Last of the Breed, a novel

A small figure faces the sun in a vast, empty wilderness
Joe holds a bow he made

Louis L’Amour’s Last of the Breed is a western set in the Siberian wilderness. Its hero contends, not with Indians, but with the Soviet army, KGB, and black marketeers who will sell anything or anyone for a price.

U.S. Air Force Major Joseph Makatozi, called Joe Mack by friends, has been picked up by the Soviets after the experimental aircraft he was testing over the Bering Sea failed.

He’s been taken to an isolated prison camp where kidnapped foreigner experts with technical know-how Russia wants are interrogated and killed.

Colonel Zamatev expects Joe will willingly reveal military secrets: Joe is an American Indian.

Russians know from American films that Indians hate the white men who stole their land.

With days of his capture, Joe pole-vaults over the prison fence and into the wild.

Joe spent his boyhood in the American wilderness, getting his food, clothes, and shelter from what he found there.

novelist Louis L'Amour in warm winter attire
Louis L’Amour dressed for Siberia?

Zamatev’s city-reared soldiers are no match for Joe. However, Alekhim, a Siberian native tracker may be.

The adventure unfolds in an unfamiliar setting that in L’Amour’s hands become one its protagonists.

L’Amour’s characters don’t develop, but they don’t need to. L’Amour gives them sufficient depth that readers are carried away on the strength of the story line.

Last of the Breed  by Louis L’Amour
Bantam Books. ©1986. 358 p.
1986 bestseller #8; my grade: B+

©2019 Linda G. Aragoni

Jubal Sackett moves predictably

Jubal and Keokotah view an Indian camp across the river
Inspired by the Romantic artists

Jubal Sackett is Louis L’Amour’s 1985 offering in what it’s the dust jacket informs me is a series of 17 books about the Sacketts.

Jubal includes TV-guide sized summary of those volumes: Fugitive Barnabas Sackett immigrated from England to America, settling without official sanction in the Tennessee River Valley, where he raised three sons and a daughter.

In Jubal Sackett, anticipating his own death, Barnabas sends Jubal west to find a place where common people like the Sacketts can own land.

Jubal would probably have gone without his father’s commission:  He has the wanderlust.

Jubal is scarcely out of the yard when he falls in with a Kickapoo named Keokotah, who has west a smattering of English and a wanderlust equal to his own.

Together they meet an old Natchee Indian who asks Jubal to find the daughter of the Sun, their tribe’s ruling order, who has gone to find a less dangerous place for her people to live.

Jubal can’t refuse a request made in his father’s name.

The rest of the novel is predictable.

There are wild animals, wild Indians, wild Spanish, wild blizzards.

The intrepid hero and his equally intrepid sidekick end up happily in a place with lots to explore, at least until L’Amour’s next Sackett novel.

Jubal Sackett by Louis L’Amour
Bantam Books, ©1985. 375 p.
1985 bestseller #10; my grade: B-

©2019 Linda G. Aragoni

The Lonesome Gods

dust jacket background of The Lonesome Gods is desert sunrise scene
Couple at lower right view sunrise

Louis L’Amour’s western adventure The Lonesome Gods is as irresistible as it is implausible.

When readers meet the novel’s hero, Johannes Verne is six years old. His dying father is taking him to California to his only other living relative.

Johannes remembers overhearing his parents say his grandfather hates him. Before he gets to California, he learns that his grandfather hates him enough to leave him to die alone in the desert.

Fortunately, good people take to Johannes instinctively. He’s nurtured by people who have common sense, extensive contacts, wide reading, and loyalty.

At 20, Johannes is a mid-twentieth century silver screen western hero plunked down in 1840s California.

L’Amour lets Johannes narrate the episodes in which he appears and an omniscient narrator relate the others. This technique gives an unwarranted aura of objectivity to implausible people and events.

There’s more than a whiff of Horatio Alger about The Lonesome Gods. Johannes’ friends impress on him the value of education, the importance of knowing how to do business regardless of one’s job, the need to have a goal for what he wants to become as well as for what he wants to do.

L’Amour’s story is forgettable; the advice in it worth remembering.

The Lonesome Gods by Louis L’Amour
Bantam Books. 1983. 450 p.
1983 bestseller #10. My grade: B

©2019 Linda G. Aragoni

Lost Ecstasy shows the Old West’s ugly underside

cowboy boots and woman's high heels beside bed on cover of Lost Ecstasy

Mary Roberts Rinehart’s Lost Ecstasy turns the romance of the Old West on its head.

Handsome cowboy Tom McNeil can ride, rope, and sing baritone. His only flaws—binge drinking, womanizing, and using paper napkins—aren’t enough to put off pretty, Eastern heiress Kay Dowling.


Lost Ecstasy by Mary Roberts Rinehart.
Doran, 1927. 372 pp.
1927 bestseller # 6. My Grade: B-.

She throws herself at Tom.

Kay leaves her fiance and family money for Tom, who at the time is working in a traveling Rodeo and Wild West Show .

When Tom is injured in the show and can no longer do cowboy stuff, Kay finagles a ranch for him to run by offering the local banker her pearls and a check from her aunt as security.

Tom is on the verge of making the ranch pay when Kay’s mother has a heart attack.

Kay goes home to care for her.

While she’s gone, a bad winter wipes out all Tom’s work. He ends up working the Wild West Show again.

When her mother dies, Kay must decide whether she loves Tom enough put up with his faults.

Kay and Tom are both stereotypes. The plot is hackneyed. Even the settings feel as if they were written on the back lot at Universal Studios.

The paper napkins, though, are a nice touch.

© 2017 Linda Gorton Aragoni

Nan of Music Mountain gets her gunman

Set in a railroad town “almost within gunshot of the great continental divide,” Nan of Music Mountain is all action.

Nan and di Silva fight the bad guys from a rocky cliff on Music Mountain.
From a rocky cliff on Music Mountain, Nan and di Silva fight the bad guys.

At every juncture where he could have produced something other than a formula piece, author Frank H. Spearman backs out.


Nan of Music Mountain by Frank H. Spearman

N. C. Wyeth, Illus. Gross & Dunlap, 1916,.432 p. 1916 bestseller #8
Project Gutenberg ebook #29571.  My Grade: C+.


Gunman Henry de Spain, summoned to represent Sleepy Cat in a shooting contest, loses the contest—and his heart—to Nan, “the little Music Mountain skirt.”

So when William Jeffries asks de Spain to stay on to run the Thief River stage line, de Spain does.

Phone calls from the gambling hall and stagecoaches made by Studebaker hint at a cultural clash between Old and New West, but Spearman stops at hints.

By turns droll, dry, or ingratiating as a presidential candidate before the Iowa caucuses, de Spain could have been an interesting character. Unfortunately, readers can’t be sure which is the real Henry de Spain.

Di Silva goes hand-to-hand with thieves closed hotel killing two, wounding two others.
In a gunfight inside a closed hotel, Henry de Spain kills two of his assailants, wounds two others.

Spearman keeps de Spain on the gallop, with a blend of every plot line that was hackneyed by the time of the talkies except tying for the leading lady to the railroad tracks.

That’s fortunate.

Nan of Music Mountain has so little personality that tied to the tracks, she’d be mistaken for a cross tie.

©2016 Linda Gorton Aragoni

When a Man’s a Man the unexpected happens

When a Man’s a Man opens in sermonizing style.

Fortunately, ex-preacher Harold Bell Wright soon climbs down from his pulpit, the better to tell what his characters are up to.1916-02_when_a_man

Early in the 1900s, a stranger walks onto the Cross-Triangle Ranch near Prescott, Arizona, seeking work. The greenhorn, who gives “Honorable Patches” as a name, has no work experience, but he’s strong and willing to try anything.

He’s hired.

Phil Acton, the ranch’s second in command, undertakes Patches’ training.

It doesn’t take Patches long to learn to ride, rope, shoot, and become a part of the ranch family.

In return, Patches puts in a plug for Phil with Kitty Reid, who misses in Phil the culture she recalls from her three years of school in Cleveland.

Wright puts in the standard elements of Westerns—rustlers, wranglers, wild horses—and a few Eastern elements: a desiccated professor of aesthetics, a cowpoke with a reading habit, and an outlaw below average in the IQ department.

Wright achieves a plausible, unexpected ending that makes up for much of the hackneyed in the plot.

And along the way he tucks in enough information about ranch operations to allow readers who dislike westerns or fiction to feel their time’s not been wasted.


When A Man’s a Man by Harold Bell Wright

Grosset and Dunlap, 1916.  1916 bestseller #2. Project Gutenberg ebook #14367. 

My Grade: B-.


© 2016 Linda Gorton Aragoni

The Lone Star Ranger is too good for its ending

In his father’s day, a gun-fighter worried only about better gunfighters. Since then the Rangers have been organized to bring law and order to Texas.

Buck Duane will be the last of his gun-fighting family.


The Lone Star Ranger by Zane Gray

Project Gutenberg eBook #1027. 1915 bestseller #9. My grade: B-.


After killing a man in a gunfight, Buck flees in the Rio Grande country. He lives among a gang of outlaws long enough to make enemies, then wanders alone for some two years.

Captain MacNelly of the Texas Rangers hears enough good of Buck to offer him a pardon if he’ll work undercover for him.

Buck accepts.

His task is to find and destroy the gang whose mastermind, Cheseldine, no one appears to have ever seen.

In Fairdale, in the heart of cattle rustling country, Buck is captivated by the mayor’s lovely daughter.

Most readers will guess how the plot resolves itself.

Why Buck feels drawn to kill is the story’s real interest. Zane Grey makes Buck’s first gunfight into what we’d call a virtual reality experience today—and we’d seek a label warning it isn’t suitable for all audiences.

Grey suggests some possible answers, but doesn’t come to any conclusion. Instead, he ruins the story by promising Buck will stop killing because of “the faith and love and beauty of [a] noble woman.”

The Lone Star Ranger isn’t a great novel, but it deserves a better ending than that.

© 2015 Linda Gorton Aragoni

Call of the Canyon Fails at Last Minute

The Call of the Canyon starts out looking the standard western romance. Then Zane Grey gets caught up in the lives of his characters. Instead of finding romance, the novel’s leading lady finds herself. Pigs

Thunderation.

Carley Burch, 26, a young woman of Jazz Age Manhattan is engaged to Glenn Kilborne. Gassed and shell-shocked in France, Glenn has gone to Arizona recover. The war affected something more than just Glenn’s body.

A year later, Carley pays Glenn a surprise visit, intending to bring him home. She finds him recovered physically, raising hogs, determined never to go back East.

Dangnabbit.

Carley is sure Glenn loves her, but he admires a local girl who returns his admiration. Carley decides to show Glenn she can take western hardships as uncomplainingly as Flo does.

As always, Grey’s scene descriptions are vivid and poetic. Grey does an unusually good job developing Carley’s character. He draws the lecherous Haze Ruff perfectly in a few lines. The other characters are flat.

Let me give you a hunch: If only Grey had learned from Carley’s experience, the novel could have been wonderful. On the verge of letting the novel go to its logical conclusion, Grey jerks back into comfort of familiar formulas.

Now, don’t that take the rag off the bush?

The Call of the Canyon
By Zane Grey
1924 bestselleter # 6
Project Gutenberg ebook #1881
My grade: B-

Photo credit: Pigs by Btenow

© 2014 Linda Gorton Aragoni

The Wanderer of the Wasteland a Thoughtful Thriller

Death Valley Zane Grey fans expecting an upright hero fighting bad guys may be disappointed by The Wanderer of the Wasteland. This is a harsh, relentless story about a young man growing prematurely old wandering the American desert in a vain attempt to escape  his guilty past. Readers willing to take the novel on its own terms will be rewarded with astute musings on the meaning of life mingled with heart-stopping action.

Adam Larey worships, his older brother, who hates him. After Guerd steals the girl Adam had slept with the previous night, the brothers quarrel. Adam shoots Guerd in a saloon full of witnesses.

Terrified he will be hung for the murder, Adam runs into the desert.

Days later, a prospecter named Dismukes finds Adam barely alive. Dismukes teaches Adam enough to survive—just—until he learns desert ways. Dismukes predicts Adam will find God in the desert.

Adam wanders in the Death Valley area for 14 years. Grey always treats nature more as a character than just as a setting. In Wanderer, nature is a malevolent force, symbolic of all that’s selfish in human nature contending against God for Adam’s allegiance.

Often, it looks as if Adam won’t last another day. Thirst, starvation, poisoned water, poison gas, and desperadoes work him over.

At 26, when he looks 40, Adam meets a girl he’d like to marry. He has to decide whether to follow his natural instincts or do what he knows is right.

Readers will gasp for breath right along with Adam right down to the last page when they gasp at Grey’s perfectly plausible, but totally unexpected, ending.

The Wanderer of the Wasteland
By Zane Grey
1923 bestseller # 8
A Project Gutenberg of Australia eBook

Photo Credit: Death Valley 2 by pr3vje

© 2013 Linda Gorton Aragoni

The Mine with the Iron Door Isn’t Played Out Yet

“Love ain’t no big deposit that a feller is allus hopin’ to find but mostly never does. Love is just a medium high-grade ore that you got to dig for.”

Harold Bell Wright’s The Mine with the Iron Door is an easy-reading western with a faint whiff of ideas clinging to it.

The story ‘s center is Marta Hillgrove and her “fathers,” Bob Hill and Thad Grove. She was a toddler when the prospectors rescued her from people who were clearly not her family. Unable to locate her real family, the men settled in the hills near Tuscon to raise her.

Seventeen years later, a handsome young stranger arrives. Hugh quickly wins Marta’s heart and buckles down to digging for gold enough to marry Marta and get out of the country before he is recaptured and sent back to jail.gp_mineopendoor

A secondary plot about Natachee, an educated Indian with a grudge against whites, temporarily overshadows the romance. Then Marta is abducted; Natachee joins Hugh in getting her back.

The orphaned toddler is a familiar romance plot; Wright himself used it elsewhere.

Marta and Hugh are also standard issue. You’ll have forgotten about them a few hours after you’ve closed the book covers.

The memorable bits of the book are in the minor characters. Natachee in particular is unforgettable in his resentment of the education that renders Indians unfit for either the Indian or the white world.

The Mine with the Iron Door
by Harold Bell Wright
D.Appleton and Company, 1923
339 pages
1923 bestseller # 7

Photo front piece of The Mine with the Iron Door. The illustrator is not identified.

 © 2013 Linda Gorton Aragoni