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The Great Western Writer

March 26, 2018

I have a great Louis L’Amour book in my collection. I inherited it from my oldest brother, David. It is very battered: a former library book with cryptic pen on the inner cover detailing the selling price at a whopping $2.75, the spine is held together with packing tape, and the cover is missing a corner. It is Hondo, one of Louis L’Amour’s bestselling novels. It was made into a movie starring the Duke himself. In fact, there’s a quote from him on the back “Best western novel I have ever read.” – John Wayne.

There are a lot of westerns out there. Thousands of dime-store novels, millions of battered paperbacks, and hundreds of Hollywood movies. What makes Louis L’Amour’s books so special?

Well, Louis Dearborn LaMoore was born in Jamestown, North Dakota in 1908. His father was a vet who arrived in the Dakota Territory in 1882. The little soon-to-be-writer grew up playing “Cowboys and Indians” in the family barn (which also doubled as his father’s veterinary hospital), but spent most of his free time at the local library. He educated himself to the point that he was often better-informed than teachers at school. Economic difficulties spurred the family to head south in the winter of 1923. They spent years wandering the southwest doing everything from working mines to baling hay, and it was doing this myriad of odd-jobs that Louis met a wide variety of people upon whom he could model his future characters. These people had lived the Old West, even if Louis was a little too young to have experienced it for himself.

As Louis grew into working, he made his living as a mine assessment worker, professional boxer, and merchant seaman. Doing this, he traveled the country and then the world. Eventually, he and his parents settled down in Choctaw, Oklahoma in the early 1930s, where he changed his name to Louis L’Amour and tried to make it as a writer. He had early success with poetry and then with articles, but his short stories didn’t take at first. But he kept at it until 1938 when his stories began appearing in pulp magazines with regularity. He toyed around with genre, only writing one Western before WWII, when he served as a lieutenant with the 362nd Quartermaster Truck Division and was sent off to Europe for two years.

Then he teamed up with editor and publisher Leo Margulies and started writing Westerns for Leo’s magazines. In the 1950s, he started selling novels. In ’52, Hollywood started gobbling up the screen rights, and they started with Hondo.

Louis L’Amour’s career flourished over the next 20 years. By the 1970s, his works had been translated into 10 languages, and during his life, he wrote 100 novels and over 250 short stories. Every one of his works is still in print. At the time of his death in ‘88, his sales topped 200,000,000.

He honored the good people, no matter their color or gender, and he disparaged cowardice, greed, and inaction in equal turns. L’Amour took care to show the best and the worst in the cultures he depicted. He wrote of savage Indians and savage army men, he wrote of noble natives and courageous cowboys, he wrote it all.

My favorite quote from Hondo comes when the title character is describing his first wife, since deceased, to the woman with whom he is boarding:

 “I don’t remember anything unhappy about Destarte.”

“Destarte! How musical! What does it mean?”

“You can’t say it except in Mescalero. It means Morning, but that isn’t what it means, either. Indian words are more than just that. They also mean the feel and the sound of the name. It means like Crack of Dawn, the first bronze light that makes the buttes stand out against the gray desert. It means the first sound you hear of a brook curling over some rocks—some trout jumping and a beaver crooning. It means the sound a stallion makes when he whistles at some mares just as the first puff of wind kicks up at daybreak.

“It means like you get up in the first light and you and her go out of the wickiup, where it smells smoky and private and just you and her, and kind of safe with just the two of you there, and you stand outside and smell the first bite of the wind coming down from the high divide and promising the first snowfall. Well, you just can’t say what it means in English. Anyway, that was her name. Destarte.”

Rather amazed, Angie stared at him. “Why, that’s poetry!”

“Huh? Didn’t mean to go on gabbing.”

 

And, while all of that is interesting, and does explain much of the foundation upon which an extensive body of fiction could be based, it doesn’t tell you why his books are good.

I think there are two reasons:

1. He knows how to write a story that moves. Every decision the characters make, every plot twist, every personality makes you want to turn the page to find out what happens next. The danger is imminent, the people are real and varied, and the eras and locations are vividly authentic.

2. He loves it. It’s obvious in how he writes – whether showcased in an all-out brawl between cowboys or a short, poetic description of the landscape, Louis L’Amour loves the West.

And you know what? So do we. The Latigo library is packed with all manner of fiction, but we have a whole shelf of Westerns (many of them L’Amour’s). But every day we get to wake up in the rugged Colorado mountains, brew a pot of coffee, and live it.

Latigo is waiting for you.

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The Great Western Writer
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