribly distracting. I addressed these and other concerns with Mr. Johnson, via email, making clear I had no intention of offending him, and he was incredibly gracious in his response. He wrote, “I wish to thank you for your comments on my book and the excellent editorial work.  I am not offended.  I'm impressed.  You should be working for Berkley for they sure made a lot of screw-ups on the proof.  Many you mentioned had already been brought to my attention and I have passed them on to the editors, as I will your corrections. In a way I am at fault.  I did the final proof and can offer only this. I had left the basic editorial work to their people and now I realize, they dropped the ball. Also, I'm an old guy (76) and familiar with hard copy proof reading which they no longer do, I learned with this book.  The MSS was sent to me by some sort of electronically generated editorial system I had never seen before.  The instruction for working with their system was 45 pages long with computer terms I did not know.   I write by long hand and need a typist to put my work on a cd.  Then, they gave me five days to edit their work.  So, I'm not surprised with the number of typo mistakes.”

As for the historical points of contention, one of the biggest myths of the old Army camels is that they were simply released at the end of the Civil War. This didn’t happen and Mr. Johnson doesn’t imply such, but he does help perpetuate the myth by including a photo of camels in Texas with a train in the background captioned, “They are still with us! Wild camels in Texas.” A cursory search on the web would’ve shown this image to be of camels owned by the McNair family in North Texas, near Wichita Falls. If ever there were camels (and there were some) roaming the desert US Southwest, they’d be scientifically classed as “feral”. This is an important distinction. A mountain lion is a wild animal. A coyote is a wild animal. Hogs, much of the southern US is dealing with today, are feral. Feral is a term used scientifically to denote any domesticated animal (or its descendants) that has reverted to a “wild” state. To this point, Mr. Johnson said, “You are correct, but it is difficult to convince folks of that fact.  For example, I drive and sometime walk tours into the desert near Vegas and the Federal Bureau of Land Management has large signs along the highways stating ‘It is illegal to feed wild burros and horses.’   If they used the word feral they would have millions of visitors (Vegas gets 40 million a year) searching the web or dictionary.”

I say seek and ye shall find. If we continue to set the bar low, people will surely meet it every time. As a lover of the written and spoken word, this makes me sad.

Another easy, but flubbed point is the number of stomachs a camel has. Mr. Johnson gives the number four, like a cow, sheep or goat, all of which are ruminants (meaning cud-chewing). Camels, though, are classed as modified ruminants due to their stomachs containing only three chambers. In the camel, the omasum and abomasum are combined. Camel nerds, raise your cups.
There were a couple of other historical points dealing with routes the Army camels took, crossing this creek or that river in a chronologically and geographically reverse order given the fact they were headed west. Mr. Johnson provided me with the military journal excerpts from which he pulled the passages and he’s off the hook. We can agree, though, that nineteenth-century recall wasn’t all it should be or, at the least, place names have changed or disappeared in a hundred and fifty years.

While I’ve spent the majority of this review on the handful of negatives, it’s imperative I restate how much I enjoyed the book and I do recommend it to the ardent historian as well as the casual observer. Mr. Johnson’s responses to my handful of emails lead me to believe he is a warm-hearted individual who wanted only to retell this interesting story. Mission accomplished, sir.

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