ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — The Western Writers of America, a national organization founded in 1953, is honoring the work of Rio Rancho children’s book author Vaunda Micheaux Nelson and veteran Western novelist Johnny D. Boggs of Santa Fe.
Nelson won a WWA Spur Award, presented for excellence in Western writing, for her book “Let ‘Er Buck: George Fletcher, the People’s Champion,” about a black rodeo bronc rider.
Boggs, the author of more than 60 books and the recipient of a record eight Spur Awards, will receive WWA’s 2020 Owen Wister Award for Lifetime Contributions to Western Literature.
‘Over the moon’
The Wister Award also earns Boggs induction into the WWA Hall of Fame, which includes such legendary writers as Zane Grey, Jack London, Louis L’Amour, Laura Ingalls Wilder, “Shane” author Jack Schaefer and Dorothy M. Johnson, who wrote the story “The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance.”
Boggs said when he got the call notifying him of his Wister and hall of fame honors, he responded that an egregious error had been made, that he could name six to a dozen more deserving writers.
“They said that if I had been on the nominating committee, I could have mentioned those names for consideration, but since I wasn’t, I got the award. I’m stunned and happy.”
Nelson said she was “over the moon” excited about her Spur Award in the Storyteller category for best illustrated children’s book. North Carolina artist Gordon C. James illustrated the book. Nelson wrote it.
“I put a lot of effort into creating a voice and choosing every word, trying to give it a Western flavor,” she said. “It’s nice someone noticed.”
Nelson and Boggs will receive their awards at the WWA convention, scheduled for June 17-20 in Rapid City, South Dakota.
WWA, which has a membership of more than 700 men and women who write fiction and nonfiction about the West, presents Spur Awards in 18 categories each year. It is not necessary to be a WWA member to enter work in the Spur competition. This year’s winners were announced earlier this month.
Her Spur Award for “Let ‘Er Buck” is Nelson’s first, but she was a finalist in the Storyteller category in 2010 for “Bad News for Outlaws,” the story of Bass
Reeves, a black U.S. deputy marshal in the Indian Territory, now the states of Arkansas and Oklahoma.
Nelson, 66, grew up in Elizabeth, Pennsylvania, near Pittsburgh, but said Western TV shows kindled in her an early love for the Old West.
“Growing up, my family watched ‘Hopalong Cassidy’ and ‘Wyatt Earp,’ ” she said.
But there were no TV shows about black Western heroes.
“If we had known about Bass Reeves, it might have had a positive affect on us as black children finding our identity in the world,” she said.
Nelson began to delve into the black history of the West after she and her husband, Drew, moved to Rio Rancho in 1994. She was a librarian at the Rio Rancho Public Library from 1994 to 2015.
“Moving out here, my (childhood) love for the Old West came back. And I love history,” Nelson said.
She said lawman Reeves and bronc rider George Fletcher moved her in different ways.
“Bass Reeves was born a slave and became one of the most efficient deputy U.S. marshals,” she said. “He had such a sense of duty and honor. He arrested his own son, who was accused of murder.”
She said she admires Fletcher, a black cowboy in early 20th century Oregon, because he refused to allow bias and other obstacles to keep him from pursuing his passion.
“He had this passion for horses and riding,” she said. “He knew there was unfairness, but he just kept on doing what he loved.”
In 1911, Fletcher was one of three finalists for the saddle bronc championship at the Pendleton (Oregon) Round-Up. First prize was $350 and a silver-trimmed saddle.
Although it appeared to many that Fletcher made the best ride, the judges awarded first place to a white rancher. An incensed audience, consisting mostly of white people, took up a collection for Fletcher that exceeded the price of the prize saddle and they proclaimed Fletcher “the people’s champion.”
In writing “Let ‘Er Buck,” Nelson said she was attempting to tell her young readers that, “Success is not always winning the saddle. It can be more meaningful than that.”
Never gets old
The Owen Wister Award is named for the author of “The Virginian.” Wister is the acknowledged father of Western fiction.
Past recipients, all also members of WWA’s Hall of Fame, include New Mexicans such as Pulitzer Prize-winner N. Scott Momaday; best-selling mystery writer Tony Hillerman; novelists Rudolfo Anaya, Max Evans and Norman Zollinger; and novelist and history writer Frank Waters.
Boggs, 58, grew up on a farm near Timmonsville, South Carolina. He is a past president of the WWA and serves as editor of Roundup, the WWA magazine. He and his wife, Lisa Smith, are the parents of a son, Jack, 17.
In addition to his unprecedented eight Spur Awards, Boggs has also been a Spur finalist 14 times. This year he was a finalist in the short story category for “Legend,” which is based on an actual incident in the life of frontiersman Kit Carson.
Hooked on Western fiction since reading Conrad Richter’s story “Smoke Over the Prairie” in junior high, Boggs knew early on what he wanted to do with his life. But first he got a journalism degree from the University of South Carolina and worked at the Dallas Times Herald from 1984 to 1991 and the Fort Worth Star-Telegram from 1992 to 1998.
“I was smart enough to know I needed a steady job,” he said. “But the goal was always to become a writer of Western fiction. The Western nonfiction I write came out of the journalism.”
Boggs won his first Spur in 2002 for the short story “A Piano at Dead Man’s Crossing.” He earned his most recent Spur last year for the juvenile novel “Taos Lightning.”
“It never gets old,” he said of winning Spur Awards and finalist honors. “And the hall of fame is the ultimate. But the real dream is just getting published. I mean I was this South Carolina boy. What were the chances?
“There are plenty of stories I still want to tell.”