Monday, May 13, 2013

Louis L'Amour's JUBAL SACKETT

Each of Louis L'Amour's Sackett novels becomes my new favorite as I read along, but I'm starting to see a bit of a pattern forming of which I might tire. That pattern being that each novel is, in no small part, about its chosen Sackett's quest for a wife with whom to make more Sacketts to be waiting there to greet the rest of the white folks when they finally get around to settling the interior of the North American continent.

So far, though, there is plenty of variety within that narrative, and Jubal Sackett has the most interesting twist on that basic plot, in that our man Jubal, the youngest son of dynastic founder Barnabas Sackett, really doesn't think he's looking for a wife when he takes off wandering, itching to see unknown lands and explore mountains farther west than those his father had once itched to explore. And explore he does, for a while, in the company of a native companion he picks up, a Kickapoo called Keokotah, who feels similarly ill at ease hanging around his own people -- he met and became fascinated by an Englishmen when he was just a lil' Kickapoo.

Soon the pair encounter a Mississippi River tribe, the Natchez (often referred to, in this book, as "Natchee"), who are having a bit of a territory crisis, and also a crisis of leadership. Their chief is dying, their territory being encroached on by other, stronger tribes, and their medicine man has heard of the legendary Sackett family and what a bunch of stand-up guys they are, for white men, and would Jubal mind heading west to find their exploration party that was sent out a while ago to find a new place for them to live? Oh, and find their crown princess, Itchakomi, and ask her to come home and lead her people since the chief is dying and all?

Well, Jubal and Keokotah were going that way, anyway, so why not?

Oh, by the way, there's this half-breed Natchez jerk who thinks he's going to marry Itchakomi and take power among us, and like we said, he's really a jerk and we'd rather he didn't but it's really up to her whom she marries because she's that important and all. Anyway, he's probably going to be trying to hunt her down and he already doesn't like you because he's that guy over there that tried to pick a fight, mmmkay?

Sure, whatever.

Of course, we all know who is really going to get to marry Itchakomi, but it's still fun watching Jubal be the last one to realize it, especially since he spends most of the first half of the novel just trying to find her out in the great unknown and mostly unexplored wilds between the Mississippi River and the Rocky Mountains. Which is really quite a vast territory in which to be trying to find anyone and anything. But duh, this is like no spoiler at all, he finds her. Just as his brother found Carrie and Diana in the Caribbean last novel. Just as Keokotah, from whom Jubal becomes separated when he chooses to seek out some caves (maybe Mammoth in Kentucky?*), still manages to find him even when Jubal is unexpectedly hampered and delayed from making their agreed rendezvous. These people are awfully, awfully good at finding each other, these Louis L'Amour characters. Like Dickensianly good. I find this hard to swallow at times, but, yannow, Romance.

What really sold this book to me as my new favorite Sackett novel, though, is the scenery porn and attendant displays of survival skills in solitude Jubal constantly displays. To read Louis L'Amour (for me anyway) is to come to resent the year of one's birth; mine was a good 150 years too late**; I am forever deprived of the sight of the country through which Jubal travels as it was before it got covered in pavement and gas stations and tract housing and big box stores. L'Amour is a pretty good nature writer, and gives Jubal a unique and lyrical narrative voice that marks out his mystical, solitary character as very different from his brothers Yance and Kin-Ring, and from his father Barnabas.

I have one pet peeve though, and it's both insignificant and hugely annoying. For no good reason except to make sure we know that Itchakomi digs Jubal, two-thirds of the way through the book we get a single chapter from her first person perspective. And it's all about her romantic dilemma of how to make him "see" her without sacrificing her pride or losing face. And then it's back to Jubal's narration for the rest of the novel. This seems a clumsy and amateurish thing to do in a book that otherwise flows so beautifully (and I assure you, willfully blind as Jubal is, there are plenty of hints for us readers to pick up to clue us in to Itchakomi's feelings. Really, we spend quite a bit of time watching Jubal's mental gymnastics and contortions via which he preserves his ignorance of the fact that he and Itchakomi are in lurve. It's quite amusing). I hope it's not a sign of things to come, I really do.

But for now, I'm still on board, especially since the next novel, Ride the River, has my curiosity already; its protagonist is female. Can L'Amour handle that well? His silly Itchakomi chapter argues against the idea, but we'll see. We'll see.

*Part of these novels is working out where our characters are, based on purely geographical clues; no modern names for anything are used in these novels. Thus the Mississippi is "the Great River" and the Rockies are "the Shining Mountains" but the more southerly part is already called the Sangre de Christos because the Spaniards who so named them are already there and using the name at the time of this novel.

**Funny because, as mostly a science fiction fan, I'm more likely to grouse about being born 150 years too early. There's just no pleasing me, I guess.

3 comments:

  1. When I was a very young man my father and I eagerly awaited each new Louis L'Amour novel. My older brothers read of course, but dad and I were the true L'Amour fans and I remember when Jubal Sacket came out.

    Living, at the time, in some of the country he passed through (West Central Kansas along the banks of the Arkansas River), I never dreamed that one day I'd be living in some of the country from which he originated (East Tennessee, not far from "Grassy Cove" - yes, it's real and I've been there - and just a few hours from "Shooting Creek" in North Carolina). I also have a better than good idea where the cave is and it's also in East Tennessee, less than an hour from Knoxville.

    One thing that always struck me about Louis L'Amour and made me a fan from the beginning was that he, as he put it, "walked the land my heroes walk. If I talk about a spring, then the spring is there and the water is cool and clear and good to drink." And I've personally used his books as a reference guide through otherwise unfamiliar territory - the landmarks are still there and have been for eons. If he also waxes poetic about love and the desire to find it, then he remains true to form in writing about what he knew about; the lonely nights, the soul lifting view of a sunrise in magnificent country and the heartbreak of realizing that beauty not shared loses some of it's attractiveness. Seems that he was also quite good at elucidating the difference between solitude and loneliness.

    I've owned most everything Mr. L'Amour wrote for several years now and generally make the circuit through his books about once every couple of years. "Jubal Sacket" was one of the more recent "re-reads." It was a nice escape, but damned if it didn't make me homesick for the "far seeing lands."

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    1. What wonderful observations, Don! Thank you for sharing them here. It's good to know that it's not unusual to want to wander off and be a wilderness hermit somewhere after reading this book. Truly, L'Alour was well named in that he really writes Romance (not the Harlequin kind; in the traditional sense) and makes his readers fall in love with what's left of the open spaces on this continent. If he or she wasn't already 8)

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    2. Don McCrary, which cave do you think is being referred to? I live around Chattanooga so I'm curious. Hoping to take a trip up towards Grassy Cove real soon just to look around.

      And Kate Sherrod, I enjoyed reading your thoughts about this book. It may be my favorite Sackett yet.

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