“A mistake constantly made by those who should know better is to judge people of the past by our standards rather than their own. The only way men or women can be judged is against the canvas of their own time.” –Louis L’Amour
I don’t know what exactly happened to good old-fashioned Westerns, or why over the past 20 years they have been seen as somehow less erudite than the other tales we tell. Maybe it’s because the stories are so familiar, even predictable. Maybe it’s because the answers they give are too easy, what with the white hats and the black hats. Maybe its because we don’t believe life could be as simple as all that.
But what if things were just that simple? What if we insist on complicating things that really aren’t that complicated? What if this life was something where a good horse, being able to tell right from wrong, knowledge of where a man could find fresh water and how to handle yourself in a fight were among the most important things you could know, and you took everything else as it came? Is there such a story to tell anymore?
How many stories are there to tell, really? Sure, I know the details change, as do the characters, places, customs and all. But in the end, are they really all that different from each other?
Louis L’Amour (1908-1988) wrote westerns–pure and simple westerns. And he knew what he was writing about. He grew up in rural North Dakota at the turn of the 20th century, a place and time where the wild west still held some claim in that part of the country. Over the span of his eighty plus years, he had been a farmhand, cowboy, miner, lumberjack, professional boxer, hobo, merchant seaman and soldier. If you are a boy, think about that list for a minute. Not bad.
Eventually L’Amour made his way to Los Angeles where he wrote over 100 short novels—most of which were tales of the old west. I have a friend who said he used to keep a list of the Louis L’Amour stories he’d read, but somewhere in the seventies, he stopped counting. The thing about Louis L’Amour is that he really only tells one story, more or less, but in a hundred different ways. It’s the story of the just confronting the unjust, the right taking on the wrong, the strong serving the weak.
As you spend time with L’Amour’s stories, you meet people—familiar people, simple people. Most of his characters are “types” of people, generally lacking in subtleties, but still rich with personality, charm, courage, wit and moral fiber (or the conspicuous lack of it). While his characters are “types,” L’Amour still manages to avoid type-casting the traditional cowboys and Indians routine. Sometimes the Indians are hostile, but often they are the only wise ones around, and thus the only hope of rescue.
His stories are straightforward. L’Amour believed, “A good beginning makes a good end.” Often, his heroes find themselves nose to nose with trouble, and have every reason and recourse to walk away, were it not for the pretty lady in distress or the young mother left alone in Indian country minding her farm with no one to help her but her eight-year-old son. And while the hero could go on his way, it wouldn’t be right. It’s just that simple. So he stays, come what may.
And do you know what always comes? Trouble.
And do you know what the hero does when trouble comes? Neither does he until he’s pinned against the canyon wall staring down the barrel of trouble’s gun.
L’Amour uses the trappings of the cowboy life to take us into another place and time where a man doesn’t simply ride a horse. He rides a strawberry roan. He drinks coffee out of a tin cup from a kettle of spring water brought to a boil over a mesquite fire. He knows the difference between his Colt and his Winchester. His knife is sharp and within reach. He knows where the water is, or how to find it, and how much he has left and how long it has to last him.
The landscape itself is another crucial piece of L’Amour’s stories, a character in itself. At the beginning of his novel Sackett, L’Amour writes:
It was getting close to sundown when I fetched through a keyhole pass into a high mountain valley without growth of any kind. Bleak and lonely under the sky, it was like a granite dish, streaked here and there with snow or ice that lay in the cracks.
Timberline was a thousand feet below me, and I was close under the night-coming sky, with a shivering wind, scarcely more than a breath for strength, blowing along the valley. All I could hear was the sound of my horse’s hoofs and the creak of my saddle. Off to the left lay a sheet of ghost water, a high cold lake fed by melting snow, scarcely stirred by that breath of wind. It lay flat and still.
Can you see it? I can.
In L’Amour’s world, winters are cold, deserts are hot, night skies are starlit and sunsets are colorful affairs. Values are clearly delineated and the good guys always win. The weak are served by the strong. Liars are found out, thieves are shown for what they are and murderers never get away with it. The problems of the moment don’t color or define the entire identities or the rest of the lives of those bearing up under them.
Call his writing escapist if you want. Say things aren’t that simple, that cut and dried. But what if they are? What if this is the promise of how the story we’re all in will turn out one day? When I get to the end of L’Amour’s collection, I suspect I’ll just start again from the beginning until my story ends. And I suspect it won’t be that different from Sackett’s, minus perhaps a little gunfire.