I happened to read two Westerns this last week, very different from each other in length, quality, and subject matter. The first was Spirit Warrior, by the Spur Award-Winning author G. Clifton Wisler. Not bad, although some may tire of the continual references to the “spirits” and “praying to the spirits.” The front cover of the mass market paperback (Zebra Books, 1986) has an interesting tag line that places the book (copyright 1986) in the pre-PC days of the 80s: “He was the tribe’s greatest warrior—except he was white!” I have to say that Wisler chose a great name for his protagonist—Metaha.
By coincidence, I happened the same week to catch just a few minutes of a 1962 movie—Geronimo, starring the very white Chuck Connors, yes, the man better known as The Rifleman, one of the Westerns I enjoyed as a kid because Lucas McCain (Connors) was such a loving dad to his son. The Wikipedia entry on Chuck Connors notes that The Rifleman was “the first show ever to feature a widowed father raising a young child.” That series in black-and-white lasted for five years (from 1958-63). I loved the way Connors handled his customized Winchester rifle. None better!
The other book was The Lonesome Gods by Louis L’Amour, a novel that surpasses Wisler’s in quality as well as length. Coming in at 452 pages in the mass market paperback (compared to Wisler’s 223) The Lonesome Gods is actually four or so novels in one, though most of the action relates in one way or the other to Johannes (“Hannes”) Verne, a six-year-old kid who has lost his mother a year before the action begins and who will lose his father near the end of a perilous trip to Southern California, this in the days when Los Angeles was just beginning to be a small town and when the Apache and Yuma tribes along the way were hostile.
As in the Wisler book, the spirits play a part in The Lonesome Gods, as one can see from the title itself, but in a much less repetitive, much better integrated fashion. The one person most in touch with the ancients will be the young Hannes, whose coming-of-age story dominates much of the book. Hannes soon demonstrates unusual abilities as he makes friends with the Cahuilla, a more peaceful tribe, and faces numerous enemies, including his Spanish grandfather who wants him dead.
L’Amour creates suspense by suggesting but not revealing the mysterious pasts of other important characters, most notably Miss Nesselrode, a woman whose success in business threatens the Californios (as the early settlers were called) and whose secrets endanger her life.
For me, the weakest aspect of this lengthy novel is the romance between Hannes and Meghan Laurel, which leaves much to be desired! Apart from that, there’s a well-developed chase sequence, where Hannes tries to elude his merciless pursuers through some of the roughest terrain in the West. Throughout the book, no matter what is taking place, Hannes goes through an extended learning process, embodying his father’s message that “he who ceases to learn is already a half-dead man” (pp. 32-33 in the Bantam Books mass market paperback).