Sunday, March 8, 2015

Hondo by Louis L'Amour

For over 10 years, I've been giving workshops and presentations on the topic of readers' services, which is the art of matching readers with books. When someone approaches a library staff member and asks for help finding something good to read, an ideal starting point is: "Tell me about something that you've read and enjoyed."

There's a particular film clip that I've often used in an introductory course. In it, a man responds to that question, talking passionately about Hondo by Louis L'Amour. Last week, before I gave my annual presentation on readers' services to students in the library and information technology program at MacEwan University, I decided it was finally time for me to read Hondo.

So, I did. I tried to keep an open mind. It's set in 19th-century southeast Arizona. Hondo Lane is a US Army Calvary scout who falls in love with Angie Lowe, a woman who is raising a small boy on a remote ranch. Her husband has abandoned her but he shows up later. Meanwhile, a treaty breech has caused the Apache people to be at war with the US Army and every white settler.

Hondo was written in 1953, when attitudes toward women and Aboriginal people were different. L'Amour is sympathetic to indigenous peoples... in a noble savages kind of way. Hondo Lane had lived among the Apache with an Aboriginal wife, who had died. The following is just one of the many passages that made me cringe:

"He was no man to be thinking about a woman. He had never lived with a woman... wouldn't know how to. He wouldn't know how to handle a kid, either. And women... It was one thing with a squaw. After a while you knew them. But a girl like Angie, now, that would be different."

That Hondo's Apache wife doesn't even count as a woman is bad enough. White women are helpless without a man's protection. Angie grew up on a ranch, yet needs a man to look after anything to do with tools. She is somewhat of a damsel in distress, mopping the floor when she doesn't know what else to do, and is presented as a paragon of womanly virtues. Hondo admires her clean hands and she gets all bashful that he noticed. Oh, please.

My sister Simone is an example of a farmer who can build
and repair pretty much anything she sets her mind to.
Today is International Woman's Day, a fine day to contemplate sexism:

"There were things a man must face and things a man must do that no woman could understand, just as the reverse was true."

L'Amour's bad guys have no redeeming qualities and the good ones are only slightly more complex. The reader in the film clip that I mentioned likes that Hondo uses his wits, and only resorts to violence as a last resort. True enough, but I need more than a strong and silent he-man hero.

I don't care for romance in general, so that aspect of the plot did not appeal. Then there are the military ideals that are foreign to my nature:

"He saw all that remained of Company C, the naked bodies of the dead, fallen in their blood and their glory as fighting men should."

So what does that leave? The western genre definitely has a focus on plot and this one has good pacing. While I had guessed early on how things would end up, there were enough obstacles to keep me interested.

Westerns tend to be rich in jargon and Hondo is no exception. I came across words like sutler, guidon, jacales, cantle, simoleons, lineback (horse coloration), and nopal. There's also some evocative landscape imagery:

"Broken clouds floated above, and in the far off west the storm rolled and grumbled like a drunken sergeant in his sleep."

Readers who love westerns are looking for the myth and legend of the wild west; a nostalgic tone, cowboys and Indians action; a romanticized depiction of a particular historical and geographical setting; and a lone hero who triumphs over injustice. Louis L'Amour has got this all wrapped up. But this kind of book isn't for me. Give me less typical westerns, like The Sisters Brothers or True Grit, instead.

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