I took a copy of The Burning Hills by Louis L’Amour off the shelf one night because I needed to pull a quote from any western novel. It didn’t matter which one, I just needed something as an example. I was in the process of reshelving the book when I caught a whiff of its pages, and let me tell you, my response was visceral and immediate. It smelled like a distinguished old professor’s study. A man settles into a leather wing chair in the dimly lit room. He gazes upon his overstuffed bookshelves adorned with bronze busts, while filling a pipe with tobacco he had tucked in the pocket of his elbow patched sweater.
But back to the actual book, The Burning Hills is the story of Trace Jordan; a man who has found himself in a bad way. After returning to his camp to discover his horses stolen and his partner dead, Jordan seeks revenge. He finds and confronts the man he deemed responsible, but a shootout leaves him wounded. With no other options, Jordan escapes into the Arizona desert, soon losing his way.
Luckily, he’s found by a beautiful sheep herder, Maria Cristina, who nurses him back to health even though it puts her and her brothers in danger. The men who want Jordan dead are on his trail and are determined to finish the job, no matter who gets in their way. Jordan must gather all his strength to ride to safety, but he starts to have doubts about leaving, now that he has grown to love Maria Cristina.
So, how was The Burning Hills? A little racist, a little sexist, but not outside what I was anticipating. I get why westerns are popular. There’s definitely an allure to the sepia tinted nostalgia of the American Frontier. But don’t try to convince me these are anything but manly harlequins. Just because the book has a plain leather-bound cover instead of a heaving bosom doesn’t make them a purveyor of high-minded literature. If you’ve never read a western, I would recommend it. I’m not familiar enough with L’Amour’s bibliography to safely say this is one of his better stories (the man wrote 105 separate works before he died) but it’s a quick read and he’s one of the grandfathers of the genre, so if you are curious about westerns, it’s not a bad place to start.
What else do I recommend? I think the only other western I’ve read was Charles Portis’ True Grit. The book was good, but the Coen brothers’ 2010 film adaptation was excellent and a rare case where the movie is actually better than the book.