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Aloha Rodeo: Three Hawaiian Cowboys, the World's Greatest Rodeo, and a Hidden History of the American West

Authors: David Wolman, Julian Smith
Publisher: William Morrow
Release Date: May 2019

There is a disappointing non-fiction writing trick whereby one fairly dry historical event is "sexed up" by combining it with a second, lustier (although not necessarily relevant) topic. A New York Times book review complained that this practice is equivalent to the author conceding that "the past is all a big, remarkable bore if you can't enliven it."

This reviewer must confess that upon first reading Aloha Rodeo's subtitle, I worried I was about to be the victim of this publishing ploy. After all, Three Hawaiian Cowboys, the World's Greatest Rodeo, and a Hidden History of the American West seems quite the broad premise. It takes less than a paragraph, however, to realize that David Wolman and Julian Smith aren't force-feeding readers unrelated topics - rather, they're weaving a rainbow of yarns into one eminently satisfying tale that is addictive from its outset.

Review Continues Below

Truth be told, the book's subtitle could be much longer and still not fully reveal Aloha Rodeo's remarkably complex story. Its introduction immediately transports you back to 1908 and Cheyenne, Wyoming's Frontier Days - the apex storyline. The first chapter, however, starts with this deliciously intriguing sentence: "The first cattle to set foot in Hawaii didn't live to see sunset." This single, poignant fact leads to the surprisingly engaging history of Hawaii's beef industry, established just in time to replace the dying whaling industry.

Upon coming face to face with his first steer, Hawaii's King Kamehameha worried he might be bitten. The king's subjects, to whom cows were completely foreign, ran for the sea to escape the horrifying creatures. Concerned they might be slaughtered before having the chance to reproduce, Kamehameha issued, in 1794, a royal decree protecting the cattle. An unintended consequence of this protection was a surging and unmanageable livestock population. Less than 20 years after their arrival, these now feral animals trampled grasslands, destroyed gardens and farm fields, and aggressively hunted humans. Hawaiians needed experts to teach them how to control these half-ton beasts. California's vaqueros - descendants of world's first cowboys - traveled to Hawaii (then still known as the Sandwich Islands) to do just that.

Hawaiian cowboys, who assumed the name "paniolo," were running down cattle at least a generation before the profession became synonymous with the American West. Three of the best paniolos to ever mount a horse were Ikua Purdy and his two cousins, Jack Low and Archie Ka'au'a. Like their vaquero mentors, they relied on the lasso rather than the rifle. Unlike Spanish cowboys, paniolos rode on small, wooden saddles. Their shorter spurs prevented potentially devastating snags on cooled, cement-like lava flows. Paniolos didn't chase cattle across flat, endless plains. Their terrain was mountainous, and treacherously rocky. Leading a fighting, vengeful, long-horned steer downhill at full speed was a proposition the cowboys in Cheyenne couldn't fathom. And these feats may have remained tall tales had it not been for William Frederick "Buffalo Bill" Cody and his upstart Cheyenne Frontier Days rodeo.

Cheyenne was, in 1867, one of the many stops for the traveling town known as Hell on Wheels. This mobile melange of railroad workers, gamblers, prostitutes, saloon keepers, vendors and Wild West groupies turned the dream of a transcontinental rail system into a reality. Six months after its arrival, Hell on Wheels moved west. Cheyenne, then known as the "Magic City of the Plains," quickly depopulated. Mother Nature hastened the town's boom-to-bust cycle with harsh droughts and even more deadly winters. Working class ranchers bought smaller parcels of land which eventually replaced the vast stretches occupied by cattle barons. Mansions and businesses stood empty. Cheyenne needed a means to attract fresh blood and the answer seemed simple: make a show of what its people did best. In 1897, the town hosted the first Frontier Days rodeo. In 1898, Buffalo Bill Cody lent his celebrity to the show that would eventually be branded as the largest rodeo in the world. Ten years later, Ikua Purdy and his cousins first entered Cheyenne's rodeo grounds. The Hawaiians were greeted with a mixture of curiosity, doubt and prejudice. To everyone's surprise (except perhaps their own), these men made history and introduced many mainland Americans to our 50th state.

Aloha Rodeo is equally nuanced, entertaining and enlightening. In addition to telling the story of three unlikely Hawaiian heroes, it offers glimpses inside America's uncomfortable relationship with race and its tendency toward imperialism. The book dismantles some of the outdated mythology of the American West, while offering a fresh perspective on Hawaii's path to statehood. In the hands of other writers, this conflation of topics could have resulted in a tedious, unnecessarily long-winded tome. Wolman and Smith demonstrate just how eminently readable the intersection of historical events can (and should) be. ~SH/TRP.


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