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Sunday, 5 September 2010

Alan LeMay's The Searchers

Historical Data
First Published 1954
My Edition - Leisure eBook £3.21 at W H Smith's eBook store.

Warning – this is not so much a review as a comparison between the novel and the film and as such contains major spoilers. Anyone who has yet to read this novel is advised not to read any further.

The movie John Ford made from this book often tops polls of the best westerns ever made. Indeed it would be my personal choice for the best the genre can provide. Of course the movie also boast a career best turn for John Wayne, a subtle, layered performance that resonates even now. The prologue that starts the film with Wayne’s Ethan Edwards returning from his wanderings is not in the book and was Ford’s own invention. Frankly it does improve the story, it signposts Ford’s emphasis on Edwards as the true outsider and make Ethan’s repressed love for his brother’s wife all the more obvious, while the plot thread is much more direct in the book. Though to be honest the film’s way of handling the subtext of forbidden love is better because in the book we don’t actually see any of the longing but rather are told of it, first in subtle hints and then directly when Martin Paulie realises the fact.

There are other differences with the book:

For one thing it’s not Ethan Edwards, but Amos Edwards – “He had served two years with the Rangers, and four under Hood, and had twice been up the Chisholm Trail. Earlier he had done other things – bossed a bull train, packed the mail, contained a stage station – and he had done all of them very well. Nobody understood why he always drifted back, sooner or later, to work for his younger brother with never any understanding as to pay.”
The movie took a different path

And Martin Paulie is no longer the half-breed of the movie, in fact in the book he comes from Welsh stock. He is however still something of an outsider since his folks were killed in an Indian attack when he was a baby and the Edwards clan raised him. Amos reminds him of the fact that he is not blood kin to the Edwards family at all.

And the book starts off with the occupants of the Edwards ranch preparing for an Indian attack. They are short handed because a party of men including Amos Edwards and Martin Paulie are off chasing cattle rustlers. Henry Edwards is left at his ranch and he realises that the cattle rustling was actually an Indian trick to lure most of them men away from the area. This is an incredibly effective sequence and although the Indians are not seen, only hinted at in both sounds and movements – disturbed quail fly up from the long grasses, a coyote howls in the distance. Henry Edwards is a knowledgeable man and the reader knows that his fears are not unjustified. Henry wishes his big brother, Amos was here as he’s had more experience in fighting - Indians or otherwise. A high level of tension is racked up in this scene.

Of course the men soon realise that there are no cattle rustlers, that the horses were run off by the Comanche in order to clear their way for a murder raid at one or other of the ranches. It turns out it is the Edwards ranch they hit – and all are slaughtered except Lucy and ten year old Debbie of which there is no sign.  Pausing only to bury the dead the men set off in pursuit of the Comanche with the hope that they will find the two girls alive.

They travel more than a hundred miles before they catch sight of the Indians and then after a battle their numbers are cut down. One of the men has smashed his leg and someone has to stay with him, while another man goes off for help. In the end it means only three men continue the pursuit – Amos,  Marty and Brad.

Of course the Comanche manage to give the men the slip, but not before Brad is killed and Marty is heartbroken as he stares out at a desolate snow covered landscape with no sign of Indians or Debbie, the body of Lucy having been found by Amos some ways back. But Amos is determined to continue the search.

“This don’t change anything,” Amos said doggedly. “Not in the long run. If she’s alive, she’s safe for now, and they’ve kept her to raise. They do this time and time with a little child small enough to be raised their own way. So...we’ll find them in the end. By the Almighty God, I promise you that! We’ll catch up to’ em, just as sure as the turning of the earth!”
An early paperback edition

Martin is troubled by the way Amos always talks about them rather than her, and he fears the man would ride straight past the little girl in order to kill a few Comanche. All in all they travel more than three hundred miles before they turn back for home, intending the start the search all over again when the winter breaks.

And they do:

The bulk of the story both in film and book is the massive search the two men endure in order to find the young girl they once called their own blood – a journey of six years that cost both men much and become their only reason for living but even these two, after so many false leads, after enduring so many winters, they have to turn back defeated. And just when it is all over for them, just when they have finally admitted defeat, news comes to them and they set off again and finally come face to face with the girl they knew as Debbie but is now more Comanche. It shocks Marty that she doesn’t want to go with them, but not Amos who is still of a mind to kill the girl rather than let her life the life of, what he sees as a savage.

A nice thing about the book is that it doesn't fall into the trap of depicting the Indians as primitive savages but rather depicts them as a people facing extraordinary times in the only way they know how. The author's own knowledge of the tribes shows in the narrative and it all comes across as very real.

Warning spoiler ahead – it is in the final section of the story where the book differs mostly from the film – there are two major scenes where the reader is unsure if Amos is going to kill the girl and we know that to do so would set Marty against him, and by this point in the story Marty is indeed more than a match for Amos Edwards and the big man knows it. Though it is most certainly not fear that holds his hand from killing the girl but some inner love; perhaps he sees his beloved Martha, the long dead wife of his brother, in the girl.  And as he powers down on a fleeing girl, who both he and Marty in the heat of battle assume to be Debbie, he reaches out to the girl, intending to scoop her up into the saddle...but the girl is not Debbie but an Indian squaw. The squaw is armed and blasts Amos clean into the hereafter.

After the battle Marty is left with the soldiers who have not annihilated the Comanche village and still there is no sign of Debbie amongst either the dead or the survivors. And so the search begins anew but this time it is Marty alone who sets off after the girl who is neither truly white nor Indian. They are reunited in the end but the search has cost Marty much, including his sweetheart who after years of waiting for the search to end finally marries another man.

And so we fade out with a boy who became a man during the long search and a girl who became a woman. The book finishes with them huddled together, the girl ailing and we are in no ways sure they will survive the viciousness of the prairie and finally find their way home. But it matters not for now they finally have each other and in the context of such an epic story this is enough.

An excellent book.

 The eBook contains an introduction  Andrew J. Fenady which whilst interesting concentrates on John Ford's movie rather than the novel. I assume the print edition also has this introduction.


Steve M said...

Yeap Gary, Andrew J. Fenady's introduction is in the book too.

Nik Morton said...

Confirmed, Gary. The intro is the same in the print version. Yes, this book should be on any western fan's bookshelf.