I just finished watching Lonesome Dove, the 6-hour mini-series based on Larry McMurtry’s novel. I hadn’t watched it when it first aired in 1989 and it took me back to the good old days when Westerns were my preferred reading.
The popularity of Westerns took a nosedive after the sixties and I’m not quite sure why. It might have something to do with the beginning of America’s space explorations and landing a man on the moon. Instead of looking to the past , we started to look to the future ; young kids dreamt of beoing astronauts rather than cowboys. Or perhaps we just tired of the surfeit of Westerns on TV. It might also have something to do with the tarnished image of the cowboy and his ilk because of movies such as Bury my Heart at Wounded Knee.
Growing up in India in the fifties and sixties, I enjoyed a steady diet of Westerns; I must have read at least five hundred of them. Loius L’amour was to come later. At the time , the big names were Zane Grey, Luke Short, Ernest Haycox and Max Brand though I quickly tired of the last. His characters seemed to think for two pages before they expectorated a stream of tobacco juice. Other favorites were Todhunter Ballard and Hal G. Evarts but once Louis L’Amour showed up, he quickly became the unquestioned King. I think I read all his novels , Flint and the Sackett series being my favorites. I was not unusual in this addiction to Westerns. One of my schoolmates in Bombay went by the moniker of Cowboy. He fancied himself as a gunslinger. He didn’t have a gun but he behaved as if he had a gunbelt around his waist, walking with a slight slouch with both arms well clear of his body, his trigger fingers twitching as his eyes darted from one side to another, alert for possible ambushes ! Quite a sight seeing him walk to school……
With the unquestioning acceptance that youngsters have, I adopted the prejudices of my cowboy heroes. I had no use for pesky Indians ( the term Native American was still in the future) and I had nothing but contempt for sodbusters. I was forcibly reminded of this by a scene in Lonesome Dove when a bunch of horse thieves chances upon a pair of farmers peacefully tilling their claim. The leader of the horse thieves shoots the sodbusters down in cold blood , strings up the bodies and sets them on fire declaring ” I’ve no use for sodbusters.”I cringed when I saw that as I’ve long since revised my views.
Lonesome Dove is closer to the reality of life in the Old West than the Western novels of my youth. Frontier towns were dirty, life was a struggle and cowboys were not the heroes I imagined them to be. They were hardworking but illiterate and led brutish, circumscribed lives. Going to town and getting drunk on a Saturday night was a major highlight and their lives were often cut short by accidents or gunfights . There was nothing glamorous about them or their lives.
My views of Indians ( Native Americans) have changed even more radically.I’ve long since come to realise that they were more sinned against than sinning. Their major source of sustenance, the herds of bison, decimated by white hunters, their land appropriated by settlers , beset by imported diseases, forced to ever more desolate ‘reservations’, lied to over and over again by the Government in Washington, killed on the flimsiest of excuses, theirs is the saddest of stories. Of all the ethnic groups in America, they today have the shortest life expectancy , the least education and prospects for the future. Back in 2000, my family went on a trip through the canyons out West. Our trip took us through Arizona and we got a first hand look at how desolate the reservations were and what a despair it must have been to the Indians to be penned in there. A common sight was to see Indian women seated at makeshift tables by the roadside trying to sell handmade silver and turquoise jewelry. There must have been hundreds , even thousands of them and we were moved to think of the hardscrabble lives that they lead.
I still occasionally read Westerns and enjoy them but I know that they are more fable than fact and that the reality was far different. The cowboys weren’t heroes and the Indians weren’t villains.