Many times I have recommended reading materials — novels, articles, histories, biographies and stories, or watching movies based on such works. From time-to-time I will continue to do so. Reviewing and revising the “history workbook” I use in teaching the history of our country has prompted me to think about some of the materials that aid students in studying and learning our history. Some of the best “common sense” history of our world is in popular novels and films. Fiction can enable us to learn what happened, who was involved in events, where it transpired, why it happened and what resulted from those events. One of the best novelists to read in historical fiction is Louis L’Amour.
L’Amour wrote many novels, including a popular series on the Sackett family dating from the 1600s up through the 1870s. L’Amour grew up in Jamestown, North Dakota, where he experienced and learned much about the west. From that early time and from his journeys after he left home at the age of 15 to travel and work various places around the world, he gained a wealth of experience and knowledge, working as a seaman, lumberjack, elephant handler, cattle skinner, miner and as a World War II military officer. He experienced working on an ocean freighter, sailing a dhow on the Red Sea; a shipwreck in the West Indies and was stranded in the Mojave Desert. From his childhood he was a voracious reader, collecting and reading many books and amassing a sizeable personal library of over 17,000 volumes.
For many years, L’Amour wrote short stories and action pieces for popular publications. His first full-length novel was published in the United States in 1953 and titled Hondo. He went on to write over 120 books, most of which are still in print worldwide, totaling more than 300 million copies in 20 languages. Over 45 of his novels and stories have appeared as feature films and television movies. In 1983, L’Amour became the first novelist to be awarded the Congressional Gold Medal by the United States Congress for his life’s work in literature. In 1984, President Ronald Reagan awarded him the Medal of Freedom.
Most of L’Amour’s novels and stories deal with the development of the American West. If you read many of the Sackett novels, you will want to find a copy of L’Amour’s book on the series titled The Sackett Companion: The Facts Behind the Fiction (1988), detailing the stories, characters, facts and maps of the geographical areas covered. Here is what L’Amour says about these novels, “My stories are history of a kind. The difference is that I write of the nameless ones, and when they have left no stories I write what must have been, what could have been, using knowledge of the country itself, how it was traveled, how many people lived by hunting and gathering, and what their relationships might have been with the Indians and others.” He then makes this important point, “Yet my stories or any others, as well as history itself, must always be read with the understanding that we know only a small part of the whole picture.”
I hope that you will take some time to read and especially to find one of Louis L’Amour’s novels. I have collected all of his novels and read them, sometimes more than once. A good place to begin is L’Amour’s novel titled How the West Was Won that is also presented in a long feature film by the same title. Obviously, it is about the settling of the great American West.
The development of the American West is a dramatic story, an important part of our nation’s history. There are many ways to learn about this story. One way to understand how the West developed is through the medium of fiction. Louis L’Amour’s novels are stories rooted in his research of geography, history, legends and records of this unique region. The novel and the movie How The West Was Won details the story of a family’s migration westward. It describes essentially how one family moved west, covering several generations in the saga. It is a “typical” story describing the geography, the settlement, the rivers, the mountains, the great Erie Canal, the railroads, the Civil War and many related dramas, including criminal tragedies. This great novel represents the experience of the great numbers of people who migrated westward. As many history texts indicate, this westward movement of people was one of the greatest migrations in modern history.
The West was a land of adventure and opportunity. It beckoned people who wanted to improve themselves, who wanted to start over again and make a better life for themselves and their children. The Frontier West was a vast region with unlimited potential. There were many different native peoples already living in this region. This country was the home and the hunting ground for the Indians. The story of the Native Americans is very important and essential to our understanding of the West.
I was reminded of the importance and vastness of this region in traveling to South Dakota for a history meeting in Sioux Falls some years ago. I covered the west in getting to Sioux Falls, flying from Shreveport to Houston, then to Chicago and on to Sioux Falls. Leaving Sioux Falls on a Saturday morning, I flew to Denver and then from there back home to Shreveport and Marshall. So I’ve physically and intellectually covered a great deal of the west in that journey. I’ve travelled Oklahoma, New Mexico, Idaho, South Dakota and other areas in the west. The West is one of the important regions in the making of our nation. It is still an important factor in shaping the future of our country. It is an area of great variety, vast potential and unusual beauty. Take some time to learn how “common people” played a role in our development by reading L’Amour, particularly the Sackett novels and How the West Was Won.
I’m glad to make this great writer’s novels and stories part of our “community conversation” and to encourage you to consider his works. You may not like his novels, but I can assure you if you read them you will gain a deep appreciation for the courage, determination and dedication of those who came to this part of the world, as well as those who were already living here when the European and Asian immigrants arrived. I hope that some of you will share with me what you think about L’Amour’s novels and stories.