The Western theme, beset by legends and myths that too easily turn to clichés, is peopled by settlers and seekers, flawed heroes, outlaws, men and women who are giving — or mean. What else would one expect, after all? Western writing (and this is true of film-making, as well) took account of this from the beginning, naturally enough — that is why we read James Fenimore Cooper and Mark Twain. The men and women of the West know civilization suffocates them or limits their ambitions, their way of life; but civilization, one way or another, must accompany the settling of the wilderness. The trick is keep faith with what you know is true. In the best stories, you sometimes forget, but it is still there.
The page-turning motif of Charles Portis’s True Grit (1968) is Mattie Ross’s righteous determination to bring her father’s killer to justice, or kill him in the attempt. She cannot accept that a cowardly lowlife should get away with the murder of a good and generous man who tried to help him; she loves her father and never doubts her duty.
Just so. And a man’s character is his fate, spoke Heraclitus — Saul Bellow acknowledges this in the opening movement of The Adventures of Augie March — and so it is a girl’s, as Portis shows in his tale of childhood coming into maturity under the impact of adversity and the unspoken, almost unnoticed, force of true love.
Mattie, funny and sharp-tongued, shrewd, thrifty, and wise, knows her fate, inseparable from her duty, and she follows it doggedly. She will die rich, too, as she mentions without vanity but with a certain Calvinist approval as she tells the story, late in life and content in her choice of spinsterhood, secure in the meaning of the great adventure with Rooster Cogburn that both confirmed and forged her character.
Back then, when Arkansas was still a wild place and the South was prostrate and the West was wide open and dangerous, she found a deputy marshal who worked under a court managed by Isaac Charles Parker, a true historical person known as a hanging judge. Rooster Cogburn, who rode, rumor had it, with William Quantrill in the late war, was overweight and missing an eye, but his reputation was that he found his fugitive or killed him resisting arrest.
Mattie disapproved of his personal life, and still does these many decades later, but the mission’s the point, and Rooster was the man for the job, even though he required some encouragement to take the case and was reluctant to let her join the manhunt. She remembers how he tried to palm off her father’s gun and explain that he needed expense money for whiskey:
“I will trade you even for this old piece.”
“No, that was Papa’s gun. I am ready to go. Do you hear me?” I took my revolver from him and put it back in the sack. He poured some more whiskey in his cup.
“You can’t serve papers on a rat, baby sister.”
“I never said you could.”
“These shitepoke lawyers think you can but you can’t. All you can do with a rat is kill him or let him be…. What is your thinking on it?”
“Are you going to drink all that?”
Despite her righteous self-confidence, her sense of mission, Mattie cannot help but harbor some misgivings about this large man, and she will have occasion to scold him and even doubt her decision to engage his services. Little girls can be bossy, and never more so when they have an old man in their sights; you see this again in Pauline Jiles’s News of the World (2016). In this heart-pulling novel, Captain Jefferson Kyle Kidd, a veteran of the pre-Secession Mexican and Indian wars in the West, takes on the job of returning a girl, held captive for several years by Kiowas who massacred her German immigrant parents and siblings, to her nearest relatives, who are living in the far Southwest.
There is a good deal of misunderstanding between Kidd and the girl he has decided to call Johanna, because the imagination she has acquired in her Kiowa upbringing is even more distant from the old veteran’s as Mattie’s Calvinist certitudes are from Rooster’s frontier realism. Gradually, the child comes to trust the man she calls “Onkle,” in a distant recall of her lost first language.
In Western novels, it is on the field of battle, or at least of extreme adversity, that the decisive, enduring bond is forged. In True Grit, Mattie and Rooster, with a Texas Ranger named LaBoeuf, hunt down the scoundrel and the band of outlaws he has joined:
Rooster said, “Fill your hand, you son of a bitch!” and he took the reins in his teeth and pulled the other saddle revolver and drove his spurs into the flanks of his strong horse Bo and charged the bandits…. It was some daring move on the part of the deputy marshal whose manliness and grit I had doubted. No grit? Rooster Cogburn? Not much!
But the ambush goes awry, and Mattie has a harrowing brush with death. A dramatic escape ensues and something happens in her heart, which already had happened in his, between the time Mattie mistakes a ruse by Rooster for desertion and finds that he has saved her — and enabled her to do her daughter’s duty:
My legs were wobbly. I could hardly stand.
Rooster said, “Can you hold to my neck?”
I said, “Yes, I will try.” There were two dark red holes in his face with dried rivulets of blood under them where shotgun pellets had struck him….
Rooster said, “We must get you to a doctor, sis, or are not going to make it.” He said to LaBoeuf as an afterthought, “I am in your debt for that shot, pard.”
Mattie later learns they made it to a surgeon, who removed part of an infected arm. She never sees Rooster again. But years later she goes to his funeral and remembers how she “avenged Frank Ross’s blood over in the Choctaw Nation when snow was on the ground.”
The daughter in Pauline Jiles’s News of the World is not bent on revenge but on survival, and it is with compassion and wisdom that Captain Kidd patiently shows her that survival as a Kiowa is off the program. She is a tough little ten-year-old girl who has learned and internalized the ways of her captors. When outlaws led by a white slaver try to kidnap her again, she plays a critical role in Kidd’s defensive counterattack by feeding deadly ammo in the form of dimes (the earnings of his itinerant news-reading lectures) into his shotgun. Always mindful of his responsibility, he turns the battle into a lesson in the manners of the civilization she will have to live in:
He lay back against the rock breathing slowly. Johanna jumped to her feet, straight as a willow wand. She lifted her face to the sun and began to chant in a high, tight voice. Her taffy hair flew in thick strands, powdered with flour, and she took the butcher knife and held the blade above her head and began to sing, Hey hey Chal an aun! Their enemies had run before them. They had fled in terror….
We are hard and strong, the Kiowa!
Far below the Caddos heard the Kiowa triumph chant, the scalping chant, and when they struck the bottom of the ravine where it bled into the Brazos they did not even stop to fill their canteens.
Then she climbed over the lip of the rock with her skirts and petticoats wadded into Turkish pantaloons and the butcher knife held high. She was halfway down before the Captain came after her and got hold of her skirt.
She had been on her way to scalp Almay.
No, my dear, we don’t … it’s not done, he said.
No. Absolutely not. No. No scalping. He picked her up and swung her up over the ledges of stone and then followed. He said, It is considered very impolite.
Civilization is made by people, and people are uneven in their appreciation of its meaning. With the mission accomplished, Kidd realizes that Johanna’s people are mean and mean-spirited — less civilized, in this sense, than the Indians. He has second thoughts, despite his deep sense of the rules under which he took the job. He turns back, spies Johanna working in a field:
He saw dark red stripes across her forearms and hands. It was from the dog whip. The anger that overtook him nearly froze him in place. It almost shut him down. Then he said, calmly, Let’s go. It’s all right. Let’s just go. Drop that goddam bucket….
Kontah, she said. Grandfather. I go with you. She began to cry. I go with you.
A bright young rancher eventually asks for her hand, and with mixed feelings and good advice about marriage, the Captain gives her away, knowing she will be protected and happy and never be quite entirely the beautiful wife of a successful Texas pioneer that she has by all appearance become. He stays in touch, but he drifts “away into a very old age and worked again at the Kiowa dictionary until he found it hard to see. Often he remembered her cry at the Great Brazos River Ten-Cent Shootout. It had been a war cry, and she had been only ten, and she had meant it.”
Classics repeat ancient narrative structures, borrow motifs and characters, of necessity, but if they are as true as True Grit or News of the World, they sparkle with the freshness of new invention. Children and parents are inevitably part of the Western epic, from Huck Finn trading a bad father for a good one, to Newt Dobbs, in Larry McMurtry’s Lonesome Dove, finding himself anointed successor by a man who may or may not be his father but who has watched and tested him as only a father would during a long and hazardous cattle drive from the Rio Grande to Montana.
The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn and Lonesome Dove are high peaks of this literature. The men and women who fill its pages are, in triumph and loss, resourceful and ultimately decent, righteous.
They may be hard, difficult men, as is Amos Edwards in Alan Le May’s The Searchers (1954), but the sense of honor, of obligation, of chivalry, is deep enough to keep them going when others say give up: “Their goal, while it still eluded them, seemed always just ahead. They never had come to any point where either one of them could have brought himself to turn back, from the first day their quest had begun.”
They, Edwards and his family’s adoptive nephew, Mart Pauley, are searching for their lost niece and sister; their fate is to find her or deny the nature of their characters. In Jack Schaefer’s Shane (1949), neither the father nor his rival — in the eyes of Bob, the young narrator — can turn back on his mission, the one to keep his land, the other to defend his host, and Bob ( Joey in the better-known film) absorbs the same fundamental truth about personal integrity from both. It is a choice reached singly; no one can make it for them, and that is why, in the words of Sharon Vaughn (which you likely heard through the voices of Willie Nelson or Waylon Jennings):
My heroes have always been cowboys
And they are it seems
Sadly, in search of, but one step in back of, Themselves and their slow-movin’ dreams.
And that is why we should read of the West and of Western men and women in these uncertain times, before we saddle up and “light out for the Territory,” sloughing off what’s gone wrong, and getting on with what we know will work, keeping us self-reliant and free.