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Sunday, January 26, 2020

WESTERN NOVELS—THE SEARCHERS

WESTERN NOVELS
THE SEARCHERS
ALAN LE MAY
The Searchers has remained in the public consciousness since its publication in 1954 because of the seminal film for which it was the basis. However, beyond the gushing plaudits for the movie version of The Searchers, the novel is an American masterpiece in its own right.

The story is deceptively simple a quest to rescue Debbie, a young girl kidnapped by the Comanches who slaughtered her family during a raid on settlers in the Texas panhandle. However, beneath this unassuming premise lurk darker, dangerous and vaguely psycho-sexual themes.

Amos Edwards, Debbie's uncle, is a Civil War veteran and a notorious Indian fighter. His hatred has turned him savage and merciless. He pursues Debbie not to rescue her, but to kill her because she has been contaminated by the Comanches. Martin Mart Pauley was adopted into Debbie's family after his own family too was slaughtered by Comanches.

Now a young man, he is with Amos chasing rustlers (actually a Comanche trick to lure them away from the homestead) when Debbie is kidnapped and everyone else butchered. Martin is driven by the memory of how he ignored Debbie the day before she was kidnapped. These are two very different men with very different agendas who will push their endurance beyond all faith and hope. As the pursuit becomes a years-long obsession, Amos and Mart survive Indian skirmishes, blizzards, attempted robberies and other misadventures as they close in on Scar, a Wolf Clan chieftain. Gradually, Amos develops a grudging respect for Mart as legends grow around their quest and they become known to the Indians as Bull Shoulders (Amos) and The Other (Marty).

Alan Le May started writing Westerns for the pulps in 1924 as a way to make needed cash. He wrote many short stories, but found the pay minimal, even when published by top pulps like Adventure or slicks such as Colliers. Believing there would be better money to be made in Hollywood, he became a journeyman screenwriter of B Westerns. While filming in the Texas panhandle, he was told the story of a girl kidnapped by Comanches. After having toiled in relative obscurity, producing forgettable novels and scripts, the undistinguished writer was struck by literary lightening. Fascinated by the impact the kidnapping of the young girl during an Indian raid might have on her family, Le May began to research and write the story that would become his crowning achievement, The Searchers.

Le May based The Searchers on the true life story of Cynthia Ann Parker. In 1836, the nine-year-old Cynthia was abducted from her prairie home in Texas by Comanche Indians. Spending years among the Comanche, she eventually married Chief Peta Nocona, with whom she raised three children, Prairie Flower, Pecos and Quanah. Her uncle, James Parker, spent years searching for her until she was finally found during a cavalry raid on her Comanche village in 1860. Things, however, did not go well as after twenty-four years, Cynthia did not want to leave the Comanches and her second family.

Le May would later turn the premise of The Searchers on its head in The Unforgiven in which a child thought to be white was actually stolen as a baby during a retaliatory raid by white ranchers on a Kiowa village. The Unforgiven went on to become a successful, but troubled, film directed by John Huston and starring Burt Lancaster.

John Ford's film version of The Searchers (1956) is considered one of the best Westerns of all time. Cementing the films reputation is a subtle, layered, career-making performance from John Wayne, which resonates even today. With its overtones of racism and hatred, it's far more complicated than any straightforward oater.

"There's only one way you can stop me from looking for Lucy, mister, and that's kill me!" 

CONTRIBUTOR: PAUL BISHOP

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