Tell Me A Story, Louis L’Amour

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“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.

Russ Ramsey and his wife and four children make their home in Nashville, Tennessee. He is a pastor at Christ Presbyterian Church and the author of Struck: One Christian's Reflections on Encountering Death (IVP, 2017), Behold the Lamb of God: An Advent Narrative (Rabbit Room Press, 2011) and Behold the King of Glory: A Narrative of the Life, Death, and Resurrection of Jesus Christ (Crossway, 2015). He is a graduate of Taylor University (1991) and Covenant Theological Seminary (MDiv – 2000, ThM – 2003). Follow Russ on Facebook / Twitter / Instagram.


23 Comments

  1. PaulH

    Crossfire Trail, Sackett and others are definitely my favorite re-reads. I would like to think there are apart of what Eldregde explains as “mythical”. Fictious stories that help us see reality better.

    and what guy doesn’t like a good ‘ol western anyway?

  2. Chris Slaten

    Thank you for your thoughts on this. Westerns definitely have a stigma, which is unfortunate. I haven’t gone far beyond Lonesome Dove or Shane in terms of really getting into westerns, but this review reminded me of what drew me into those stories. The landscape is often one of the most fascinating parts. While this genre can lend itself to being heavily plot driven, even the most suspenseful stories seem to easily slip into a solitude and quite that is pretty foreign to America in 2009. Its the nature of the setting.

    Walker Percy adressed that same breakdown of the division of good and evil in Lancelot. I think there is even a point in that novel that he starts longing for the days of a good old-fashioned western dual.

    Your last thoughts reminded me of “High noon in the Valley of the Shadow / when the shadows were shot through with light.”

  3. Jamie Arpin-Ricci

    If you ever get a chance, read L’Amour’s “Education of a Wandering Man”, the autobiography of his learning journey. It will give you a new respect for his experience, writing and wisdom.

    Peace,
    Jamie

  4. Russ Ramsey

    @russramsey

    Cool Jamie. It’s fun to see L’Amour fans coming out of the woodwork. He is a fascinating man, for sure. I haven’t read the autobiography, but I will.

    Also, if you go check out some of his books on CD from your public library, some of them include recorded snippets of him talking about his stories and his life. In one I listened to recently, he talked about how for a while in his life he was a “tracker” and learned how to track people and animals through open country.

    He also explains things like why horse-thievery was a capital offense, because to take a man’s horse was to take away his ability to get to water which was taking away his ability to survive. So stealing a horse was seen as a form of murder.

    So going back to the opening quote in the post, we might look at horse-stealing as something people were pretty uptight about back then, but it’s hard for the seven-eleven generation to see why this was often life or death.

    I could listen to him talk about these people and places all day long. Fascinating stuff.

  5. Caleb Land

    Go to my old bedroom at my parents house and you’ll find about forty or fifty paperback L’Amour novels on the shelf, passed down to me from my grandpa when I was just a kid. They helped me to love reading and gave me an enduring love for mythology. Thanks for reminding me how great he was.

  6. Benjamin Wolaver

    I’ve never read a L’Amour book, but I agree with everything you said. My great-great-grandfather once said, “I never killed a man that didn’t need to die.” I guess there’s a reason Clint Eastwood is still giving villains the cold eye…

  7. Aaron Roughton

    I isn’t much of no reader, so I don’t know nothing about no Louis L’Amour books. But I sure am intrigued. Are they like Hardy Boys books, all the same color and numbered and such? Or are they bound up in one giant volume? In other words, where do I find ’em, and where should I start?

    The first fiction book I’ve read in probably 15 years was So Brave Young And Handsome. It was one of the best things I’ve done recently. Period. I was reading another book at the time that I thought was ok, but when I started reading So Brave Young And Handsome I realized how much the other book super sucked. I’m looking for more good stories. Thanks for this entry, Russ.

  8. Russ Ramsey

    @russramsey

    Aaron, Borders has hundreds of paperbacks. These used to be in the category of “dime store westerns.” But this kind of literature is just as good listened to as it is read, and your public library will have tons of them on CD. Some are even dramatized, which is corny for a lot of fiction, but seems to work well for L’Amour. If you’ve got an iPod or something like that, dumping these books on CD on and saving them for workouts or a long car ride are a great way to go. He won’t change your life, but he will enlarge your world.

  9. Bret Welstead

    Probably because of the subject matter, Russ, I can’t help but hear in your voice a western drawl as I read this post. I’ve never met you or heard you speak so I don’t know how far off this is, of course. I just found it funny that my mind conjured up an appropriate voice for a post on Louis L’Amour.

    In the middle years of his life — and certainly in the later years, after his wife had passed — my grandfather read and re-read every single book Louis L’Amour had written, I’m sure. I have fond memories of Grandpa turning pages as my brother and cousins and I played in the living room of their place. I remember seeing stacks of L’Amour paperbacks on the small table next to his recliner. And I’ve heard and told stories of how the librarians knew him by name, and knew exactly what he was looking for at the library.

    In many ways I think I equate Grandpa to the cowboy way of life: simple, clear cut lines, men with great character, driven by ideals. Grandpa was a hero to me: a kind man who loved his family and served them until he passed.

    He could have been a Louis L’Amour character.

  10. Tony Heringer

    Russ,

    I love Westerns but have never read Louis L’Amour. I know I’ve seen some of his stories, but I guess its time to saddle up and get to readin’ ’em. Thanks for the CD suggestion too. I like the “behind the story” aspect of that version of his stories. Jamie adding the autobiography certainly makes this an inviting trail to explore. So many books, so little time — this side of eternity that is. 🙂

  11. Suz

    About six months into our relationship, my now-fiancé and I made a deal: I would read a Louis L’Amour novel of his choosing (he gave me Jubal Sackett) if he would watch the 5-hour A&E production of Pride & Prejudice with me (yes, I am one of “those” women who read the book on a yearly basis and consider Austen and her Elizabeth Bennett some of my foremost instructors on society, relationships, and knowing oneself).

    I’ll admit that I can be a literature snob; as a bookstore employee, I generally view the one lowly shelf reserved for Westerns with a bit of disdain. I am also suspicious of prolific authors, certain they must sacrifice quality in the production of quantity.

    Well, this article, assisted by a number of other recent influences, has finally put me in my place. After striking the deal and becoming acquainted with Jubal and his clan, and through him, the literary stylings of L’Amour, I was surprised to find references to L’Amour popping up everywhere, and particularly from sources I tend to respect for their reviews of art and craft. A scholarly friend I would have never taken for a reader of Westerns blogged about her deep appreciation for the author and her desire to return to a simpler time. And then this article in the Rabbit Room.

    While I was reading the book, my fiancé checked in every once in a while to monitor my progress and gauge my reaction. I was surprised by how many significant conversations the story and characters sparked between us–discussions of men and their innate drive to provide and protect; musings on how we truly need so little to survive, and how our modern lives are so cluttered that we fail to be thankful for having what we need; affirmations of my fiancé’s desire to wander and explore (and hunt); laughter over the one chapter written from Itchakomi’s point of view and how Louis captured the language of feminine insecurities…

    The results of our bargain? We jokingly refer to Jubal Sackett as our “relationship coach.” I feel more comfortable with the prospect of my fiancé’s collection of L’Amour paperbacks one day taking up residence on our shared bookshelves. I am curious enough about the rest of the Sackett saga that I might pick up another in the series some day, with enough confidence to read the book in public, and without issuing anyone who raises an eyebrow a disclaimer about my general tastes in literature. And my fiancé, for his part, has expressed a desire to read Pride & Prejudice. Everyone wins.

  12. Jonathan Rogers

    @jonathanrogers

    Sorry to be jumping in so late, but Russ, you’ve asked a great question: whither the Western? Great stories are very often about somebody coming to the edge of what is familiar and then stepping off (or being pushed off) into the strange and unfamiliar. That is to say, great stories are very often about frontiers, where civilization bumps up against wildness (whether it’s the wildness within or the wildness without), where very different people rub up against each other and fight or fall in love or figure out how to forgive or at least tolerate one another. Usually those frontiers are metaphorical, but the Western gives us physical, literal ones. I don’t understand how the Western could have ever fallen out of favor.

  13. Tony Heringer

    Suz,

    What a great test. You guys will be very happy together and I must say your experience with L’Amour sounds a bit like an Elizabeth Bennett moment.

    By the way, I love the father in Pride and Prejudice. The A&E production in particular brings to life the extremely dry whit of that character.

    Russ,

    I’m with you on the blog. That is really cool Chris. You guys are firing me up to read these books. Thanks!

  14. Chris Yokel

    I haven’t had the pleasure of reading L’Amour yet, but speaking of Westerns, one of my favorite films is Open Range, which was written and directed by Kevin Costner. As I read your blog Russ, the virtues of L’Amour’s writing that you described reminded me of that film–the simplicity of life and good and evil, the roles of men and women, justice. There is a plain thinking and plain spokeness about the characters in that film that also stirs in me a desire for simplicity. Oh for men who are straight talking and straight shooting!

  15. becky

    “Oh for men who are straight talking and straight shooting!” And are underestimated by everyone except the old cowboy, who has been around long enough to know a tough man when he sees one. And who don’t ride their horses along the tops of hills like those namby pambies in Hollywood westerns, ’cause they know that if they break the skyline every bad guy for miles around will know right where they are.

    My dad is an avid L’Amour fan. He has read every one at least once, and probably two, or three, or more times. Obviously, I’ve also read a few.

  16. Dave McGowan

    I think we like the stories precisely because they are simple. Good/bad – right/wrong.
    And if we applied some of the ideals we would realize that our modern day lives can be just as simple. We make them overly complicated for no good reason. Did you do the right thing? Yes. Did it turn out wrong anyway? Yes. Well all you could do was the right thing, so move on.
    The key to all of L’Amour’s efforts are that they are entertaining. I just posted a blog (a week ago?) about that very subject.

    Dave
    dmmcgowan.blogspot.com

  17. Kevin E

    Thanks for the post Russ.
    I think that as I was growing up and reading as many Louis Lamour books as I possibly could, that they were more than books to me but rather touched some of the deepest longings that God had hardwired into me. I felt a kinship with every cowboy that had to see what was over the next horizon and I wanted to be the person to put his everything into a cause at the risk of losing it all, just because it was right and someone had to get it done.

    It’s been a few years since I last read one of his books, but I have to say that facing the battles that life throws at us and standing strong in them has some of the same sweetness as stepping into the shoes of some weathered cowpoke and facing down the greedy cattle baron who’d rather run the small time ranchers out of the valley than reign in his insatiable appetite for more (reminds me of a certain shepherd in the Bible who thought his neighbors sheep looked tasty!).

    Louis Lamours stories aren’t only about the west but about life in general. Despite their simplicity there is a depth there that reminds me of Jesus telling us, that the only way we’re going to get into heaven is with a certain “childlikeness”.

    I think that at times we do cloud the simple truth. A child is very often much more eager to hear and accept Christ’s plan of salvation than an adult. A child can much more easily believe that God created the world from nothing and did it only in 6 days while we sometimes wonder if it was 6000 or even 6 million (which IS easier by the way?). This makes me wonder what life would be like if all of God’s people obeyed first and asked questions later. What if, like the good cowboy, we first and foremost did what was laid before us to do, no contingency plans, no searching for biblical loopholes, simply doing right because right is good and believing that good will prevail.

    I guess Mr. Lamour knew a little about life, and thankfully for me, he spoke my language!

    Kevin

  18. Aaron Roughton

    Russ, I bought a Louis L’Amour compilation for $2 at a used book store last weekend. I love it. It’s not westerns, mostly high seas and hobos. Some stories are 6 pages, others are 60. Great stuff.

    As a sidenote, empirical evidence now exists that it takes me exactly 18 months to progress from being intrigued by something you have said to acting on that intrigue. I guess that means that sometime in February I’ll rent Hurt Locker.

  19. Russ Ramsey

    @russramsey

    In that case, Aaron, may I direct you to a recent television program called LOST. It’s pretty good. I bet you’ll like it.

  20. Tony Heringer

    Jamie Arpin-Ricci – you will be happy to know that I handed Russ a copy of L’Amour’s memoir at Hutchmoot. He would only have been happier had I given him a nickname — still thinking on that one Tex (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=DFdnvrrA1zs) but in the meantime let me thank you Russ for the gift of Louis L’Amour.

    First, your picture captures a very familiar L’Amour image. Had there been a Starbucks back in his glory days, it would have surely been called L’Amour. This guy put coffee everywhere in the Sackett series to the point where it became a running joke as I read each book.

    For example in Treasure Mountain:

    “A bullet nudged at the rock over my head spilling fragments into my coffee. I swore, ‘Now they shouldn’t ought to done that! A body can take just so much and set store by a good cup of coffee.’”

    There were scenes like this one again and again, no matter the conditions, these folk loved their java. In this scene, he’s surrounded and being shot at, but they aren’t close enough to get too worried. So, he eats some bacon and has some coffee. Since I love coffee as well, that held a special place for me too.

    My journey with L’Amour was through the Sackett series: seventeen novels and two short stories. I used this is excellent site (http://www.louislamour.com/sackett/index.htm) to track my progress. The site, which is run by L’Amour’s son Beau, has more than the Sackett Series and I look forward to poking around it some more.

    As Aaron noted, L’Amour is not just a western writer. In fact, like our own Pete Peterson, he really didn’t like being labeled. He is tagged as a Western writer but that in no way describes these stores.

    The Sackett Series begins in England. On the whole it is a story about a man migrating to the New World and then tracking his family line out west. L’Amour tracks the family for many, though not all, generations and there are several recurring characters. He peppers the stories with all sorts of interesting historical details/legends – like the mammoth in Jubal Sackett or in Lando how mules were used in horse racing.

    There is a companion to the series in which L’Amour reveals his research (http://www.louislamour.com/nonfiction/sackettcomp.htm) and unlike Pete Peterson, this dude researched. If there is a book even remotely related to his story, L’Amour probably read it. The memoir gives an inside look at a man with a voracious appetite for books. To say he was a reader would be a massive understatement.

    As to a clear delineation of good and evil, on the whole that is true, but that doesn’t mean that all the Sackets wore white hats. Nolan and Logan Sackett were Clinch Mountain Sacketts and as such were not always above reproach. A good biblical reckoning would be the story of Judah which pops up in the midst of the story of Joseph in Genesis 38.

    They are basically decent chaps but they wouldn’t see anything wrong with nabbing a horse when they were in need of one. But, one thing is very clear in the whole series, if a Sackett was ever in trouble, every Sackett that could, would come to help – much to the chagrin of those who opposed them. This is used to great effect in many of the stories.

    There was also sorrow and loss as well as characters who turned out bad after being good. The stories, in total are lot more complex than they first appear, easy reads, but touching on many levels of human desire and emotion.

    I did use the library for most of my Sackett reading, but to balance things out, literally, for Pete’s sake, I purchased a copy of a book in the series. This book was missing from the Gwinnett County library system. After I finished it I donated it to my local library. In the process I found out the county didn’t normally accept donations but since this book was missing they took mine so some other poor reader wouldn’t be stuck.

    I also purchased a couple of items from the L’Amour website:

    The Sacketts A made for TV movie based on two of the books (The Daybreakers and Sackett) starting Tom Selleck, Sam Elliott,. Glenn Ford, Jack Elam, and Slim Pickens to name a few. It was okay, and has Louis narrating at the beginning, but you would have to have been a fan of the books to get much out of it.

    • An audio book (I listened to two in this series) of Treasure Mountain – read by one of my favorite actors David Strathairn (http://www.imdb.com/name/nm0000657/ ). It was his reading of the coffee line above that still cracks me up. The story is at some point in New Orleans but ventures out west to the mountain in the title.

    I also picked up his memoir: Education of a Wandering Man at a local bookstore. This is a must for you writer types out there and any fan of biography. But alas Pete, I gave that to Russ. I’ll probably buy the Sackett Companion to get L’Amour’s research. This guy, on top of being a great fiction writer, is likely one of lesser known historians – especially as it relates to oral history. Ken Burns would have eaten this guy up as he had so many stories in his memoir about folks he met during his travels and his own recollections—including a sighting Butch Cassidy long after he supposedly died in South America.

    Thanks so much Russ! I could call you the Tinker after one of the recurring characters in the series. You are a purveyor of many fine wares here in the Room.

    Aaron, I saw The Hurt Locker on an in-flight movie last month based on Russ’ post here then I got a live one minute review from Father T-Mac at Hutchmoot. It is definitely worth a view but it is very intense. I also enjoyed Russ’ commentary on Annie Dillard at Hutchmoot. I just haven’t taken the dip into those waters but they are tempting – maybe summer of 2011?

    Tinker…hmmm, probably would get misconstrued. I’ll keep thinking on it Russ.

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