King Louis

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When a Louis L’Amour character walks down a street, you get the sense that—if you were suddenly placed on that street yourself—you’d know where to go because he’s already laid it out so well for you. That trail through the mountains? You could find it from his directions.

L’Amour wrote about how, in preparation for his books, he would pour over old maps and journals. I’m sure this helped, but what comes through on every page is that he actually walked the paths he talked about or rode a horse over the hills he describes. With every sentence, the reader thinks, “This guy has been here. I may not get to walk those paths myself, but I feel like I have, because The Guide walked me over them with his words.”

So, how did I get on the path of this incredible guide with the (for a writer known primarily for westerns) unexpected name of Louis L’Amour? My father is and always has been a voracious reader. It must be in my genes, for I am the same way. In the late elementary years, I began to notice that one of the authors he was reading frequently was Louis L’Amour. I noticed this because my older sister had begun to put together her own collection of Louis L’Amour paperbacks.

One of our phones was in her room, so I would sit there, talking to friends (or, more accurately, listening to them talk about their “girlfriends” [something I didn’t have at the time]) and looking at that rack of paperback books with intriguing names like “Over on the Dry Side” and “Guns of the Timberlands”. Hearing her talk with my father, I came to know names like “Tell Sackett” and “Milo Talon” and felt like I knew them pretty well before I even picked up a book. (And I would one day name both of my sons after Sacketts, but could never talk my wife into letting “Sackett” be the middle name.)

I had missed out on the “golden age of westerns” on TV. By the time I came along, only “Gunsmoke” was left, but I remember watching it faithfully every week—and in reruns when the station out of Dallas would show it—and my love of cowboys and cow country culture was cultivated. Without the westerns on TV, though, where could I turn?

Seventh grade. That was the year I finally read a Louis L’Amour book myself. I think the first one was “Catlow”. I guess I liked it because I read the other fifty-plus Louis L’Amour books my sister had before I was out of junior high, as well as “The Lord of the Rings”, “Centennial” and every “Star Trek” or “Star Wars” book I could find. And I couldn’t figure out why I still couldn’t connect with the girls.

Part of that was because I wanted a woman like the women in L’Amour’s world. They were pretty, of course, but they were also strong and independent and they could ride and shoot as well as any man—all while maintaining their composure and virtue. I wanted the rest of the L’Amour life: long desert vistas, hard work done by strong backs, and battles that weren’t for glory but for right. As I read about sixteen year old boys leading trail drives or fighting to protect the family land I lamented that there were no such opportunities in my twentieth century west Texas upbringing.

Not that I would have taken them if they had appeared. I know now that I was too timid. The glorious charges on horseback were for people who weren’t afraid of horses (not to mention bullets!) and the fair maidens were won—they rarely ever threw themselves at the quiet guy in the back of the room scribbling furiously on stories of his own.

It’s been said by more than one observer that the western, or “cowboy story”, is uniquely American and that each generation of Americans re-writes it not to explain or explore the Old West but to try and make a comment about the current culture with a familiar venue. I find this comforting because I would hate to think that the west was really as it is written now: full of debauchery and mayhem and amoral horndogs.

I want the west of Louis L’Amour. A day when men protected women and the women walked side-by-side with their men. A day when a man didn’t just turn in a good day’s work for the boss, he worked from “can see to can’t see” to make the boss’s spread a better place and with an idea of building a spread of his own. A day when people thought the chivalry of Sir Walter Raleigh was how a gentleman ought to conduct himself and where even a man’s enemies were accorded respect. A day when people held the printed word in high esteem and thought bettering oneself through reading was a virtuous thing.

I can have that time any time I want, because the books are right there on my shelf, close at hand. I think it’s time to take one down.

[If you like Louis L'Amour, you'll enjoy my newest novel, "Overstreet", which will be available on Kindle and Nook next week! It's a story that follows a man's life through the changing years of the West around the turn of the twentieth century. For more information about it, go to www.garisonfitch.com]