Saturday, March 15, 2014

That First Western Novel

Troy D. Smith

I've been a voracious reader since a very young age. My earliest memories are of my mother reading to me, and of my older cousin showing me the panels in his comics and explaining what was going on. I was anxious to do that for myself, and once I started learning it went fast. Looking back, I'm surprised at just how quickly my reading progressed -at the time I had no idea it was unusual, it seemed perfectly normal to me. I was reading the comics myself when I was 5 or 6, reading what we would now call mid-level "young adult books" when I was 7, and -in the summer of 1976, when I was 8 years old- read my first "grown-up" books. When I was ten I read the works of Shakespeare and Dashiell Hammett, and James Michener's Centennial.

But I'll never forget those first "grown-up" books. My aunt and uncle got them for my birthday, knowing I loved to read and probably not aware that what they were giving me was theoretically "beyond my reading level" (so I stretched my reading level.) It was a small stack of paperbacks... 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea by Jules Verne, The Prisoner of Zenda by Anthony Hope, King Solomon's Mines by H. Rider Haggard ....and a western called Bowie's Mine, by Elmer Kelton.

I enjoyed all four- but it was the Kelton novel that made an impression on me, as I already loved westerns in general. I still remember the opening scene as vividly as if I read it for the first time yesterday (although I did have to take my copy down off the shelf and remind myself of the characters' names.)

The novel is set in the Texas Republic, and opens with a young man named Daniel Provost plowing on his father's farm. There's a purty young gal who is willing to be his wife, and his father has promised him land of his own when the time is right- but he is not especially enjoying that whole "plowing" thing. And neither did I, from Kelton's description of it. And then a talkative, roguish stranger rides onto the farm, looking for a drink of water; it is an adventurer named Milo Seldom, and he is on his way to West Texas -Indian country -to seek fame and riches by finding the legendary lost silver mine of Jim Bowie. And he could use a hand...

You can guess what's coming. Young Daniel doesn't want fame and riches so much as he wants to have at least one real adventure before he spends the rest of his life plowing. And they're on their way.

There's no telling how many times I re-read that novel over the years (and talking about it gives me a hankering to read it again.) Nor is there any telling how many western novels I've read since then -many of them by Elmer Kelton.

But that one will always be special.

How about you, fellow western fans? What was the first western you specifically remember reading? Or which one has stuck with you the most through the years?

BOWIE'S MINE on kindle:


  1. Like you, I read a lot, sometimes late into the night. I also remember and have been told that as a young child I made people read to me all the time. (That may be why I can remember so much of what I heard, but that's another topic).

    If it is printed, I want to read it. I love Westerns, but think it is the adventure taking place in the setting that I enjoy. Adventure is the draw for me, and if the characters are well drawn...and the story told well. I confess that no one story or book stands out as special, but L'Amour's "Flint" and Norton's fantasy "Beastmaster" a western if there was one do come to mind.

  2. Mine was The Rimfire Riders by John Robb. Published by the Children's Press it was part of a series that I then collected.

  3. Ooooo ... Beastmaster! I hadn't even thought of that as being a Western, but it was one of the first books that really grabbed at my emotions. And you're right, after that I had to start researching the Southwest, Navajo traditions, and ranching of course.

    I always loved Westerns with strong characters - I think my first ones were the YA-type ... Moccasin Trail comes to mind, as does Seven Alone - both books about young people overcoming the odds as pioneers. I've also had a long-standing attraction to people torn between two worlds, such as the young man in Moccasin Trail and the one in Halfbreed, or the lone gunman trying to go straight and make a new life.


  4. Hmm, now you've got me ponderin' about all this, Troy. I read ahead of my age, too, but not like you did! So I would have to think back to the western that had the most influence and is most memorable, and say that would be Ol' Yeller, followed by Shane--what a lot of good writing is crammed into those 160 or so pages!

    Of course, in school we read stories about going west, etc., but mainly short stories, etc. Later on, I would say that Conagher stuck with me because of the simplicity, but the beauty of the story.

    Good question--made me think today!

  5. Well it might not be overly manly to admit, but I got hooked on the Little House books and read 'em all --in order--before the TV show aired. They were, and still are, favorites of pioneer literature.

  6. Mine was 'Sudden' by Oliver Strange. My father had a lot of his novels. Oliver Strange was a British author writing in the late 1930s. The books were already old by the time I started reading them, but they hooked me and led me to all the other Westerns that my father had - Zane Grey, Max Brand, Louis L'Amour and more.


  7. Troy,

    This all sounds so familiar. Reading adult books at eight and breaking into my father's library.

    BURNING DAYLIGHT, LIGHT OF THE WESTERN STARS, ARIZONA AMES, and all the James Oliver Curwood books about the great north, were the first adult books I read.

    The basic premise of Curwood (and maybe in between the lines of westerns) was that cities and crowds of people were evil, and only in open country, could a man or woman live a clean life and fulfill their dreams.

    Good stuff, Dr. Troy.


  8. Strangely enough, as an avid watcher of TV and movie Westerns, it never occurred to me to read any. I had a Whitman copy of Disney's Andy Burnett story when I was about 11 and in junior high I read DESTRY RIDES AGAIN for school, but that was about it until about 12 years ago when I started reading Westerns in earnest. I can never pick a favorite, but I've enjoyed most of them and know I'm in for a good time when I select certain authors.

  9. The first Western novel I read was a Gold Medal called BIGGER THAN TEXAS by William R. Cox, bought brand-new off the spinner rack in the drugstore in Goldsmith, Texas in December 1963. We were there visiting relatives. That was also the first grown-up paperback I ever bought. It wasn't long after that I started reading the Hopalong Cassidy books by Clarence E. Mulford, along with books by Zane Grey and Max Brand.

  10. No Survivors by Will Henry was my first, and it made quite an impression. So many more since then, but that one is and shall remain special to me.

  11. Will Henry also wrote the first Western I read--Smokey the Cowhorse. Read every Sudden novel I could get my hands on, but didn't like JT Edson's work. I read a lot of Louis L'Amour (everything) but was more impressed by Gordon Sherriffs and Clair Huffaker. Elmer came sometime later.


  12. I don't remember the first but I remember reading Louis L'Amour from an early age. I too read above level but not as much as you. I had to wait until 6th grade to read Shakespeare.


  13. Zane Grey's Riders of the Purple Sage was mine, although it was read to me by my mother when I was around five years old. In a couple of years I was reading the Big Little Books and pulp Western mags when my older brothers left them laying around.

  14. I'd seen racks of Louis L'Amour westerns in bookstores for years. Finally I checked out Sackett's Land from my library one summer while in high school. That was my first and led me to a love of westerns.