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Tuesday
Aug112009

1980

Bendigo Shafter

By Louis L’Amour

Original Publisher: Bantam Books
Current Publisher: Bantam Dell Publishing Group
(Random House, Inc.)

John Gallaher writes:

Louis Dearborn L’Amour (1908 – 1988), wrote somewhere between 105 to 120 (for whatever reason, accounts vary) books between the late-50s and mid-80s, and at one point, when I was a teenager, I had close to all of them. He wrote so fast, that during the 60s, he was writing three western novels a year for Bantam Books. He really cranked them out, and it showed. The plots were nearly always highly implausible, relying on continuous fortuitous coincidences (finding gold, meeting just the person one is looking for in the middle of the prairie or in a restaurant in a large city, bullets deflected by belt-buckles, etc) which allowed the tall, strong-boned men accustomed to hard work and harsh landscapes to find their way into the hearts of beautiful, young women, usually with red-blonde hair. The writing itself is repetitious (written for busy people who apparently could use a little reminding what’s going on every few pages) and often long-winded and didactic (nearly every book has at least one long passage about the difference between the white man and Indians, while many contained nearly the same speech two or more times). But even so, even knowing all this, and being constantly irritated by it, I adored these books.

I hadn’t read one of them in close to twenty years when I saw Bendigo Shafter on the list of books I could write about for this blog, and I thought this would be a good opportunity to get reacquainted. I found the box in the basement with all my old paperbacks, and though I found close to twenty Louis L’Amour books (mostly from the Sackett series that was especially close to my heart [long live William Tell Sackett!]), I didn’t find Bendigo Shafter, so we drove down to Kansas City to see if I could buy a copy from Barnes & Noble, and there it was. I hadn’t made it more than about fifteen feet before a middle-aged man stopped me to start talking about Bendigo Shafter, and all his other favorite Louis L’Amour books. He nearly pushed my wife aside to keep the conversation going as I made my way down the escalator to the registers. After that, we went to a restaurant. When the young waiter saw the book lying on the table, he got very animated, saying that he’d “just started reading these books a couple months ago, and couldn’t get enough.” Louis L’Amour books are a part of the American male psyche, it would seem. And as I re-read Bendigo Shafter the other night, I realized just how formative Louis L’Amour has been to my world view. Not in the throw-away plots and impossible characters, but in the landscapes (L’Amour was a careful researcher) and in the sense of justice, and in the love of reading and learning that nearly all his protagonists share. In the midst of all the western hero action, would be moments like this one:

“At each place we stopped I asked for books. I was given some, and I bought some, and I traded for others. ‘You’re luckier than you know,’ one trader said to me, ‘and you’re getting better books than you will five or ten years from now.’

‘Why do you say that?’

‘Travel will be easier. People traveling west will not have to consider each ounce of weight. Now they only bring the best, the ones that can be read over and over with profit, so the books you trade for are the good ones. Later the trash will come.’

‘I’d find something to learn from any of it,’ I said, ‘for even a man who writes trash has to think, to select, to try to write as well as he can.’

‘Maybe.’ The man was doubtful.”
Bendigo Shafter
, 226

That sort of exchange, as well as numerous little moments of practical philosophy along the line of “a mistake is really only a mistake if you persist in it” (244), or “nobody is anybody until they make themselves somebody” (135), is as typical for Louis L’Amour as are the gunfights and beautiful independent women who are just waiting for the strong enough man to come along, and Bendigo Shafter is as good as any of them, and a great place to start if you’ve never read a Louis L’Amour western. You really should, by the way. It’s worth the time, as Bendigo Shafter (or really any of Louis L’Amour’s protagonists, as they’re all stand-ins for his version of the great American western identity), while in dangerous territory being hunted by a renegade Shoshone (along with a dozen or so braves) pauses to look out over the Wyoming landscape, pausing on his journey to take an old Umatilla Indian to see the Medicine Wheel before he died:

“To live is not only to exist. It is not to wait for supper of an evening or for bedtime or for a drink at a saloon. It is all of these things and every marvelous moment that comes between. To live is to feel, and the senses have more to teach than the mind. More, at least, for the immediate moment. It is better, sometimes, to simply feel, to simply be.”
Bendigo Shafter
, 432

John Gallaher is the author of three books of poems, most recently, Map of the Folded World (University of Akron Press, 2009). He is also co-editor of The Laurel Review and GreenTower Press.

ISBN: 9780553264463

Fiction (Western) Finalists that Year:

  • Benjamin Capps for Woman Chief
  • Loren D. Estleman for The High Rocks
  • Brian Garfield for Wild Times
  • G. Clifton Wisler for My Brother, The Wind

Fiction Judges that Year: Not available

The Year in Literature:  

  • The Executioner's Song by Norman Mailer won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction.
  • Czeslaw Milosz won the Nobel Prize for Literature.

More Information:

Bantam Books’ publisher Saul David instituted a program to publish two Luke Short novels per year, and after three other writers didn’t work out for one reason or another, David approached L'Amour and asked him to take over the job. L'Amour agreed, later amending the contract to say that he would produce three instead of two novels per year. The first L'Amour novel published under this contract was Radigan in 1958. Bendigo Shafter, however, was written twenty years later and was part of a separate series, featuring the Sacketts.

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