Monday, March 9, 2015

Book Review: The Ferguson Rifle, by Louis L'Amour

When Ronan Chantry was a boy during the American War for Independence, he met Major Patrick Ferguson who gifted him his eponymous rifle, the first breech loading rifle of its kind in the United States. Twenty five years later, Chantry sets off into the vast wilderness recently acquired by the United States in the Louisiana Purchase. He's worked as a professor and lecturer, but the death of his wife and son in a fire robbed him of his will to live. Chantry goes off wandering in search of he knows not what. Eventually he meets up with a group of trappers seeking to explore the frontier in search of furs. They welcome him into their group, particularly his unique rifle. As the story goes on, Chantry gets caught up in a murderous treasure hunt. Narrated in the first person, the novel is as much about Chantry's scholarly exterior being pared away by the harshness of the frontier. His internal monologues contrast his old life with his new. Back east, he was more of the retiring type, particularly in the immediate aftermath of his family's death. Early on in his western journey, he and his new friends have to fight off a band of Indian raiders. Chantry comments that he wishes he didn't have to kill. One of the trappers replied, "If you ain't gonna go hard out here, you best go home." The villain of the story is a vicious outlaw who taunts Chantry as being a soft city slicker whenever they meet face to face. Chantry is goaded into toughening up. He resents having his manhood and competency questioned, and he rises to the occasion.

Louis L'Amour is one of, if not the best selling authors of Western novels to ever live. During his life he wrote over 100 books, all of which are still in print, and 45 of which have been made into cinematic or television films. How much writing have we done lately? L'Amour said he wanted to write from the time he could talk, but before he set out to make a living at it, he worked in a variety of jobs that took him around the world. His professional boxing record stands at 51-8. His literary career took off in the 1950s and 60s.

Most of L'Amour's novels are short enough to read in one afternoon, and many of them can be found at the library. He got his start writing for the pulp magazines of the 1930s, and so many of his stories are strictly formula. There's nothing wrong with that. When we describe a story as "formula" it's usually because the formula is successful for us enough to recognize it when we see it: the tough, laconic hero, the dastardly outlaws, the incompetent authorities, the corrupt bankers, the crooked ranchers, the damsels in distress, etc. L'Amour was great at all of it. The Western (or frontier story as he called the genre) holds an honored place in the American imagination because they tap into part of our common cultural memory. Up until 1890 when the Census Bureau declared the frontier to be closed, Americans have always been pushing themselves to explore and break new ground. The world is smaller now but there's still more to see than can be done in one lifetime. The internet brings much of the world to us, but as L'Amour showed through his own life, there's no substitute for living a life of adventure yourself.

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