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How to survive in your native land
on September 24, 2007
At the close of World War I, Ralph Moody, not yet 20, learns he has diabetes. The specialists give him six months to live, but his family doctor sensibly suggests that he "go back to Colorado...or Arizona...and let the sunshine at your body." After long years in Massachusetts, Maine, and Maryland (where he worked a war job after being excused from the draft for being head of his family), Ralph doesn't need any better excuse to return to his beloved West, and he takes a train to Tucson. But the cow country is overrun with returning veterans in need of jobs, and a pale, skinny Easterner without an outfit--especially one too painfully honest to pretend that his condition is the result of being hospitalized for a war-connected mishap--stands about as much chance of getting a riding job as he does of flying to the Moon. Soon he hooks up with Lonnie, a young veteran who's also in search of work, and what follows is eight months of hopping freights, camping out, risking his neck as a stunt rider in the nascent movie industry, and promoting himself (and Lonnie) as the "cowboy artists of the Southwest" as he revives an old skill at wood-carving and transfers it to clay-and-plaster busts of prominent citizens of Arizona and New Mexico. Even riding herd on Lonnie and keeping his real income a guilty secret, by late spring he's made enough money not only to send some back to his family but to seriously plan to buy land in Colorado and start a small spread of his own. Then an unexpected and shockingly hilarious mishap finds him alone and destitute again, about to hop a freight from St. Joseph to Littleton and start all over.
Though not as good as some of the previous memoirs in this series, "Shaking the Nickel Bush" is a basically optimstic and upbeat story of two young men who may be dirt poor but don't seem to know it, and are determined to find a way to survive. Lonnie is one of Moody's trademark vivid characters--lazy, improvident, a little larcenous, and too interested in showing the girls a good time for the health of his wallet (and sometimes Ralph's)--but he's a better-than-middling mechanic who falls headlong in love with the secondhand Ford they name Shiftless and ultimately all but rebuilds her. And Shiftless herself is almost as human as the boys who ride her: some of the most delightful bits in the book come as Moody describes her crotchets and idiosyncracies. It's true that Moody seems to have left a bit of a gap in his story--we never find out why or when he left Grandfather Gould's farm and get only a few tantalizing details about his life over the years 1914-8--but his deep delight in being on his way to "his home town" (as he calls Littleton) shines through in his repeated changes of "career": he's not about to leave the West again unless he goes in a pine box! And while he may never get the riding job he seeks, he does survive, his health improves (not without a good bit of scrabbling to find foods he's allowed to eat: leafy green vegetables and fresh milk are thin on the ground in the post-War Southwest!), and in the end he's on his way to Colorado for the summer, with hopes of improving his situation once again. This is another great family book with an inspiring air and lessons to teach about honesty, determination, and the value of improvisation.