Modest tale of a scrappy advocate for wild horses and her three-decade battle for their protection.
Canadian writers Cruise and Griffiths (co-authors: Vancouver: A Novel, 2003, etc.) seem a touch surprised at the total package that was Velma Johnston, a secretary turned cage-rattler. She was stricken by polio at an early age, drank copiously, smoked constantly and seemed unafraid of anything. Her husband was a cowboy and bar-brawler, yet a lover of poetry, one of the “literary cowpokes.” Johnston was converted from a Nevada ranch wife who shared her neighbors’ views that the wild horses that populated the remote canyons of the Sierra were enemies in a long war of broken fences and raided herds. Her road-to-Damascus moment came when she witnessed the aftermath of a round-up in which battered mustangs were herded onto trucks to be slaughtered for dog food. She enlisted like-minded Nevadans and outsiders such as photographer Gus Bundy, who documented fearfully abusive hunts for wild horses from pickup trucks and helicopters, and later the writer Marguerite Henry. Johnston eventually took her fight to Washington, D.C., where she recruited still more unlikely allies. One of the virtues of the authors’ account is its look at how libertarian conservatives such as Manchester Guardian publisher William Loeb and Dixiecrat politico Walter Baring helped advance her cause—and how Johnston eventually secured Dwight Eisenhower’s signature on a protective law known as the “Wild Horse Annie bill” that she then fought, for many years, to put teeth in.
Given that the fight continues to protect wild horses and ban the slaughter of horses of whatever kind, this book is timely, though it pales next to Deanne Stillman’s Mustang: The Saga of the Wild Horse in the American West (2008).