Newspaper column: Give books about Nevada and by Nevadans

With Christmas rapidly approaching you may be casting about for suggestions for what to give that special Nevada friend or family member. What could be better than books about Nevada or by Nevadans? The choices are as varied as the Nevada landscape and its denizens.

Doubly apropos this holiday season is Patricia Cafferata’s “Christmas in Nevada,” a collection of seasonal anecdotes from across the state and across the years.

Cafferata — a former state legislator, state treasurer, district attorney in three counties and daughter of Barbara Vucanovich, the first woman from Nevada to serve in the U.S. House of Representatives — has penned and collected short takes that capture the spirit of giving and community pride. They start with the budding traditions established in mining towns during the territorial days of the 1860s and progress chronologically up the huge modern celebrations.

The small and tall tales from the early days include such scenes as the Virginia City butcher who in 1863 advertised his Christmas wares by parading 184 turkeys down the frozen dirt street to his shop; the huge Christmas fest in the Magnolia Hotel in Winnemucca in 1870 that included fish, oysters, chicken, green vegetables, tea and coffee, liquor and cigars; the “nevergreen” Christmas trees cobbled from scraps of wood in the Tonopah mining camp miles from any real pine trees; the mother in Silver Peak who started making mincemeat in November and preserved it for the holiday by storing it in the cellar draped in brandy-soaked cloths; the Christmas in White Pine County in 1907 during which three miners were trapped inside a collapsed copper mine for 45 days before being rescued and feted with a holiday banquet; and one family’s custom Christmas card tradition that has lasted more than 50 years.

Modern depictions include the Christmas festivities at Opportunity Village in Las Vegas, which helps those with intellectual and developmental disabilities develop life skills and find employment opportunities. It started in 1981 with the Magic Forest of lighted Christmas trees, raising about $3,000, but growing in recent years into a major holiday theme park attended by about 10,000 people and raising $1.5 million. Also mentioned are the “12 Days of Christmas” in Elko, the Santa Pub Crawl in Reno and the Santa Run in Las Vegas that have grown from modest beginnings to huge crowds.

Just out earlier this year is native Nevadan and decades-long newspaper columnist John L. Smith’s “The Westside Slugger: Joe Neal’s Lifelong Fight for Social Justice.” The biography introduces you to Joe Neal, the first African America to serve in the Nevada state Senate. It traces his rise from impoverished Madison Parish, La., through his three decades in the state Senate until he earned a place in the Senate’s Hall of Fame.

Smith uses countless sources as well as his own considerable knowledge of the man and the times — both as a journalist and through his parents’ civil rights and union activism — to paint a detailed portrait of the scrappy Neal, who fought for the things he believed in.

For those who seek to experience Nevada and the region for themselves there is the latest edition of Deborah Wall’s “Base Camp Las Vegas,” a guide to 101 hikes in the region. Packed with photos, the book tells one how to get there, when to go, how to prepare, what to expect and what to avoid. It is a must for the explorer.

Another book published this year, if not about Nevada, is a piece of historic fiction by decades-long Nevada journalist A.D. Hopkins, “The Boys Who Woke Up Early.” Hopkins has penned a fictional account from his boyhood home in western Virginia during the Eisenhower era, looking at the seamy side of life through the eyes of high school boys.

Yes, the boys might’ve awakened early on occasion, but what they “woke up” was rural Early County and Jubal Early High School, named for a Confederate general. The book is laced with homespun conspiracies, displays of chivalry, dirty tricks, righteous revenge and conflicts that frequently result in gunplay, fisticuffs and the strategic use of ax handles and baseball bats. The plot is compelling and the dialog authentic.

For a cornucopia of books about Nevada and the West, turn to Range magazine’s website where you will find books and calendars depicting the ranching and farming lifestyle and attitudes. Among my favorites are the two “Brushstrokes & Balladeers,” coffee table books featuring Western-themed paintings and cowboy poets, including Elko County native Waddie Mitchell.

A version of this column appeared this week in many of the Battle Born Media newspapers — The Ely Times, the Mesquite Local News, the Mineral County Independent-News, the Eureka Sentinel and the Lincoln County Record — and the Elko Daily Free Press.

Book review: Book on Las Vegas civil rights leader captures a man and an era

When you put the book down, you know you’ve been introduced to a man of uncompromising principles and watched him grow to his full potential, despite a myriad of obstacles due to racial discrimination, powerful economic forces and petty party politics.

The book is “The Westside Slugger: Joe Neal’s Lifelong Fight for Social Justice” by lifelong Nevada writer John L. Smith, whose Las Vegas Review-Journal columns I edited for two decades.

The biography introduces you to Joe Neal, the first African America to serve in the Nevada state Senate. It traces his rise from impoverished Madison Parish, La., through his three decades in the state Senate until he earned a place in the chamber’s Hall of Fame. 

Practically every page includes the name of some Nevada mover-and-shaker who befriended or exchanged blows with the ever hard-charging Neal — governors, fellow lawmakers, casino executives, fellow civil rights champions, journalists, mobsters, lawmen and family members who rose to make names for themselves in their own right.

It was Nevada state Sen. Cliff Young — a future state Supreme Court justice — who dubbed Neal the Westside Slugger for having ably represented the predominantly black neighborhood near downtown Las Vegas. “You get knocked down, but you always get back up, and you never stop swinging,” Smith quotes Young as saying of Neal.

Smith uses countless such sources as well his own considerable knowledge of the man and the times — both as a journalist and through his parents’ civil rights and union activism — to paint a detailed portrait of the scrappy Neal, who fought for the things in which he believed. 

After the fatal MGM and Hilton hotel fires in the early 1980s, Smith relates that Neal was probably the key leader in pushing legislation to require the state’s hotels and high-rises to retrofit with fire safety equipment that included sprinklers and proper ventilation systems. 

While he is probably best remembered for the civil rights efforts — including backing the Equal Rights Amendment, restoring felons constitutional rights and creating a holiday for Martin Luther King Jr. — he also fought for higher casino industry taxes to support education funding. He led the fight to limit casino development on Lake Tahoe to protect its shores and pristine water. 

Neal also fought against allowing casino owner Steve Wynn to have a sales tax exemption on his millions of dollars worth of fine art, because it cut education funding. He even bucked his own Democratic Party leaders and refused to take a stand against the storage of nuclear waste at Yucca Mountain. He also fought to end the death penalty in Nevada.

As always, Smith has an ear for the quote that fleshes out the premise of the piece — such as the one from Dina Titus, then a state senator and now a congresswoman, at the Hall of Fame ceremony for Neal, when she called him “the greatest orator in the history of the state. His eloquence derives from his academic knowledge, from his vast experience, and from his compassion for those who are about to be affected by the actions that we are about to take. When Joe stands to speak, a hush falls over the room. Everyone, including legislators, staff, the press, the lobbyists in the back, all stop to listen. He speaks from the heart. He fears nothing. He deftly parries any argument, and he does not hesitate to attack those who he believes turn a blind eye to injustice.”

Smith quotes Neal himself as saying, “You fight for the causes you believe in. You get knocked down, but get back up again. And the fight never ends because you’re fighting for the rights of people.”

The book is thoroughly researched and brings readers through those years when Las Vegas was dubbed the Mississippi of the West, when black Strip entertainers could not stay in the hotels in which they performed, through the mobbed-up days, through rough and tumble politics — including two doomed bids by Neal for the governorship of Nevada. It recounts a remarkable legacy in a remarkably readable manner.

Available in bookstores and various sites online.