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The Searchers ()

Brothers Judd Top 100 of the 20th Century: Novels (80)

    These people had a kind of courage that may be the finest gift of man: the courage of those who
    simply keep on, and on, doing the next thing ...
                -Alan Le May (on the Texicans)

It's muy chic in these days of political correctness to bemoan our ancestors' horrible misguided behavior in regards to the American Indians.  In Leftist hindsight, the Indians have been converted into pastoral New Age environmentalists, facing off against a militaristic, technological behemoth.  The novel The Searchers, basis for the great John Ford/John Wayne movie (The Searchers--1956), offers a necessary antidote to such fuzzy headed platitudinous twaddle.

The story begins in 1868 Texas; neglected by the military during the Civil War and now subject to the naive Quaker administration of Indian affairs, white settlements are being rolled back by persistent murderous Comanche raids.  Living at the very edge of civilization are Henry and Martha Edwards and their children, Lucy, Debbie, Ben and Hunter.  The couple are assisted by the young man , Martin Pauley, who they virtually adopted when Comanches slaughtered his family, and by Henry's brother Amos, a quiet, taciturn man who seems to be irresistibly drawn back to the ranch time and again.  But then one day Marty and Amos are lured away from the ranch when a Comanche party steals a herd of cattle. They pursue them for quite a distance before realizing that they have been tricked.    By the time they arrive back at the Edwards ranch, it is in ruins, the parents and the boys are dead and scalped and the girls are missing.  As every movie viewer knows, what ensues is a years long quest by Martin and Amos (Ethan in the movie) as they search for the girls.

Martin is driven by a memory of how he ignored Debbie on her last day of life, Amos appears to be driven by darker demons.  Eventually, Martin has an epiphany:

    Amos, Mart realized, no longer believed they would recover Lucy alive--and wasn't thinking of
    Debbie at all.  Seeing Amos' face as it was tonight, Mart remembered it as it was that worst time of
    the world, when Martha lay in the box they had made for her.  Her face looked young and serene,
    and her crossed hands were at rest.  They were worn hands, betraying Martha's age as her face did
    not, with little random scars on them.  Martha was always hurting her hands.  Mart thought, "She
    wore them out, she hurt them, working for us."

    As he thought that, the key to Amos' life suddenly became plain.  All his uncertainties, his deadlocks
    with himself, his labors without pay, his perpetual gravitation back to his brother's ranch--they all
    fell into line.  As he saw what had shaped and twisted Amos' life, Mart felt shaken up; he had lived
    with Amos most of his life without ever suspecting the truth.  But neither had Henry suspected
    it--and Martha least of all.

    Amos was--had always been--in love with his brother's wife.

At first they are accompanied by Lucy's fiancé, but when he thinks that he has spied Lucy dancing around a fire in the Comanche camp, Amos brutally explains that what he's actually seen is a young buck wearing her scalp.  The young man, driven mad, attacks the camp and is killed.  From there on, Amos and Martin have only each other and Martin increasingly realizes that they do not share the same obsessions:

    Mart had noticed that Amos always spoke of catching up to "them"--never of finding "her."  And
    the cold, banked fires behind Amos' eyes were manifestly the lights of hatred, not of concern for a
    lost girl.  He wondered uneasily if there might not be a peculiar danger in this.  He believed now that
    Amos, in certain moods, would ride past the child and let her be lost to them if he saw a chance to
    kill Comanches.

In the coming years they survive Indian attacks, blizzards, comic misadventures, robbery attempts and the like as their search narrows in on Scar, a chief of the Wolf Clan.  Along the way, Amos develops a grudging respect for Martin (even making him his heir) and the two become the stuff of legend, known to the Indians as "Bull Shoulders" (Amos) and "The Other" (Marty).

This is historical fiction in the grand manor, combining an exciting story and extensive historical background to create the kind of mythos that is central to a nation's understanding of itself.  What emerges is a more balanced sense of how precarious a situation these early white homesteaders faced as they pushed into Indian territory and, while not justifying racial hatred, it makes the animus between the races more understandable.  This is a great American story, with an obvious debt to Moby Dick (Amos/Ahab, Marty/Ishmael, Scar/Moby); the movie will always preserve our memory of the tale, but it deserves to be read too.


Grade: (A+)


Book-related and General Links:
    -A Literary History of the American West
    -Roundup Magazine (Western Writers of America)
    -The Searchers (1956)(AFI #96)
    -THE MOVIE OF THE CENTURY: It looks both backward to everything Hollywood had learned about Westerns and forward to things films hadnít dared do (GEOFFREY OíBRIEN, American Heritage)