Sunday, May 7, 2017

The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance by Dorothy M Johnson

For as big as the western genre once was it doesn't have a lot of awards. Other genres have multiple awards, each with a different focus, that offers a broader cross section of that genre. What the western does have is the Western Writers of America. The WWA was founded in 1953, and its main award, The Spur, has been given since then. On one hand the Spurs give some guidance and stability to the genre, offering up a body of nominees and winners going back 60+ years. On the other hand, since the genre is filtered through only one lens, important western stories get missed.

The WWA has convened and surveyed its members three times to vote on categories like: Best Western Authors, Best Best Western Novels, Best Best Nonfiction Books, Best Western Films, Best Western Short Stories, Best Western TV Series, Best Television Mini Series. The results provide a great jumping off point for the genre, taken with the grain of salt mentioned above.

One of the more interesting categories is Best Western Short Stories. There were five spots and Dorothy M Johnson placed in four of them. That's how this book came about. It gathered the four stories that placed in the vote into one edition: "The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance", "A Man Called Horse", "The Hanging Tree", and "Lost Sister" (It's worth mentioning as a quick aside that "The Hanging Tree" clocks in at approximately 140 pages in a trade paperback so to call it a short story is a stretch).

These stories are ones that western fans are likely familiar with, even if they haven't read them, since three of these stories were made into movies.

I want to focus on "Lost Sister". One of the realities of life on the frontier was that people were captured by Indians. There is a large body of work, much of it primary source material, about these captures. And the reality is far more nuanced than the fiction. The life of one woman in particular, Cynthia Ann Parker, became a largely influential national obsession. Captured as a child, she lived with the Indians for 24 years. She was married and had children. The life she knew, prior to living with the Indians, was forgotten. Then she was "rescued" by Texas Rangers and returned to her family at the age of 34. Her story, and the story of her son, Quannah Parker, are worth studying and knowing and has been portrayed, or was an influence of, many stories, novels, plays, and movies.

Westerns are, by and large, a male dominant genre--male protagonists and male authors. The male response, as clearly demonstrated in the many stories told about Indian raids, is revenge, violence, and bringing the civilized white woman back into proper society. One of the greatest American movies of all time, The Searchers, focuses on this topic and was largely influenced by Parker's life.

In "Lost Sister", published in 1957, Dorothy Johnson, brings a different approach to this story. Johnson chooses to focus on the affects of the forced relocation back into a now unknown world. She recognizes the great sorrow that his woman would have felt for her only known life and her strong desire to return to it. I think that Johnson recognizes the loss and pain in a way that male writers of the time were unable to.

Dorothy M Johnson is a great writer and one of the very best that the western genre produced. Her work is marked by a great amount of research, empathy, and a broader representation of all who lived on the frontier.

Highly recommended

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