Honing skills first learned from Umatilla, Walla Walla, and Cayuse friends in eastern Oregon, African-American cowboy George Fletcher bucked his way into legend at the 1911 Pendleton Round-Up.
Nelson introduces readers to George as a boy learning his craft on the Umatilla Indian Reservation near Pendleton, where his family settled after moving from Kansas. Racism from the local whites cemented his friendship with the Native kids, and he absorbed their lessons in horsemanship. From the age of 16, he competed in rodeos that didn’t exclude black competitors. Nelson plaits her narrative with Western lingo and homespun similes: “Ranching fit George like made-to-measure boots.” The centerpiece of her narrative is the 1911 Pendleton Round-Up, where 21-year-old George competed against Nez Perce cowboy Jackson Sundown and white rancher John Spain. Here, Nelson puts as much effort into developing their broncs as characters as she does the humans, drawing from meticulous primary-source research to place readers in the moment. Although George mesmerized the audience with his skill, Spain was awarded first place—an act of unfairness recognized by the local sheriff, a decent white man, who spontaneously led a successful effort to anoint George “People’s Champion.” James’ painterly oils swirl with energy, visible daubs creating the dusty, monumental landscape and equally monumental horses and humans. Six pages of backmatter include a glossary, bibliography, further information on Fletcher and other key players, and a fascinating discussion of the research challenges Nelson encountered.
A champion indeed. (Picture book/biography. 6-10)