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Ruffin Focuses on West Texas in New Book

A Review by Larry D. Thomas
2008 Texas State Poet Laureate
(Term Begins April 18, 2008)

Larry D. Thomas
Larry D. Thomas
Louisiana Literature Press (Southeastern Louisiana University Press) published in late 2006 Sam Houston State University Distinguished Professor of English Paul Ruffin's second collection of essays/fiction, The Segovia Chronicles .   In addition to his two books of essays, Ruffin--who teaches creative writing at SHSU, edits The Texas Review , and directs Texas Review Press--has published two novels, five collections of poetry (with a sixth, Cleaning the Well , due out next year), and two collections of short stories (with a third due out from the University of South Carolina Press in September), and he has edited or co-edited eleven other books.   His work has been published in nearly two hundred magazines and journals and several anthologies and textbooks, and his fiction has been aired on NPR and other radio shows.   The Segovia Chronicles was reviewed recently in several Texas newspapers, including the Dallas Morning News , Abilene Reporter-News , Bryan-College Station Eagle , and Kerrville Daily Times , and is slated to be reviewed in the American Book Review .  

"To this point," Ruffin says, "all the reviews have been favorable.   But the minute you start to breathe easy, BAM-you get panned.   I remember that after a series of good reviews of my first book of stories, including half a page in the New York Times Book Review , a syndicated reviewer contrasted my book with another published by SMU Press that year, referring to the other book as a racecar and mine a Model T.   The reviewer said my stories were too conventional in structure.   And that same review appeared in all the major Texas newspapers, including the Houston Chronicle .   But you learn to take the sour with the savory.   As they say, if you can't take the heat, don't put your hand in the fire."

Most of the essays and stories   in The Segovia Chronicles were taken from Ruffin's weekly newspaper column, Ruffin-It, which appears in several newspapers.   He expanded several of the pieces into familiar essays, which have appeared in such journals as Southern Quarterly and Southwestern American Literature .

As stated on the book jacket, Ruffin takes the reader into "a world of proud, independent, self-made people living on harsh but beautiful land bristling with cacti and mesquite, where only rich river valleys lined with cedar-studded hills break the bleak landscape. He takes us to Kimble County, which has more miles of running water than any other county in Texas, a county with a rich history resonating with names like Sam Bass, John Wesley Hardin, and Bonnie and Clyde, who had just left Kimble County before they were ambushed in Louisiana. In particular he takes us to Segovia, a little river-valley community that once had a post office and store and school but now is just ranchland. The old post office building remains, as does the building that housed the school, but one is ruins, the other a residence. And there's the truck stop up on the interstate."

"Lord, I love that country," he says, "and I'd move out there tomorrow, if I had the money and my lady agreed to go.   I have a friend, novelist Bob Winship, who owns a fairly large ranch outside Segovia-not that you can tell when you're inside Segovia, except for the remains of the post office, which is featured on the cover of the book, and the old school building and truck stop--and I try to make a trip out there two or three times a year.   As a matter of fact, we were out there a few weeks ago for book signings in Kerrville and Junction, and we had brunch at the ranch.   We didn't get to walk the hills the way we did the last time we were there, but we'll go back out when it's cooler.   It is truly magnificent country."

Ruffin covers a broad range of subjects in his new book.   In one essay readers discover how hard it is to tell the sex of an armadillo.   When the two cowboys he's camping with argue that they don't have the same kind of "equipment" that humans do, Ruffin says,

". . . since they've been around fifty million years, I have a pretty good idea that they have what you call the equipment and they know how to use it."

In another, readers learn the real truth behind the death of Marilyn Monroe and why Amelia Earhart's plane went down.   They get to hear Mr. And Mrs. Pate, two of the leading characters in the book, discuss how granddaughter-in-law Raynette, who had a fashionable tongue split in a tattoo "poller," fell from a horse and damaged her insides and had to have a "tubal libation," as Mrs. Pate puts it, only to be corrected by Mr. Pate, who calls it a "tubal litigation."   The old man says, "Ownknow how come she was on a horse anyhow . . . .   She so addled she can barely ride a school bus."

Readers will recoil when they learn what is in summer sausage (". . . stomach, guts, lungs, spleen, kidneys, brain, liver, bones, blood, eyeballs . . . ," according to Mrs. Pate) and marvel at what Mr. Pates calls a Nighturnal Remnant, a possum with "a set of teeth like a cow" that eats grass. They will learn about lot lizards, the great camel experiment conducted by the Army in the 1850s, and a tent-revival goiter, and they will find out how Mr. Pate spices up his love life with a substance he buys at the feed store.

In "The Bowhunter Asks For My Bladder," Ruffin recalls an actual experience in which a bowhunter asked for the bladder from a sika buck he had killed that morning.   "It actually happened," he says.   "This guy, who was cleaning a whitetail doe on the scaffold beside me, wanted the bladder from my deer.   Since he was a bowhunter, you might imagine what he wanted to do with it.   On the other hand, since he was a bowhunter, perhaps you can't."

Mr. Pate is not very kind to bowhunters, and he is ever eager to point out their idiocies.   In one story, a bowhunter has made the declaration that he is going to "live off the land" while he is hunting.   "Like his forebears done," the old man says he said.   "I wanted to say to him, 'Look, your forebears is dead, prolly starved to death, and it's all the ants can do out here to live off the land.   Even buzzards got it hard.'"   Mr. Pate finally gives up and tells him, ". . . when you get to where you're just about too weak to move and might die any minute, you fire three shots in a row and I'll come runnin' with a samwich."   He reminds the hunter that three shots are the universal sound of someone in trouble.   "Yessir.   I know that.   I'll remember that."   And then he walks off into the brush.   Remember that all he's carrying is a bow with some arrows, so three shots-well, you can figure out the point the old man is making.

Ruffin says that he is asked from time to time whether the stories are real.   "Well, some are written exactly as they happened, and some are totally made up.   Then there are those that begin with the real and turn into fiction."   He recalls the evening that he and Houston Chronicle columnist Leon Hale were the featured writers at the grand opening of the Barnes and Noble in College Station.   "Just before he read an essay called 'Homer the Rat,' he said to the audience-all there to hear him, not me-'Now, folks, this piece starts out as truth, and it goes on that way for a long time.'   That's the nature of some of the tales in this book."

Hilarious though most of the pieces are, Ruffin also paints lovely word pictures of experiences he has enjoyed at the ranch with his son over the years: how they lie among boulders watching for satellites in "Fishing Among the Stars" and how they reconstruct a blown-out river dam in "Making a Dam in Segovia."   From the latter: "I am studying the boy balancing his way along the stones of the dam, his arms out wide in the mounting sun like something about to take flight.   'The stream of everything,' Frost says.   'And it is time, strength, tone, light, life, and love--'"

The Segovia Chronicles concludes with a poignant short story titled "Tattered Coat Upon a Stick," which focuses on the plight of a man dying of cancer who wants above all else to be cremated and have his ashes scattered across the family's river-valley ranch outside Segovia.   When his kids declare that his intact body will be buried alongside their mother's in a Tyler cemetery, he finds another way to have his wish fulfilled.

As one reviewer says of The Segovia Chronicles , "Good writing.   Good stuff.   More than 30 stories to savor."

This is vintage Paul Ruffin: a mixture of the sweet and sour served up in his own splendid style.   Take a trip west with this Southern/Texas writer, who has been compared time after time with the greatest of our storytellers, Flannery O'Connor, and experience the world of Segovia.

The book may be purchased at local bookstores or from or   Ruffin also keeps copies on hand.   He may be reached by phone at 936.294.1429 or by e-mail at



SHSU Media Contact: Frank Krystyniak
Sept. 24, 2007
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