Thursday, July 26, 2012

Literature of the Wild West: Louis L'Amour

"I think of myself in the oral tradition--as a troubadour, a village tale-teller, the man in the shadows of the campfire. That's the way I'd like to be remembered--as a storyteller. A good storyteller." --Louis L'Amour

I have just returned from a long vacation in Colorado. I am a big fan of books on CD, and since all of my traveling is done in the American Southwest, I prefer to listen to books about the Southwest, and authors such as Zane Grey, Willa Cather, and my favorite, Louis L'Amour.

My adoration of L'Amour's writing style began when I was a child. My father used to tell me, "if you want to know what it was really like to live in the Wild West, you should read Louis L'Amour." My father is a Wild West bookworm, and he has also read most of Louis L'Amour's books. His educated opinion is that L'Amour knew his subject well and I also believe this to be true, particularly when I read L'Amour's descriptions of Texas, New Mexico and Colorado.

I am currently living in the area of New Mexico that L'Amour wrote about in The Daybreakers. When I read his descriptions of the Sandia Mountains and the watermelon appearance they take on at sunset, of the vast fields of green during monsoon season and the herds of antelope racing across the prairie, of dust storms rising out of nowhere, reaching past the clouds into the heavens, I find myself saying, "Yes, I understand!"

Louis L'Amour actually lived the western life he loved so well and wrote of in his books, though he was born in 1908, in a time when what remained of the true American Old West was generally found in traveling shows, reenacted by paid--though highly skilled--performers, such as Annie Oakley.

L'Amour was born Louis Dearborn LaMoore in Jamestown, North Dakota, the seventh child of Dr. Louis Charles LaMoore, a veterinarian, and his wife, Emily Dearborn. L'Amour's father was French and his mother was Irish. L'Amour could trace his ancestry in North America back to the early 1600s. The family moved to the Dakotas in 1882 when the Jamestown area was mostly farmland and LaMoore's large animal clinic was well-supported by the cattle and horses belonging to the local cowboys.

When he wasn't playing cowboys and Indians in his father's barn with his youngest sibling, Louis was reading. He was tutored by his educated and successful older brothers and sisters. Hard as they might try to keep him focused on his studies, though, his attention often strayed to adventure novels, a problem that would eventually pay off in a successful writing career. Louis was an avid reader of his favorite author, G.A. Henty, who wrote novels popular with young boys.

In the winter of 1923, when the economy in North Dakota took a heavy fall, the family moved to the Southwest. The boys and their father worked skinning cattle in west Texas and baling hay in New Mexico. I suspect they spent some time in the Rio Grande Valley of New Mexico, judging from the detailed descriptions in L'Amour's novels.

When he was 15, L'Amour set off alone to start his adventurous life, working a wide variety of jobs, including time as a seaman, lumberjack, and miner. He also served in the Transportation Corp during World War II. He was shipwrecked in the West Indies and stranded in the Mojave Desert, but he somehow managed to survive. His grit and determination served him well in his next career as a pugilist--he won 51 of 59 fights as a professional boxer.

Between adventures, L'Amour also worked as a journalist and lecturer. His massive collection of vintage novels numbered close to 17,000. He used the knowledge he derived from these books, his varied experiences, and his extensive knowledge of the West to create one of the finest bodies of written work produced by an American author, with 89 novels, 250 short stories, and even poetry. He even dabbled in acting, appearing in the 1979 two-part television series of The Sacketts.

My favorite is the Sacket series, and my favorite book is The Day Breakers with its detailed descriptions of New Mexico. The book is narrated by Tyrel Sackett, a fast-shooter with a kind heart dedicated to making the world a better place for his family. The book has everything readers want from Westerns--mystery, suspense, romance, and more than one barroom shootout--but it also has sections of great humor that come to the reader unexpectedly as wonderful, laugh-out-loud moments. At one point, when he is visiting Santa Fe with his brother, Tyrel decides to take a bath. He finds a long bathing room with many tubs, disrobes, soaps up, then stares in shock as a group of young women enter the room with laundry baskets on their heads. Yep, you guessed it--he was bathing in the local Old West laundromat!

In his lifetime, L'Amour received numerous prestigious writing awards. In 1983 he became the first novelist awarded the Congressional Gold Medal by the US Congress for his life's work and in 1984 he was awarded the Medal of Freedom by US President Ronald Reagan.

Louis L'Amour died on June 10, 1988 and his wife, Kathy, and children, Beau and Angelique, carried on his publishing tradition. His books have now been translated into 20 languages and more 320 million copies have sold worldwide. Every written work by Louis L'Amour is still in print, which I believe is a testament to the undying popularity of the Western novel and our undying love for the American West.


Nigel said...

I have always loved Louis' books and in fact will use your idea to download some books to my phone and plug it in to my car stereo as I head out west again soon. Doing it solo so it will be an adventure.

Darla Sue Dollman said...

I highly recommend it! The family is always careful about who they choose to do the readings, which in my opinion is very important, and the stories are easy to follow when driving long distance, even if you take a break to stay at a hotel overnight. If you're headed west, I promise you it will make your trip even more exciting. As you listen to the story and look at the land around you, you will feel as if you are reliving the days of the Old West. It's wonderful.

Shane Joseph said...

My Grandfather had only a 4th grade education, yet he was a "speedreader". He taught me the art of speedreading...and the books I learned to do this: Every Louis L'Amour book he ever wrote!
I remember when the movies on "The Sacketts" first came Grandfather and I watched them time and time again....

Darla Sue Dollman said...

That's a great story, Joe! I want memories like that with my grandchildren. I am teaching them about the American West, animals, and weather. They refer to me as the "grandma who wants to save all the animals."

Chiropractor Phoenix AZ said...

Thank you for the fantastic article. The place else could anyone get that kind of info in such a perfect means of writing? I have a presentation next week, and I am at the search for such information.

Darla Sue Dollman said...

I do a tremendous amount of research. I have an extensive library of books on the Old West, both nonfiction and fiction. What type of information are you looking for? What is the topic of your presentation?

Christmas dinner for a family, from a series of photos documenting Gen. John J. Pershing's 1916 Punitive Expedition into Mexico. ...