Sunday, April 12, 2015

Louis L'Amour, Sackett; and The Sackett Brand


Opening Passages: From Sackett:

It wasn't as if he hadn't been warned. He got it straight, with no beating around the mesquite.

"Mister," I said, "if you ain't any slicker with that pistol than you were with that bottom deal, you'd better not have at it."

From The Sackett Brand:

Nobody could rightly say any of us Sacketts were what you'd call superstitious. Nonetheless, if I had tied a knot in a towel or left a shovel in the fire nothing might have happened.

Summary: Both of these books tell about William Tell Sackett, a Tennessee mountain boy who grew up running with the Cherokee and fought for the Union; he's brother to Tyrel, a gunslinger, and Orrin, a legislator, and all of the Sackett boys are good with a gun.

Sackett moves at a swift pace as Tell finds himself in trouble from two directions: he's being dogged by men who want revenge against him, and he discovers gold. The latter is the more perilous problem; and it is soon entangled with a third problem, perhaps less perilous, but far more complex: he discovers a woman. Like many Westerns, Sackett is a romance story almost as much as it is an adventure story.

As tales go, it is rousing enough, but there's more going on with the tale, as we see by the fact that Tell spends a remarkable amount of time in the book reading William Blackstone's Commentaries on the Laws of England. One passage, which originally catches Tell's eye, is explicitly quoted. It is from I.i.2 (the actual quoted part begins after "namely"), in which Blackstone is discussing the formation of government:

But, though society had not it's formal beginning from any convention of individuals, actuated by their wants and their fears; yet it is the sense of their weakness and imperfection that keeps mankind together, that demonstrates the necessity of this union, and that therefore is the solid and natural foundation, as well as the cement, of civil society. And this is what we mean by the original contract of society; which, though perhaps in no instance it has ever been formally expressed at the first institution of a state, yet in nature and reason must always be understood and implied, in the very act of associating together: namely, that the whole should protect all its parts, and that every part should pay obedience to the will of the whole; or, in other words, that the community should guard the rights of each individual member, and that (in return for this protection) each individual should submit to the laws of the community; without which submission of all it was impossible that protection could be certainly extended to any.

When he explains to Ange later in the story why he is reading it, he gives two reasons: in matters of citizenship, ignorance is as good as a crime, and he hopes to have children someday and doesn't want his children to be ashamed of their father. Westerns are typically about men living in a state that comes fairly close to a state of nature as Blackstone describes it a little later; they can at least find themselves in a situation in which they are "without any judge upon earth to define their several rights, and redress their several wrongs". But they are also about men who are involved -- sometimes successfully, sometimes not, sometimes even detrimentally -- in the civilizing of this state of nature. They might bring law to Dodge or Tombstone, or restore order where it has failed, or try to find a way of getting justice when there is none ready-made, or have to throw together a solution to chaos. But the process is not random; it has a natural direction, that of reason, toward union in society, where, as Blackstone says in the phrase that struck Tell, the whole should protect all its parts, something that requires an imitation of God, through the union of power, wisdom, and goodness. Tell, both here and in his background as a Union soldier in a bloody civil war, has to deal with the fact that the solutions to which he is forced to resort fall short of ideal. But we can recognize that a man in such a situation has something of the power, the wisdom, and the goodness required to build a true society, however much his circumstances may limit him.

However, while the process of civilization has an intrinsic direction toward the union of power, wisdom, and goodness, it is a struggle against resistance, and its progress is by no means inevitable. If Sackett is about the hope of building a society together, the hope implicit in the human need for law and order, in men pursuing their dreams, in men and women getting together to form families, then The Sackett Brand is about the endurance required to get through the chaos that tends to tear it all down. The Sackett Brand unfolds more slowly than Sackett; we don't get romance but mystery, as Tell tries to figure out who shot at him (and why), and what has happened to his wife Ange. It is about loss, and loneliness, and yet also about the power of family to get one through it, even if just by standing by you when no one else will.

Favorite Passage: From Sackett:

Ange saw my Blackstone and picked it up. "Are you studying this?" She looked at me curiously.

"Yes, ma'am. It's books like that which make a man proud of being a man." (p. 122)

From The Sackett Brand:

They would watch the likely places, and the one I'd chosen wasn't offered little enough place for a man to hide. But the thing I knew was that the best place to hide was in the mind of the searcher, for all men have blind spots in the mind. They rarely see what they do not expect to see, and their minds hold a blindness to what seems unreasonable. (p. 144)

Recommendation: Sackett I have always regarded as the best Western I have ever read, and re-reading it hasn't changed my mind; I think it expresses the essence of the genre more perfectly than perhaps any other work, and it's the one I would recommend you read if you read any Westerns at all. The Sackett Brand is also good, although it is much less a standalone work than Sackett is.


Louis L'Amour, Sackett, Bantam (New York: 1961).

Louis L'Amour, The Sackett Brand, Bantam (New York: 1965).

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