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Many NM writers earned their Spurs from Western Writers of America


A few of the books entered in the Western Writers of America 2016 Spur Awards competition. “The Last Midwife” won a Spur in the traditional Western novel category. (Dean Hanson/Journal)

ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — Spur Awards for distinguished writing about the American West were announced by the Western Writers of America this month during the Tucson Festival of Books.

The WWA, a national organization, has been presenting Spur Awards since it was founded in 1953. There’s a great tradition of New Mexico winners.

The late Albuquerque authors Tony Hillerman and Norman Zollinger were Spur winners. Albuquerque author Max Evans, who is still writing at age 91, has won Spurs.

Paul Hutton, distinguished professor of history at the University of New Mexico and a former WWA president, has five Spur Awards to his credit. Santa Fe resident Johnny D. Boggs, another former WWA president, has won six Spurs. Only the late Elmer Kelton of San Angelo, Texas, who collected seven, has won more Spurs than Boggs.

Journal restaurant reviewer Anne Hillerman of Santa Fe followed in her late father Tony’s revered footsteps when she won a 2014 first novel Spur for “Spider Woman’s Daughter.”

There are more New Mexico Spur winners. But if I listed them all, this column would read like a phone book. Remember those?

Unfortunately, the list of New Mexico winners did not grow this year, but several New Mexico residents reaped Spur finalist honors.

Former Journal reporter and columnist Slim Randles of Albuquerque and illustrator Jerry Montoya of Grants were finalists in the illustrated children’s book category for “Ol’ Jimmy Dollar,” published by Albuquerque’s Rio Grande Books.

Lesley Poling-Kempes of Abiquiu took finalist honors in historical nonfiction for “Ladies of the Canyons: A League of Extraordinary Women and Their Adventures in the American Southwest,” and Stanley Crawford of Dixon was a finalist in the contemporary novel category for “The Canyon,” published by the University of New Mexico Press.

Spur winners and finalists will be recognized at the WWA convention June 21-25 in Cheyenne, Wyo.

Things have changed in both the WWA and the Spur competition over the past 50-plus years.

Founded by six men – writers of Western novels, short stories and TV shows – the WWA presented Spurs in just five categories in its first year. This year’s Spur competition attracted 435 entries in 20 categories. Max Evans, a WWA member since the 1960s, was quoted once as saying that the organization gives Spurs these days for everything except knife throwing.

I have been a WWA member since 2008, and I was one of the Spur judges in the traditional Western novel category this year. We received 48 entries in that category. The winner was “The Last Midwife” by Sandra Dallas, who has won two previous Spurs.

The Spur awarded for “The Last Midwife” is a good indication of how the WWA has evolved through the decades. The novel doesn’t go in for thundering hooves and explosive gunplay. It’s about an aging midwife in a 19th century Colorado mining town who is accused of killing a baby. It is a beautifully written novel that features finely wrought characters and a vividly painted portrait of the times. But people unfamiliar with the breadth of Western fiction today would not think of it as a traditional Western novel.

Fact is, the WWA is a much larger and more diverse organization now than when it was founded by six male writers. Today’s WWA has more than 600 members, and a lot of them are women. WWA’s executive director is a woman. The WWA president is a woman. Anne Hillerman is a WWA board member. Today’s WWA has a wide array of people, interests, talents and perspectives.

As a consequence, the conventions have changed. Evans said there is not as much hell-raising, which he admits having liked better than “strawberry shortcake and chocolate milkshakes.” Now, evenings at the WWA convention end with a song circle. And the WWA will soon publish a cookbook containing favorite recipes from members.

I can’t even imagine what our founding members – all of whom are gone now – would think about a WWA cookbook. Well, actually, I have a pretty good idea.

Please don’t get me wrong. I love the WWA for what it is today – an inclusive, innovative, vigorous organization dedicated to excellent Western writing of all kinds. You will find me at the song circles at the Cheyenne convention in June.

Still, I suspect I’m somewhat of a throwback. I didn’t contribute anything to the WWA cookbook. The only recipes I know involve whiskey and ice. Just whiskey and ice.

And “The Last Midwife” was my second-place choice for the traditional novel Spur. My top choice was Wallace J. Swenson’s “Buell: Journey to the White Clouds,” which has a gunfight and two killings before you get to the third page.

UpFront is a daily front-page news and opinion column. Comment directly to Ollie at 823-3916 or Go to to submit a letter to the editor.



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