Sackett, by Louis L’Amour
Although I had never read the novels of Louis L’Amour before picking up this book and one of its companion volumes, I am at least somewhat familiar with Westerns . As a genre, the Western has fallen on hard times in recent years, with notable movies that have been flops and few books in the genre that have broken out. So, given my fondness for disreputable genres and my general support for the underdog, all other things being equal, the time was ripe for me to look at this very short novel from one of the undisputed masters of the genre. Can someone who is as prolific and critical a reader as I am find a great deal of enjoyment in the writings of someone in a genre that I do not read very often at all? The short answer is yes. There is a lot to enjoy here, and if I can find enjoyment in a somewhat unfamiliar genre and with a plot that makes me more than a little bit uncomfortable, it is likely that many other people will find even more enjoyment in this novel than I did. If you want a good Western, L’Amour is a good place to start.
The novel itself has a straightforward setup and demonstrates the author’s strength at taut plots and well-drawn characters that have some rounding to them. The hero of this story, Tell Sackett, is a Union Civil War vet from the Civil War who grew up in the mountains of Tennessee and by chance found a solid lode of gold and hopes to start a town. Unfortunately, he keeps on running into trouble with greedy and violent folk and struggles being uneducated. Yet despite not being particularly bright he tries to learn through reading an old copy of Blackstone’s commentary on the law and manages to save a somewhat pacifist but beautiful young lady of mixed ancestry who becomes his wife. As might be expected, there is a happy ending that results from good character, a relentless desire to do the right thing and a firm knowledge and understanding of issues of terrain and logistics and kindness towards others. This is not a novel for cynical people, but it demonstrates what sort of appeal a good Western once had for people and at least hints at the reasons why the Western has not been so popular in recent decades with our increasing cultural decadence.
Yet although some might see moral simplicity in this novel, the characters themselves are not overly simplistic. There are competing standards of good, a recognition of the difference between civilized and frontier space, and even a recognition that at certain times and certain places the pursuit of justice and equity is by no means straightforward. If the hero ends up victorious, he is certainly wounded by his experiences and clearly a somewhat damaged soul. And yet even in this there is material that made me feel deeply uncomfortable, not least the fact that though the protagonist was uneducated he was clearly smart enough to find a good wife, something that I remain not smart enough to do at present. And so while this book is certainly a good read, and one can see the skill of the author and his essential goodness, at least from a certain worldly perspective, this novel like many others mocks my own hopes and state in life. I do not feel it is meant to be mocking to anyone, except perhaps to those who like to exploit and take advantage of others, but it is a book I can recommend to those who like a good yarn that doesn’t take much time and that has a much more advanced view of good and evil than one meets commonly in these wicked days.
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