Westerns: The Stories That Formed Me

Horses first drew me to the Western genre. I remember laying in the little bottomless tent in the living room, my arm in a cast from falling off a fence, watching John Wayne B Westerns through the mesh door. I was six years old with only bullies for friends, their coercion contributing to the fall off a fence which caused the broken arm.

Isolated by a belief that public education resulted in corrupted children, my avenues of learning about the real world were limited. That afternoon, I discovered a safe haven in the world of cowboys.

B-Westerns lack elaborate storylines. The characters are fairly shallow with everything you need to know about them shown in the movie. They have no real past and the endings give no suggestion of a future. They present a brief picture of a group of characters brought together in a predictable set of events.

For a grade school kid, that was all I needed.

The first chapter book I ever owned was Gene Autry and the Ghost Riders. Mom read it to me the first time in that same living room with the green berber carpet where I first discovered John Wayne and Roy Rogers. I read it for myself a couple years later and permanently seared the pronunciation of anonymous as “annoy-mous” into my brain.

By age 11, when most of my generation read Goosebumps, I discovered Louis L’Amour. Crossfire Trail was the first followed by Guns of the Timberlands and eventually the one that brought L’Amour into pop culture, Hondo.

I never could get into Max Brand, probably because the only editions our library had of his were in large print which oddly made them visually unappealing for me.

Elmer Kelton and Ralph Compton caught me a few times. I made it through Zane Grey’s Riders of the Purple Sage, but his abundant prose on landscape tended to bore me. Plus, compared to L’Amour, his characters seemed too feminine, even the men. Talked too much for my taste. I’ve started many more of his books than I’ve finished, unfortunately.

In high school, I discovered Owen Wister. It’s well-known that he set a new standard for the genre in the early 1900s with The Virginian: Horseman of the Plains, which established the modern standard. That first time reading the story was a struggle because of a century of linguistic evolution and a major difference in education. Still, I’ve returned to that novel many times and find new truths with each reading, making it a timeless classic that I hope will one day be made into a respectable rendition for the big screen. Today’s streaming platform miniseries are the perfect platform for this story.

My favorite among Western authors remains Jack Schaefer. Both Shane and Monte Walsh are in my top three favorites. He also wrote non-fiction. His book, Heroes without Glory: Some Goodmen of the Old West, was the first documentary I voluntarily read.

These books and others formed my tastes in story-telling and, by extension, my definitions of humanity, especially what I recognize as desirable character traits. It saddens me to see the shift in the Western genre toward a modern version of the dime novel which Wister rescued it from. Try searching “Westerns novels” today and the majority of hits will come back as romances depicting little connection to setting and a whole lot of modern-style characters.

Fortunately, Hollywood is redeeming itself in this regard. For 40 years, Western movies over-simplified the genre, making it kin to action-adventure and divesting it of the elements of drama which are so appealing in novels. Since the 1980s more and more blockbuster films have done a respectable job of recovering the dynamic elements found in Western novels.

James Fennimore Cooper pioneered the genre and made it an indelible part of American pop culture and identity, but sensationalizing dime novel writers in the late 1800s created the dichotomy which has plagued this genre ever since, the extremes between overly simple and beautifully dynamic.

Maybe someday the written branch of the genre will follow Hollywood and come back to its roots.

Throughout grade school and high school, Westerns were just about all I read or watched with the exception of some Star Wars novels and Star Trek TV serials, which are cousins to the Western. SciFi was originally dubbed “Space Western” on some TV lineups.

In my senior year of high school, I took College Composition, which constituted learning how to write essays. One assignment required writing an essay on my mentor. I looked around at my classmates and friends. For any one of them, I could identify their mentor.

For me, I couldn’t identify one living person who served as my go-to when I had a problem or question about life’s mysteries. A few teachers had come and gone briefly, but none of them stayed long or held my trust enough for me to actually seek their guidance.

So I asked Mister Palmer if mentors had to be real people. After I pleaded my case for writing about how cowboys and gunslingers inspired be to be me. He consented to it, and I don’t think I hurt his feelings as some of my essays had already prompted him to ban all religious topics for future classes.

I’m sure that essay is stashed somewhere in my files. 20 years is a long time to keep track of things, but I wrote about the characters and the genre in which I found my answers about life. I don’t remember the grade I received, and it doesn’t matter, because in writing it, I learned what Bobby Starrett learned in Shane, self-sufficiency.

Now some might bemoan the fact that I, as a woman, admire and enjoy a genre dominated by white males. Regardless of the writer, the lessons still stand as firm truths regardless of whether I see myself in the characters. Therein lies the point of self-sufficiency, applying the lessons to your own life and shunning those who would tell you to do otherwise for superficial reasons.

I may forget some of the lessons from time to time, but they’re still what I go back to when I lose my way. Westerns will always be a refuge for my soul.

*Illustration from the cover of the Bantam Books mass market paperback publication of Shane by Jack Schaefer from 1955 through 1972.


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