Finally READING the Classic Westerns
By Jeff Salter
Though I have been a huge fan of Westerns – on TV and at the movies – for my entire life, I somehow never got around to READING hardly any of them… until recently. Oh, I did read two when I was a kid: one based on the Flint McCullough character from the TV show, Wagon Train … and another novel whose title and author I’ve forgotten. In fact, the single detail I recall about that story is the horse’s name, Cherry Pie.
Not sure why reading westerns never took off with me… since I was then – and am now – a big reader. I devoured juvenile biographies in fourth and fifth grade and (a couple of years later) read all the James Bond titles and many other spy novels.
As a public librarian, I watched a devoted clientele devour our genre collection of Westerns… some of those patrons re-reading the same titles over and over. And I wondered why — what was it about those stories that held the interest of our readers and brought them back for subsequent visits?
What focused my attention back on reading western stories myself was my involvement with a manuscript this past June through August — my first novel featuring an 1880s cowboy. To get the details correctly, of course, I did my due research — I Googled topics from period food to clothing to firearms. And to get the feel of the prevailing language, I turned to the classic Western writers, Louis L’Amour, Max Brand, and Zane Grey. Of course there are certainly other quality Western writers out there –– and I sampled perhaps a half dozen of those “newbies.” But I kept gravitating back to the big three — who, among them, have written hundreds of titles and inspired many scores of films and TV shows. And sold hundreds of millions of copies!
Did those authors in the Big Three get all their details correct?
No… but in a very real way, those in the Big Three actually helped form our collective notions of what the Wild West was like — myths and all. [Or, maybe it’s best said that they formed the “bible” of what the Old West COULD have been like… or perhaps SHOULD have been.]
In the course of this research and sampling last autumn, I settled on L’Amour as my favorite of the Big Three. And I quickly decided that L’Amour’s 17-volume series on the Sackett family was the most interesting.
L’Amour didn’t write the Sackett tales in order, but he did go back and fill in the historical gaps, beginning the chronology with 1974’s Sackett’s Land, which introduces us to Barnabas Sackett, a poor but strong Cambridgeshire [England] man living in 1599. It’s easy to see where the 19th century American Sackett boys got their grit. Barnabas is self-reliant, courageous, intelligent, and noble. — just like the generational offspring he sired.
Among the many aspects of L’Amour’s writing that stands out for me is his research… especially in the geography and history of the areas in which his stories are set. In typical Western movies, we’d see the same towns over and over, and the same prairies… the same mountain ranges. But L’Amour takes his readers into the ancient lava flows and salt flats… among other authentic areas.
In reading Westerns – at least those written many decades ago – one encounters a lot of the prevalent stereotyping of Native American tribes. With few exceptions, most of those “Indians” are viewed as dangerous savages. I won’t debate such depictions here (though I have both Choctaw and Seminole blood in my veins) — but I feel obligated to warn modern-day readers that such depictions exist in many titles of the Big Three. If you can get past that aspect, you can enjoy a rollicking good yarn.
And what is the actual draw to these rollicking yarns? Well, the action, of course. A strong alpha male standing up for truth and justice… and protecting any females – usually pretty – who happen into his pathway. Are they formulaic? Well, yes. But not much more so than most of today’s action films. I mean, have you ever watched a title in the Die Hard film franchise and truly doubted whether John McClane would survive to vanquish the bad guys?
In some of the stories I read, I had to frequently suspend my disbelief. It was simply too, too convenient (for the author) that the characters he needed for a scene were always where the hero predicted them to be… at the precise time they were needed to be there. Simply too, too coincidental that “word” would get out to isolated prairie towns and outposts about so-and-so, long before telephones… and before the Internet’s social media was spreading fake news.
And here was a huge whopper from that first Sackett story: the hero somehow knows exactly where – in the entire continent of North America – two particular ships would land… and he perfectly times it to within a few days. Really? And Barnabas Sackett had never been on a large ship… never even crossed the English Channel. Oh well, it’s fiction.
Now a word about L’Amour as a person. He’s been deceased since 1988 and yet some of his books are still coming out… supposedly his own original stories which have been simply located and dusted off by his heirs. Really? Hmm. Call me a skeptic. Maybe his relatives found a box full of notes on concepts that L’Amour wanted to develop… but did he actually draft those tales? Did he even have time to outline them? I’m doubtful.
Still, I give the family credit for continuing his rich tradition and staying true to his diligent research.
L’Amour eventually wrote 100 novels, over 250 short stories, and (as of 2010) had sold more than 320 million copies of his work. By the 1970s his writings were translated into over 10 languages. Almost all of his works are still in print.
I can’t find the source for this now, but some critics have soundly trashed the biographical claims of one of the Big Three… basically asserting that the author had actually done little or none of the wide variety of things claimed on his book jackets. I don’t remember if it was L’Amour, Brand, or Grey who is charged with embellishing his life’s story, but I’m willing to believe any of them could have been tempted to pad his resume a bit. He wouldn’t be the first celebrity to do so.
[JLS # 430]