They always had men on the front cover. Tall, handsome, rugged men — their rifles slung across the saddle, looking towards the dusty green, burnt sienna buttes of Colorado or New Mexico.
My uncle Thaddeus kept two stacks on the dinged-up coffee table, and another on the laminated kitchen dinette. Sometimes, I'd slip my hand behind the recliner cushion and find one that had slipped down the back, chased by crinkled candy wrappers.
My uncle never knew, but when I was about 12, I read every Louis L'Amour novel I could find in his little tract house in El Cajon, Calif. We lived over the mountain, down a two-mile dirt road, and drove into town on weekends so the grown-ups could play pinochle. We called our cousins "city-slickers" because they wore shoes all the time. Even in the house. It seemed a sorry habit until we saw the grimy sidewalks. Give me clean dirt anytime.
But it was in suburbia that I found the West. L'Amour made me wish I had been born on the Great Plains in the 19th century, and turned me into a historian. I grew up with the Sacketts, that clan of laconic gunslingers with a dry sense of humor who killed a man only when he needed it. Gamblers and cheats invariably underestimated Tell Sackett and his brothers. "Trouble was," Tell observed about one such fellow, "he wouldn't be content with one mistake, he had to make two," and they buried him outside town.
Although Tell Sackett and his brothers had a hard time spelling, they could read a Comanche trail at a gallop. They took no pleasure in killing Indians, but Indian warriors needed it, too, sometimes.
L'Amour's characters gave zeitgeist a western twang. "No Sackett was ever much on the brag," Tell says. "We want folks to leave us alone and we leave them alone, but when fighting time comes, we stand ready."
The Sackett brothers were shy around women, but I knew I could put them at ease. I would make 'em pie, and show them round the ranch. My blanket roll and mess kit could be ready in 10 minutes.
When I became a historian — chockfull of postmodern theories on subalterns and The Other — I realized that L'Amour would never find his way into footnotes. Cowboys and Indians, not usually enemies in L'Amour's novels, were now. And don't even mention senoritas, or we'll be on about the feminization of Mexico all night. If a Sackett strayed into the ivory tower, he might find himself at the business end of a noose.
It wasn't simply that L'Amour was a dimestore novelist. He wrote about a West that no longer existed even in history books.
I branched out. I read Larry McMurtry, who took higher aim. I read Max Brand, commended by Franklin Roosevelt. Having specialized in American foreign relations, I dug up The Cowboy and the Cossack by Clair Huffaker, a nod to Cold War diplomacy and a blow against stereotypes of Russians.
I tried. Really.
But for guilty pleasure give me Louis L'Amour in a plain brown wrapper. I'm already saddled up.
You Must Read This is produced and edited by Ellen Silva with production assistance from Rose Friedman and Lena Moses-Schmitt and Amelia Salutz.
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