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Last of The Breed: Louis L'Amour
Book Review
© 2013 James LaFond
Louis L’Amour passed on June 10 1988, and all of his books are still in print. The western is a genre that is now avoided by almost all literary buffs, and that was his specialty. I don’t read a lot of westerns, but I grew up on westerns as the standard movie enjoyed with my family when I was a boy. The western has been largely replaced by the science-fiction thriller as a form of popular literature, which enjoys a similar high conversion rate from print to film. The literary snobs may turn up their noses, but the western seems to me to be a tough genre to write in, lacking a lot of strange things to hang on the characters. It is a pretty pure story form, which I suppose is the appeal. One might take note that modern western movies all have a lot of anachronistically high tech gadgets to make them palatable for modern moviegoers.
L’Amour lived a life of adventure, including time as a seaman, pro boxer, and combat officer in WWII. His writing focus for most of his work is his family heritage—kind of like a white man’s ‘Roots’. He was able to trace his ancestry in America back to the early 1600s which is very unusual. Most of us are descended from post 1850 immigrants. His work seems to be leant continuity by this interest in his ancestors, to the point where he comes off as something of an Indian, a telling dichotomy for an author who stocks many of his tales with Indian villains. Overall, I would have to say that his best work was done writing outside of the late 1800s box that hems in most western authors. Some of his best novels, like the Ferguson Rifle, Fair Blows the Wind, and To the Far Blue Mountains [That title is from memory and was read 15 years ago, so may be off a word or two.] were set in earlier times. The Walking Drum, his 12th Century historic novel, was superb.
For an old school western writer he demonstrated some affinity for Native American protagonists in Sitka, his novel about Alaska. For over 20 years I have wanted to read his book about a man of Sioux/Scottish ancestry set in Cold War Siberia. Last month I finally got my chance.
Last of the Breed
Louis L’Amour
Bantam, 1986, 371 pages
Major Joe Mack is a half-breed who grew up hunting along the Rocky Mountains and has always felt as if he was born out of time. The author does not spend too much ink doing military-intelligence back-flips to get Joe Mack into the wilderness of Siberia so that he can attempt to outwit a native Yakut tracker working for the Soviets. It is the entire point of the novel: two stone-age holdovers in a battle of wits in a primal foreground with a modern backdrop.
This is a good, good story sprinkled with the author’s vast historical knowledge. In most L’Amour tales there is a sympathetic book worm, and there is one in this one as well. Another convention the author bows to in this novel, which I wish he did not, is the standard female love interest for the protagonist. I realize that not writing in the love interest means no female readership and no movie deal, and we are talking about one of the most popular novelists of all time. If he neglected the female love interest the editor may have sent a neurologist to check him for senility or dementia.
Everything that L’Amour writes moves, and gets you turning the pages. He puts a couple tiny history lessons into each book and is very good for scraping down past the ethnicity of whatever character he writes to get to basic human truths. The fact that L’Amour was a man that believed viscerally in the freedom of the human spirit, and was something of a Darwinist, always seems to propel him as the narrator beyond the relatively petty protagonist. Sometimes one can visibly see L’Amour step away from his character to give a little speech, very much in the classic science-fiction vein. But, more often than not, his protagonist is granted enough wisdom to ponder the big questions himself during some quiet time in the narrative. Below is a good example from Last of The Breed, from the reflections of Joe Mack’s top antagonist, the Soviet Colonel he escaped from:
“He knew peace was an illusory thing, something that hovered on a distant horizon, for which all men wished but which had only a small chance of realization as long as men remained what they were.”
I was originally turned on to L’Amour as an author by a West Indian criminal. According to him, everybody on his island grew up reading L’Amour and watching westerns. The thing that he told me he most treasured about L’Amour’s work was his scenic descriptions. I have been reading Last of The Breed since December, on bus stops. The author does such a good job of describing Siberia you might think he walked it. [What he actually did was walk the corresponding North American subarctic forests; the places his protagonist Joe Mack hunted as a boy.] A few times this winter, I just had to stuff the book back in my coat pocket and warm my hands, letting my mind drift over the scenery that L’Amour described so tellingly.
The Cold War is a history lesson for our young readers. This tale was a novel written at the end of that generation-long military-intelligence struggle, and was written with much sympathy for the prisoner-population of the Soviet Union. For someone born after 1980 this is a nice glimpse into the geopolitical world that was in effect, a live ‘science-fiction’ experiment in the crushing of the human spirit for half a century.
I realize that many of those who come to this site have picked up my cards at boxing gyms and martial arts schools. One might want to keep in mind that L’Amour not only took part in the liberation of Nazi Europe, but witnessed at least one real lethal knife fight as a merchant marine, and, that he won 51 out of 59 professional boxing matches!
The novels below have been made into movies: Catlow [Yule Brenner], Hondo [John Wayne], How the West Was Won, and The Quick and the Dead.
My favorite picks are Down the Long Hills and The Key-lock Man.
Two highly regarded novels of his are The Haunted Mesa and The Lonesome Gods, which I will be looking for the next time I get to the book store.
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Anonymous     May 16, 2015

fuck you
James     May 17, 2015

I really liked the book Mister L'Amour. I just did not think it was perfect.

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