I stayed with my brother for a couple weeks once. I never thought of him as a reader, I was the “bookworm” in the family. But in his living room was a lovely big bookshelf that he had made, filled with books.
The largest single collection was Louis L’Amour paperback westerns. I was far too politically correct to ever have read a Louis L’Amour, but they were handy when I needed a book so I started my very first one. When my brother got home from work several hours later, I was just finishing it. I hadn’t moved from my chair. I read all the Louis L’Amours he had, averaging one a day.
My brother said what he liked about Louis L’Amour was the books were short, easy to read and told “a good story and you learn a lot.” If he wanted to know more about something he read in L’Amour, he’d go to the library or bookstore and look further. Louis L’Amour got rid of my academic and political snobbery. I continued reading his books – Westerns and adventures. They tell heroic tales of physical and emotional achievement. They include information on places and ways of doing things. Also they read quickly, keep you entertained, and pose questions about morality and human behaviour.
Other fiction does that too, but westerns slide it in without you even realizing until you find yourself pondering the dilemma of the hero after you’ve finished the book. Reading does not have to be work. It can and sometimes should be. Understanding the existential condition of humanity should not be reduced to simple dictums. Complexity needs to be examined. But sometimes you just want a nice untaxing read. What I learned is that Louis L’Amour gives you that and those existential questions too.
Both sides of Westerns
Then I moved on to other tales of the west. I read Larry McMurtry’s Lonesome Dove and rediscovered Tomson Highway’s plays. I read Thomas King’s satirical look at movie Indians. I’d read academic literature on First Nation history, so now I read the cultural histories in fictional form. I watched old Western movies with a new eye, seeing how the cowboys were presented and the Indians. I watched new Westerns, seeing the shifts in perspective. The lore of our existence in popular culture for is situated in a time and place, both in the story and its telling. Both change with time and different narrators. Taken together, you get the fabric of our North American world – history and folklore, ideals and critiques.
My exploration of popular culture cowboys and Indians, armies and warriors led me to the most amazing book on the topic that I’ve ever read. Evan S. Connell’s Son of the Morning Star weaves all those threads of perspective, ‘reality’ and ‘belief,’ between its covers. It’s the story of the Battle of Little Big Horn from everybody’s point of view. It’s not an easy read, being kind of magic realism in style, but it’s riveting. It has to be, to keep straight who’s who and who’s telling the story when.
Several years after reading the book, I found the movie Son of a Morning Star in the library. I could not imagine a movie of that book. I watched, expecting the worst, and was pleasantly surprised. They managed to tell the story, in all its magical complexity, very well.