Jeffrey Keeten's Reviews > Butcher's Crossing

Butcher's Crossing by John  Williams
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bookshelves: the-old-west, nyrb

”You get born, and you nurse on lies, and you get weaned on lies, and you learn fancier lies at school. You live all your life on lies, and then maybe when you’re ready to die, it comes to you that there’s nothing, nothing but yourself and what you could have done. Only you ain’t done it, because the lies told you there was something else. Then you know you could of had the world, because you’re the only one that knows the secret; only then it’s too late. You’re old.”

Will Andrews bought into the Manifest Destiny rhetoric of Horace Greeley, Go West, Young Man! The year is 1873. He has three years of education at Harvard and to throw off the yoke he feels settling around his young shoulders he decides to head to Kansas. His father, a Unitarian Minister, gives him the name of a man he knew named McDonald as a person who might be able to help him settle in out west. If the father had known what a den of iniquity that most of Western Kansas was at this point he might not have been so encouraging of his son to head West.

 photo Buffalo_zps17c0923a.gif

Butcher’s Crossing is a hide town. A town that exists only as a central point for Buffalo hunters to bring their hides for sale and to drink and get their ashes hauled. McDonald is the buyer of hides and he is buried in paperwork. He tries to hire Andrews to help him in the office, but Will did not come West to sit behind a desk. He asks for directions to a reliable Buffalo hunter. At one time there were millions of Buffalo stretching from Canada to Mexico, but after decades of slaughter their numbers have greatly diminished. By 1873 the large herds numbering in the thousands have been broken up into small pockets of a hundred or less. The meat is left to rot and the hides are being sent back East to be made into coats. Later the bones of the deceased Buffalo are picked up off the plains and ground into fertilizer.

 photo BuffaloBones_zpse29f747b.jpeg
Large Mound of Buffalo Bones

It was an eradication of a species on an epic scale.

The numbers of Buffalo today have come back from the brink of extinction. There are about 200,000 Buffalo being raised for the parks service and for meat. They are such a majestic animal and it truly would have been tragic if they had disappeared forever.

 photo AshleyJosephIves1911_zpse46afa07.jpg
My Great Grandfather Ashley Joseph Ives in his Buffalo coat.

Andrews finds Miller and provides the cash to supply one last great Buffalo hunt. Miller had seen a large herd numbering nearly 3,000 a few years before in a valley in the Colorado mountains. It has always been his dream to go back. Andrews also meets Francine, a prostitute from St. Louis who was tired of all the competition in Missouri and liked that she could pick and choose her customers in this small backwater town in Kansas. Andrews, except for a furtive few moments with a willing cousin has very little experience with women.

”He pulled away from her a little to look at her soft heavy body that clung to him like velvet, held there of its own nature; there was a serenity on her face, almost as if it were asleep; and he felt that she was beautiful. He was assailed by the knowledge that others had seen this face as he was seeing it now; that others had kissed her on her wet lips, had heard the voice he was hearing, had felt the same breath he was feeling upon his own face, now. They had quickly paid their money, and had gone, and others had come, and others. He had quick and irrational image of hundreds of men, steadily streaming in and out of a room. He turned, pulled away from her, suddenly dead inside himself.”

As they journey to Colorado Andrews discovers how unprepared he is to do this much riding and this much work for this many long hours, finding himself beyond bone tired, so tired he can barely remember who he is.

”Day by day the numbness crept upon him until at last the numbness seemed to be himself. He felt himself to be like the land, without identity or shape; sometimes one of the men would look at him, look through him, as if he did not exist; and he had to shake his head sharply and move an arm or a leg and glance at it to assure himself that he was visible.”

They find the Buffalo.

They kill the Buffalo.

They reduce a herd of 3,000 down to a few hundred.

I was rooting for the Buffalo. I wanted a stampede, or any intervention that would wreak vengeance upon the hunters for their greed.

 photo BuffaloStampede_zps35a11bc4.jpg
Buffaloes can reach speeds of 35mph.

”At night, when the two of them rode wearily out of the valley to the small red-orange glow that marked their camp in the darkness, they found Miller slouched darkly and inertly before the fire; except for his eyes he was as still and lifeless as one of the buffalo he had killed. Miller had even stopped washing of his face the black powder that collected there during his firing; now the powder smoke seemed a permanent part of his skin, ingrained there, a black mask that defined the hot, glaring brilliance of his eyes.”

I know people who hunt and I know people who kill. There are those that go out to hunt for a specific purpose and there are those that go out to kill anything that is moving. I’ve walked along the river that flows through my family property after people have been through there shooting squirrels, birds, and rabbits, not to eat them, but just for the sport of it. Everything is silent, a condemnation of our failed stewardship colors the air. There is something inherently missing in people who choose to treat life this way. I used to hunt with my friends and family and then I shot my first deer soon after turning 15 and that was my last time. I walked up to the dying deer hidden by the grass. He had looked so large when he had stared across the field at me and in death looked so tenderly small sprawled on the ground. The stain was larger than the gain.

I sold my rifle.

To keep a herd from running away you have to kill their leader first.

”The buffalo passed their wounded leader, and ran beyond him some three hundred yards, where their running gradually spent itself, and where they stood, milling uneasily about. The old bull stood alone behind them, his massive head sunk below his hump; his tail twitched once or twice, and he shook his head. He turned around several times, as another animal might have done before sleeping, and finally stood facing the two men who were more than two hundred yards away from him. He took three steps toward them, and paused again. Then, stiffly, he fell on his side, his legs straight out from his belly, The legs jerked, and then he was still.

That bull had fought off all his competitors. He’d won the right to inseminate and pass along his bloodline to the next generation. He stood between his herd and every threat that nature could throw at him. ”The old bull carried thick scars on his sides and flanks that could be seen even at a great distance.” A bullet fired from a man two hundred yards away that he couldn’t even see exploded through his chest cavity, punching through both his lungs, drowning him with his own blood, and he didn’t even get a chance to fight.

The hunting party stayed too long in the mountains, greed overrides common sense, and nature comes calling.

Many more trials and tribulations await the less than heroic characters that populate this novel. John Williams is a wonderful writer. His book Stoner is one of the best books I’ve read in a long time, so despite this being a subject matter that I find particularly distasteful the writing was superb. This is a epic western with all the grandeur of inspiring descriptions of the landscape and the wonderful character sketches of the rough and tumble people who for a time made their living on the plains of Kansas. They cleared the land for the farmers and the ranchers that were coming close behind them. My Great-great Grandfather Thomas Newton Keeten came to Kansas in the 1880s, so he was part of the migration of farmers who settled after the near eradication of the Buffalo and the Indians had been “pacified”. He broke the sod, built a house, helped form the Methodist church that I was baptized in, and is buried in the cemetery among the bones of the Buffalo.

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Reading Progress

February 11, 2013 – Started Reading
February 11, 2013 – Shelved
February 14, 2013 – Finished Reading
May 4, 2016 – Shelved as: the-old-west
July 17, 2018 – Shelved as: nyrb

Comments Showing 1-50 of 108 (108 new)


message 1: by Jan-Maat (new)

Jan-Maat That mound of buffalo bones is a very striking picture.


message 2: by Lawyer (new)

Lawyer Go ahead. Reel me in. Hooked again. Dang.


message 3: by Kris (new) - added it

Kris Brilliant review again, Jeffrey! The writing, the images, everything. And what a photo of your great-grandfather!


message 4: by Larry (new) - added it

Larry Bassett I am going to add this book to my TBR shelf but I am not sure that I have the stomach to read it. I had a hard enough time with the vivid bloodletting in your very well written review. This might be a book that I will be happy never to get to!


message 5: by Kalliope (new)

Kalliope What a powerful review Jeffrey !. The first paragraph is just heart-breaking... and the picture of your Great Grandfather... thank you for sharing this. Very special.


Jeffrey Keeten Jan-Maat wrote: "That mound of buffalo bones is a very striking picture."

Overwhelming to think about all that death that had to happen to create that mound.


Jeffrey Keeten Mike wrote: "Go ahead. Reel me in. Hooked again. Dang."

I put this review through a Mike Sullivan specifically designed logarithm that would guarantee that you would be compelled beyond any doubt to read this book. Whew! so glad it worked or it was back to the drawing board of xxxxs and oooos.


Jeffrey Keeten Kris wrote: "Brilliant review again, Jeffrey! The writing, the images, everything. And what a photo of your great-grandfather!"

Thank you Kris! I'm so glad I remembered that I had that photograph. It was "tailor made" for this review.


Jeffrey Keeten Larry wrote: "I am going to add this book to my TBR shelf but I am not sure that I have the stomach to read it. I had a hard enough time with the vivid bloodletting in your very well written review. This might b..."

It is hard to conceive of having the fire and desire to kill that many animals. You'd just think they would reach a saturation point. If you haven't read John Williams I suggest you start with Stoner. He only wrote three novels. Each are very different from each other. The other one is Augustus. Thanks Larry I do hope you put John Williams on your future reading list. He is really good.


message 10: by Kalliope (new)

Kalliope Jeffrey wrote: "Larry wrote: "I am going to add this book to my TBR shelf but I am not sure that I have the stomach to read it. I had a hard enough time with the vivid bloodletting in your very well written review..."

I had not realized this is by the same author who wrote Stoner.


Jeffrey Keeten Kalliope wrote: "What a powerful review Jeffrey !. The first paragraph is just heart-breaking... and the picture of your Great Grandfather... thank you for sharing this. Very special."

As soon as I read that paragraph I knew it was going to be my lead.

I have always really liked that picture of Ashley Ives and I'm so glad I was able to use it in a review. Thank you Kalliope.


message 12: by knig (new)

knig You know, they banned fox hunting in the UK a couple of years ago now. So what do the die hards do@ They stage a 'mock' hunt: still gather on horse with hound in tow and blow a bugle, and then race off into the 'bush': supposedly symbolically. But we all know what they do ;). I agree with you hunting for sport is distasteful, even though i like foxes a lot less than buffalos, and forgive me, but I like buffalo coats even less, handsome though your grandfather is. Its not just the fur: its the bulk! I really enjoyed your review.


message 13: by Kalliope (new)

Kalliope Jeffrey wrote: "Kalliope wrote: "What a powerful review Jeffrey !. The first paragraph is just heart-breaking... and the picture of your Great Grandfather... thank you for sharing this. Very special."

As soon a..."


But the world in which your great grandfather lived was very different. We cannot judge, but we can learn.


Jeffrey Keeten Kalliope wrote: "Jeffrey wrote: "Larry wrote: "I am going to add this book to my TBR shelf but I am not sure that I have the stomach to read it. I had a hard enough time with the vivid bloodletting in your very wel..."

He definitely showed his range with the three novels he gave us. Have you read Stoner?


message 15: by Kalliope (new)

Kalliope Jeffrey wrote: "Kalliope wrote: "Jeffrey wrote: "Larry wrote: "I am going to add this book to my TBR shelf but I am not sure that I have the stomach to read it. I had a hard enough time with the vivid bloodletting..."

No, I haven't but I had noticed it from other reviews from other good and intelligent GR friends.


Jeffrey Keeten knig wrote: "You know, they banned fox hunting in the UK a couple of years ago now. So what do the die hards do@ They stage a 'mock' hunt: still gather on horse with hound in tow and blow a bugle, and then race..."

Thank you Knig! I didn't know they banned fox hunting. For me hunting just isn't a good fit. I would much rather be reading anyway then trudging around in the muck and cold trying to kill something. I believe that what you kill should be for eating or for protection anything outside of that is really just blood lust.


Jeffrey Keeten Kalliope wrote: "Jeffrey wrote: "Kalliope wrote: "What a powerful review Jeffrey !. The first paragraph is just heart-breaking... and the picture of your Great Grandfather... thank you for sharing this. Very spec..."

I totally agree. I'm just glad that despite their best efforts they did not kill the Buffalo/Bison to extinction.


Jeffrey Keeten Bennet wrote: "I just finished a read on account of your review of The Reapers Are the Angels, and now this. Just put it in the queue. :)"

I'm hoping now that a towering intellectual like yourself has loved Reapers more and more people will feel compelled to read it.


message 19: by s.penkevich (new)

s.penkevich Fantastic review, I need to check out this John Williams the writer. I admit when I first saw his book 'Stoner', I thought 'hey, he does Star Wars tunes AND wrote books?; haha.


Jeffrey Keeten s.penkevich wrote: "Fantastic review, I need to check out this John Williams the writer. I admit when I first saw his book 'Stoner', I thought 'hey, he does Star Wars tunes AND wrote books?; haha."

Yes you do S.Penk. You should put John Williams into the soupy literary mix of your brain in preparation for writing that first S.Penk grand opus of American literature. By the way I call dibs on a signed copy and don't wait 40 years because I'm 46 and I'll be lucky if I have 39 more years in the tank.


message 21: by Arah-Lynda (new)

Arah-Lynda The stain was larger than the gain. I am pretty sure that I have read this paragraph several times now. Thank you so much for sharing this view with others. Very gutsy indeed. Excellent review.


Jeffrey Keeten Arah-Lynda wrote: "The stain was larger than the gain. I am pretty sure that I have read this paragraph several times now. Thank you so much for sharing this view with others. Very gutsy indeed. Excellent review."

Thank you Arah-Lynda! Your use of the word "gutsy" made me smile.


message 23: by Mike (new) - added it

Mike Puma I've had this one sitting here too long already. You'be bumped up the priority.


message 24: by Jonfaith (new) - added it

Jonfaith Stark and sublime, I think of Walser in the snow as I sip my ale and ponder that pile of bones above in your review. Any judgement at all is posture, theatre. I suppose I should sit here for a spell.


Jeffrey Keeten Mike wrote: "I've had this one sitting here too long already. You'be bumped up the priority."

Thank you Mike! John Williams should have wrote more books.


Jeffrey Keeten Jonfaith wrote: "Stark and sublime, I think of Walser in the snow as I sip my ale and ponder that pile of bones above in your review. Any judgement at all is posture, theatre. I suppose I should sit here for a spell."

You are expecting a lot for me to pull Robert Walser out of the deep memory banks after a bottle of cabernet. Really excellent reference. I had this whole bit about my own experience with snow, but the review was already pushing the boundaries of reasonable length so I will save it for another review. Maybe just a bit more wine.


message 27: by Jonfaith (new) - added it

Jonfaith Literature remains safe as long as we're at the helm, drinking.


Lynne King Jeffrey, what an incredible review and also the photos. You just never cease to amaze me! Keep up the great work.


message 29: by Scribble (new)

Scribble Orca You write the most epic reviews, Jeffrey. Wow, just wow.

(We have similar tales of eradication in Australia, too - very disheartening. I'm glad you're a book brain and not a huntin' dude).


Jeffrey Keeten Lynne wrote: "Jeffrey, what an incredible review and also the photos. You just never cease to amaze me! Keep up the great work."

Thanks Lynne! As long as people continue to enjoy my reviews I will continue to write them. I love that photo of my great grandfather. You can almost see how proud he was of that coat.


Jeffrey Keeten Scribble wrote: "You write the most epic reviews, Jeffrey. Wow, just wow.

(We have similar tales of eradication in Australia, too - very disheartening. I'm glad you're a book brain and not a huntin' dude)."


Thank you Scribble! The books of John Williams inspire epic reviews. Humanity does such a great job conquering nature. I just wish at the point that nature cries UNCLE we show some restraint and compassion.


message 32: by Will (last edited Feb 16, 2013 07:48AM) (new)

Will Byrnes Yet another wondrous merging of the personal with the analytical. Great stuff, JK.

My personal exposure to bison is more recent and far less dramatic

The Buffalo Hunters

It was impressive to see how fast people can move when a thousand-pound-plus wild animal clambers into a parking lot!


Jeffrey Keeten Will wrote: "Yet another wondrous merging of the personal with the analytical. Great stuff, JK.

My personal exposure to bison is more recent and far less dramatic



It was impressive to see how fast people ca..."


Yes indeed! In captivity they can reach well over 3,000 pds. Not an animal to be trifled with once it decides a direction it is going. I should have mentioned in the review that the proper term is American Bison, but John Williams referred to them as Buffalo throughout the book so I stuck with the same in the review.

Thank you Will! One of these days I will accidentally write a review that matches those gems you write. Oh and I forgot to mention that I really liked the Brooklyn Bridge shot you took that was called Echo with the cloud mass resembling/echoing the bridge. Brilliant capture!


message 34: by Will (new)

Will Byrnes Silly Bear. Yours are the ones to aspire to.

And thanks on the photos. I am making a long-term project of shooting in Brooklyn Bridge Park. (as, apparently, is every TV show set in NYC) There are a few in that set I actually like. Hopefully I can add some more in future.


message 35: by [deleted user] (new)

Your excellent review has put me in a very reflective mood. I once killed a rabbit with a shotgun when I was younger. After 30 seconds of an adrenaline-rushed euphoria, I became sickened and ashamed. I have never killed after that (excluding insects and arachnids). Once I put a possum in my back yard out of its misery after my dog delivered it a fatal wound. I botched the attempted euthanasia with a shovel. I came inside, trembling, and threw up. Jeffrey, you are not only a brilliant reviewer but you show great judgment in selecting your reading material.


Jeffrey Keeten Steve wrote: "Your excellent review has put me in a very reflective mood. I once killed a rabbit with a shotgun when I was younger. After 30 seconds of an adrenaline-rushed euphoria, I became sickened and ashame..."

I once had to put down a cow that was paralyzed and in great pain. I only had a .22 with me and the bullet ricocheted off the skull, too small a calibre to penetrate the heavy skull bone. I had to drive back to the house and get a 7mm magnum. I had a lot more time to think while driving back. As she died she just looked at me and I wish that I could have at least been able to explain it to her.


message 37: by Michael (last edited Feb 16, 2013 03:27PM) (new) - added it

Michael Masterful review. Loved the pictures.

I wonder if the book covered the role of the frontier army in the slaughter as part of the policy to starve the Indians into submitting to reservation life. A nice analysis of the issue and leadership of Generals Sheridan and Sherman is here:
The Frontier Army and the Destruction of the Buffalo

The conclusion:
In the end, the frontier army's well-calculated policy of destroying the buffalo in order to conquer the Plains Indians proved more effective than any other weapon in its arsenal. Too small and too inept to vanquish the plains tribes expeditiously, the army aided and was in turn aided by the "sportsmen" and professional hunters who, along with the army itself, managed to destroy the Indians' staff of life. With the mainstay of their diet gone the Indians had no choice but to accept a servile fate on a reservation where they could subsist on government handouts. ...
Sitting Bull summed up the results of the annihilation: 'A cold wind blew across the prairie when the last buffalo fell-a death-wind for my people.'


Can't help but think of that powerful old folk song by Buffy Saint Marie:
Now That the Buffalo's Gone


Jeffrey Keeten Michael wrote: "Masterful review. Loved the pictures.

I wonder if the book covered the role of the frontier army in the slaughter as part of the policy to starve the Indians into submitting to reservation life. ..."


Indians are not a factor in this book. The only mention is there are a couple of Indian prostitutes hanging around the town of Butcher's Crossing. Williams's focus was on the hunters and the ending of an era. Great links MIchael. I haven't heard that song in a long time. I"m glad you enjoyed the review.


message 39: by John (new)

John Behle Jeffrey, your reviews are art. I am going over to my Barnes & Noble to give this book "Buther's Crossing" a heft and get a feel. The subject matter might be too blood soaked--my wife and I work in animal rescue. I do like Kansas--I have an image of myself under a cottonwood, listening to a Western Meadowlark while gazing out on a field of sunflowers.


Jeffrey Keeten John wrote: "Jeffrey, your reviews are art. I am going over to my Barnes & Noble to give this book "Buther's Crossing" a heft and get a feel. The subject matter might be too blood soaked--my wife and I work i..."

Thank you John! Williams is a special writer. I read his book Stoner first, set in a Missouri academic environment. Farm boy discovers books. I would recommend starting with that one. He also has a book called Augustus which looks really good as well. The problem with John Williams is he only wrote three books.

We do have cottonwoods, lots of cottonwoods and meadowlarks and wild sunflowers. Sunflowers are still grown here, but you are much more likely to be gazing upon a field of wheat. When the wheat turns that golden color with a hint of red and the wind rolls across it like people doing the wave at a stadium it is beautiful. When I lived in San Francisco for a couple years, helping expand a bookstore, I missed the feel of the horizon around me. I'd have to go down to the ocean every so often and get my fix of endless space in front of me.


message 41: by Steve (new)

Steve I like the way you personalized this one, Jeffrey. You'll have to excuse my curiosity in asking if that buffalo coat your great grandfather was wearing is still in the family. I can understand if it's not -- moths might have thought that was quite a feast.

Sounds like Stoner is wonderful starting point for any of us interested in Williams. Thanks for the recommendation.


Jeffrey Keeten Steve wrote: "I like the way you personalized this one, Jeffrey. You'll have to excuse my curiosity in asking if that buffalo coat your great grandfather was wearing is still in the family. I can understand if..."

To my knowledge no one has the coat. Wouldn't that be cool if we did? I am really glad that the photo survived. Thanks Steve.


message 43: by Mark (new)

Mark Great review of, as you said, a deeply sad curse...this cowardly slaughter of buffalo who have no chance really. I loved the 'stain was bigger then the gain'. Brilliant.

10 years ago I stood in the Golden Gate Park and saw the buffalo there. They were absolutely magnificent and I was a bit in awe i think. I was standing so still just staring at them that this enabled another lovely little moment. At my feet, or about three feet away something broke the surface of the ground and there i was staring at this magnificently muscled beast in front of me and a tiny little gopher, who it has to be said got the runt of the arrangement, was staring from his hole at me. Your mention of the buffaloes survival made me remember that lovely moment so thanks.


Jeffrey Keeten Mark wrote: "Great review of, as you said, a deeply sad curse...this cowardly slaughter of buffalo who have no chance really. I loved the 'stain was bigger then the gain'. Brilliant.

10 years ago I stood in th..."


I moved from San Francisco 15 years ago and so there is a good chance that we looked at the same Buffalo/American Bison. They are truly magnificent animals and we have several herds here in Kansas so I do get to see them frequently. I hope that everyone, at some point in their lives, gets a chance to see them. I'm so pleased that my review elicited such a great memory for you. Thank you Mark!


message 45: by Rickey (new) - added it

Rickey Great review of a book about a disturbing time in our history. It's amazing that any buffalo survived at all. This is added to my TBR list.


Jeffrey Keeten Rickey wrote: "Great review of a book about a disturbing time in our history. It's amazing that any buffalo survived at all. This is added to my TBR list."

Thank you Rickey. Yes do read this and John William's other books. He is under appreciated. They are magnificent animals and despite our best efforts they survived.


message 47: by Cathy (new)

Cathy DuPont Jeff:

Wonderful review!

My younger brother (by 10 months) got a BB gun for about his 10th Christmas and promptly went out and shot a little bird. He was apparently a good aim. After picking it up, he sat down and just cried like a baby. Made an impression on me.

While I'm sure I would kill for food, for pleasure of killing, just couldn't do it; even then 150 years ago.

Loved the review, sad and touching as it was.


Jeffrey Keeten Cathy wrote: "Jeff:

Wonderful review!

My younger brother (by 10 months) got a BB gun for about his 10th Christmas and promptly went out and shot a little bird. He was apparently a good aim. After picking i..."


Thank you Cathy! Growing up on a farm death was something I experienced more than the average kid. Cows got hurt and had to be put down. Calves died from all kinds of different diseases and hazards. Family dogs were run over. With a lot of the farmers and ranchers I know, few hunt for sport, most see enough death without adding more. They'll hunt down a coyote that is messing with their calves, but as far as chasing birds and animals around generally they'd much rather be doing about anything else.


message 49: by André (new) - added it

André van Dijk I knew almost nothing about this gigantic buffaloe-massacre. Up untill now, by reading Butcher's Crossing ánd this fabulous review of Jeffrey Keeten, a real eyeopener. Thanks for that.


message 50: by Ted (new) - rated it 5 stars

Ted Great review, Jeffrey. I finally posted mine today and was able to read yours. I was relieved to find that we had emphasized different aspects of the story. But I think every single quote you had from the book was one that I had considered using, I didn't even have to read them to recognize them. :)

Great photos in here also.


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