column By: Glen Blackwood | April, 18
A few months past, I was emailed an Internet link regarding wing shooting authors. It started with a question: “Who is your favorite wing shooting author?”
As most things on the Web, everyone had an opinion, and the thread grew to several pages. Reading the thread, the names of Gene Hill, William Harnden Foster, Nash Buckingham, Corey Ford and others were championed. The authors listed were not only from the past. Modern writers such as Tom Huggler, Tom Davis and Mike Gaddis were also touted.
Lists like this are rarely complete, yet I found one name conspicuously absent. As the thread grew, it veered from the original question (imagine that) into a discussion of hunting writers in general. Only then did the absent name appear, mentioned as a writer of African safaris, the author Robert Ruark.
Much has been written about Robert Ruark, including three biographies and two anthologies of his writing, most of it focusing on his African writings. Yet at the heart of all his works, novels included, are the life lessons found in The Old Man and the Boy (1953) and the sequel The Old Man’s Boy Grows Older (1957), both published by Henry Holt and Company. The lessons were learned through time spent with gun dogs and game birds. I grant Ruark discusses more than just bird shooting in these titles. He writes of fishing, waterfowling and hunting, both large and small game, yet he references quail and gun dogs in the majority of these books’ chapters. These stories, originally published in Field & Stream magazine, are seminal influences for many a bird hunter, myself included.
Ruark’s passages are comfortable and concise, conjuring an image in the reader’s mind while subtly conveying a deeper message. Messages of respect, conservation, discipline and appreciation are common themes. For example, in “Everybody Took Sick but Me” from The Old Man and the Boy, Ruark writes, “She was a spayed golden cocker bitch, durn near as old as me and a whole lot fatter. She was a pure-T hunting fool.”
This quote is an example of the imagery, while in a subsequent paragraph Ruark writes:
I don’t want to tell you any big lies about Mick.
She didn’t run rabbits as good as a pedigreed beagle. She wasn’t as dead on wounded ducks as a Chesapeake or a golden retriever. She didn’t cover as much ground on quail as even a slow pointer, and she wasn’t half the squirrel treer that little Jackie, the fice was. But for most purposes she was the most all-purpose dog you ever saw.
The aforementioned themes of respect and appreciation are most apparent in this passage. Passages like these are fortunately found often and demonstrate the author’s straightforward approach toward writing.
Ruark also references game birds in his later African works, once describing the size of greater kudu being “considerably larger than a quail or dove.”
The first chapter in his signature safari book Use Enough Gun is another example. This chapter is a slight revision of the first chapter from The Old Man and the Boy. Although revised and in a book with the subtitle Ruark on Hunting Big Game on the dust jacket, he eloquently writes of pointing dogs, shotguns and quail. While the titles are different, the message is the same – respect for firearms and quarry. The lessons he learned in North Carolina pea fields as a boy were just as pertinent on safari as an adult.
Robert Ruark was certainly a writer of African safaris, telling stories of the Northern Frontier District and big game. He also wrote of gun dogs and quail in a fashion that was pure. While his books might not be solely focused on bird hunting, he is a bird hunting author, one deserving discussion on everyone’s list.