'Yard Dog' latest of Northwestern alum's novels

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'Yard Dog' latest of Northwestern alum's novels

September 2, 2009

The Yard Dog book cover, by Sheldon RussellNorthwestern Oklahoma State University alumnus Sheldon Russell’s latest novel, “The Yard Dog,” was released Sept. 1, and people in northwest Oklahoma may recognize a few locations and stories within the pages.

Described as a “one-of-a-kind mystery, “The Yard Dog” opens in the final days of World War II, when the remote corners of the United States hosted camps of German Prisoners of War captured in Europe.

Near one such camp in Oklahoma, a one-armed railroad bull (a yard dog) named Hook Runyon keeps an eye out for hobos illegally riding the rails and thieves robbing travelers.

One morning, a new problem confronts Hook - a body of a local coal-picker has been mutilated under a train car. But, Hook soon discovers that the victim may have been dead before the train ran over him, and that a work detail from the German POW camp may have seen something.

The 1968 grad drew inspiration for this latest book from growing up in Waynoka and hearing the stories told through the years about the railroad, as well as the POW camp in Alva.

His father Ralph, 94 of Waynoka, worked as a machinist for the railroad in Waynoka and later as a laborer in the ice plant. Russell said his dad often talked about the POW work gangs, about the troop trains and about how the railroaders worked seven days a week to keep supplies moving for the war.

“Once, he saw a German prisoner walking on his hands on the ice deck, an image that has never left me,” Russell said. “This guy is now a character in ‘The Yard Dog.’”

People who actually worked in the Alva camp are a little hard to find now, so he has relied on the stories from his dad and also has done a lot of reading.

Russell said he grew up seeing the POW camp water tower rising up from the plains on the south side of Alva and heard the story of a prisoner’s escape in the area. That tower remains today and is clearly visible with its red and white checkerboard pattern.

“The old buildings from the camp can still be seen here and there -- chicken houses, apartments, that sort of thing,” Russell said. “An apartment was recently torn down, and prisoner drawings were discovered in the walls. These things have to be told.”

He also visited the Cherokee Strip Museum in Alva, which has a lot of artifacts and information that were useful to him, including some of those paintings discovered from the building torn down in Waynoka and other items made by the prisoners in the Alva camp.

“I think people in Alva and Waynoka will find a great deal with which they can identify,” Russell said. “There will be a map in the front showing both towns. The setting is real, as is much of the description. The plot and the characters, of course, are fictional.”

Through Russell’s research on the POW camps, he found that all of the POW camp facilities looked alike. He said according to historians, by the end of WWII, more than 500 POW camps dotted the United States housing nearly 400,000 German POWs.

The camps did impact communities financially in that a lot of services were provided by civilians. The sizes of the camps also varied.

“The estimate of the one in Alva, which housed the most difficult Nazi’s in the United States, was about 5,000 soldiers,” Russell said.

As for the characters Russell created for the book, he described “Hook” as a tough, independent railroad bull, much like the ones he’s known personally. Hook also loves books, something of which he and the character share.

“Reina” and Russell share experiences in the academic world where they have an uncomfortable acquaintance with office politics.
Russell said the character “Runt” is most like himself because of “life on a hard scrabble farm.”

As for what is next for Hook and Runt, Russell said they’ll move on to new mysteries and new friends in future books.
“What awaits him (Hook) is a collection of the most bizarre passengers to ever board a train,” Russell said. “He does return to Oklahoma, of course, as all Okies must.”

Russell lives in Guthrie and uses the peace and quiet of the family farm in Waynoka to do a lot of his writing. His book “Dreams to Dust” was an official Oklahoma Centennial Project and won the 2006 Oklahoma Book Award for fiction. His new book recently received a review in Publishers Weekly and a starred review in Booklist, an important acquisition source for libraries.

For more on the author, his books and where to buy a copy of “The Yard Dog,” please visit www.sheldonrussell.com.