Elmore Leonard: Westerns (Loa #308): Last Stand at Saber River / Hombre / Valdez Is Coming / Forty Lashes Less One / Stories

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"Distributed to the trade in the United States by Penguin Random House Inc. and in Canada by Penguin Random House Canada Ltd."--Title page verso.

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Gissinglover

Aug 5, 2018

Elmore Leonard Westerns In The Library Of America

The Library of America has been commendably inclusive in its efforts to publish the best of American writing and to show the breadth of American experience. Thus, it has published popular and genre writing and relatively unknown authors in addition to classics such as Melville, Whitman, William and Henry James, and others. The LOA has published a great deal of crime fiction, including a three volume set of the writings of Elmore Leonard (1925 -- 2013). Before he began to write crime and suspense novels, Leonard wrote in the genre of westerns. This new LOA volume is a compilation of Elmore Leonard's westerns, both novels and stories, dating from 1951 to 1982. It includes four novels out of the eight westerns Leonard wrote together with eight short stories published originally in magazines out of Leonard's roughly 30 western stories. Terrence Rafferty edited the volume which includes a chronology of Leonard's life and notes on the texts.

While the LOA has published crime fiction and noir, this volume is the first devoted to the western genre. The American western has a long history in dime novels, magazines, radio and television, film, and fiction, pulp and otherwise. Much of the genre may be stereotyped and hackneyed. It is worthwhile to explore the western and some of the best efforts in the genre both for enjoyment and to see what may be learned from western writing.

Leonard's westerns are tautly and sparely written in a style he would develop further in his crime and suspense novels. They read quickly and with a build-up of dramatic tension. The works are set in the Arizona territory with an emphasis on the 1880s. They generally feature a strong male character, an individual of few words. For the most part, Leonard's westerns focus more on character and on plot than on scenery and landscape. Conflict and revenge are strong themes in Leonard's writings, as in much of the genre. Leonard also explores culture conflict between the American settlers, the Apaches, and peoples from Mexico. The writings also have frequent religious allusions. The character development, discussion of culture conflict and discrimination, and exploration of ethical issues are important parts of Leonard's western writings in addition to the drama of the plots and the ever-present violence. Each of the four novels in this compilation originally was published as a paperback original. I will comment briefly below on each novel.

Published in 1959, "Last Stand at Saber River" is set in Arizona territory at the end of the Civil War. The main character is a returning Confederate veteran who seeks to reestablish a peaceful life with his wife and three children. In his absence, his ranch has been occupied by supporters of the Union who use the property to supply the Union Army. Leonard's novel explores the continued conflict between supporters of North and South following the end of the war. Paul Cable, the tough taciturn hero of the book, is portrayed as willing to fight for his wife and children in establishing life in peacetime and for what he holds dear. This book is the most conventional of the four novels in this volume.

"Hombre" was published in 1961 and is Leonard's best-known western. In 1967, it was made into a film starring Paul Newman. Set in Arizona in 1884, the book is unusual for Leonard in that it is recounted by a first-person narrator, a technique that Leonard uses well. The main character, John Russell, 21, is a tough quiet man who goes by the nickname of "Hombre". Although not an Indian, Russell was raised by Apaches and has adopted much of their culture. During a stagecoach journey, Russell is rejected by his fellow-passengers because they believe he is Apache. Later, when the stagecoach is robbed, the passengers must rely on Russell for their lives as they are pursued through the Arizona desert by outlaws. The book develops Russell's character, and that of the other passengers, offers a criticism of racial discrimination, and shows several difficult ethical dilemmas as those on the stagecoach flee for their lives. "Hombre" is a moving, tightly told story and my favorite in this collection.

"Valdez is Coming" was published in 1970 and was made into a 1971 movie starring Burt Lancaster. It is a story set in Arizona in the 1880s, of revenge and violence with religious overtones and some highly introspective flashbacks into the lives of its characters. A town constable, Valdez, who has formerly fought the Apache, gets into a feud with Tanner, the powerful owner of an illegal business who ships weapons to Mexico. The feud involves the unjustified killing of an African American man and Valdez' efforts to provide reparations for his pregnant wife. With its exploration of character and ethical themes, the book becomes violent as Valdez is pursued through the Arizona mountains
with Tanner's men. The novel works to a surprising yet appropriate conclusion.

The final novel in this collection, "Forty Lashes Less One" dates from 1972 and is set in the concluding days of the notorious Yuma Territorial Prison in 1909. The book is a gritty novel of prison life including an attempted escape as the inmates are transferred by train to a new more modern prison. The book shows sharp humor in addition to character development, a realistic portrayal of Yuma prison life, and a treatment of race. The two primary characters are an African American inmate, Jackson, and an Indian inmate, San Carlos. The two go from being bitter enemies through a term served together in solitary confinement and eventually become fast friends. The book includes a degree of religious satire in the person of Manly, a fundamentalist preacher, who becomes acting superintendent at Yuma during its final days, and who, with all his own prejudices, attempts to instill religion and to reform Jackson and San Carlos.

The eight short stories in this volume explore many of the same themes as do the novels. The most famous of these stories, "Three Ten to Yuma" also has a connection to Yuma prison as a sheriff is charged with getting a prisoner there safely. The story "The Tonto Woman" is one of the few works in this collection with a leading woman character. I also enjoyed the story "The Captives" and the unusual story "The Nagual".

The genre western once was a staple of American popular writing, but it suffered from over-exposure and from too much formulaic, indifferent writing. The best works in the genre, such as Leonard's, still remain worth reading. This collection of Leonard's westerns shows the vitality of a genre that is sometimes undervalued. I hope the Library of America publishes further volumes of worthwhile westerns in addition to its extensive collections of noir and crime fiction.

Robin Friedman

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