West Virginia Book Festival

Bastille Day, the French national holiday on July 14, seems like the perfect time to mention one of the more surprising things I learned at last year’s West Virginia Book Festival.

At a reception the night before the festival, I was talking with Judy Johnson, wife of Walt Longmire mystery series author (and Huntington native and Marshall graduate) Craig Johnson. She was wearing a very distinctive pair of hand-painted cowboy boots, and I asked if I could take a photo for the blog. She said I could, so here you go:

This led to a conversation about the boots, and after telling me their provenance (which I’ve forgotten; they were from somewhere in Wyoming), she said that when she and her husband go to France, people stop them all the time and ask where she got the boots. “Do you go to France often?” I asked. “All the time,” she said.

In addition to loving her cowboy boots, the French love her husband’s cowboy books. The French translation of Craig Johnson’s debut Longmire novel, “The Cold Dish,” won the 2010 Prix du Roman Noir (according to Johnson’s Amazon.com biography) as the best mystery novel translated into French that year.

In an interview with Cowboys & Indians magazine (for real) that year, Johnson talked a little bit about his books being translated into French:

You know, of all the places I would’ve thought that the books would really take off, France would’ve been one of the last on my list — it’s so civilized — but they have and with a vengeance.

But the French have a longstanding fascination with the American West. In his book “The Greater Journey,” a history of Americans in Paris in the 19th century, historian David McCullough talks about the hugely favorable reception given to George Catlin, who brought an exhibition of paintings of American Indians — along with some actual American Indians — to Paris in 1845. McCullough writes:

It was not only the subject matter of Catlin’s paintings that appealed, but the director strength of his work, the raw color and a simplicity of form verging on naive. The paintings had much the same fascination for the French as the Indian tales by James Fenimore Cooper. This was the America they imagined, “wild America,” and that they found almost irresistible.

This might help explain another thing that Judy Johnson told me last year. She and her husband also visit Spain, where cowboys-and-Indians books and movies are popular, just like they are in France. But in Spain, people root for the cowboys, she said; in France, they root for the Indians.