The book of the film
1990s editions of Louis L’Amour’s 1969 novel Conagher naturally featured Sam Elliott on the cover but in fact the real hero of the tale is not so much Conagher as a woman, Evie Teale, and it is she who, justly, figures on the front of the book before then.
Women have notoriously been overlooked and underrated in Western books and movies for so long. They were just adjuncts, often only there, if at all, as the ‘love interest’ of the male hero, and reduced to stereotypes of ‘saloon gal’ (prostitute) or schoolma’am (saint), occasionally sturdy settlers’ wives.
But L’Amour’s book Conagher is essentially about a tough frontier woman who marries not for love but security and does her level best to bring up her husband’s two children after he disappears as she tries to make a go of life in a remote and dangerous Arizona outpost. The children have to work harder than she would want and to her regret receive no schooling. She is an admirable person. But “there was an emptiness within her, a yearning that must be fulfilled, a love that needed to be given.”
Conn Conagher appears when 10% of the story is already gone, “a lean, dark man of about thirty-five, with black hair and mustache, and a stubble of beard.” He is a classic Westerner, “a drifter”, a “thirty-dollar cowhand”, who “don’t talk none about himself.” We are told that:
He’d driven spikes on the railroad, handled a cross-cut saw in a tie camp, helped to sink shaft on a contract job, and helped to build a couple of mountain roads in Colorado. Then he’d driven a team over the Santa Fe, put in four years in the army in the War Between the States and got to be a sergeant. He had been wounded twice, escaped from Andersonville, and had fought Indians in Dakota and Wyoming. He’d gone up the trail from Texas three times, and had punched cows in Texas, the Arizona Territory, Nebraska and Wyoming.
Of course Conn is a solitary man, as is right and proper for a Western hero. “He was a loner – he had always been a loner.” He says, “I got no friends anywhere”. One character “had never seen a man more alone, nor a man more secure in himself.” We have discoursed elsewhere in this blog (here, in fact) on the notion of lone-ness in the Western and Conagher is a classic example of the lone cowboy.
He doesn’t go looking for a fight but if backed into one he is ruthless and brutal. He beats a gunman who threatens him to a pulp. “He was cantankerous and edgy.”
You can see why they cast Sam Elliott in the movie version (our next review).
The two characters, Evie and Conagher, go their separate ways for much of the book but you know that in the end they will be together. In between, Evie struggles through a bitter winter and has to fight off Apaches, and Conagher hires on at a cattle ranch and fights rustlers. But he has time enough, and is enough of a romantic, to fall to wondering about the girl who writes notes he finds about her yearning for affection and tie them to tumbleweeds and have them blow who knows where, a sort of Western message in a bottle. No prizes for guessing who wrote those notes, and it was no young girl.
Conagher wants to find that woman though doubts that she would want him. “He looked at himself with no illusions. He was a hard-grained man, a man who had lived a hard life, and no great beauty to begin with.” But we readers know durn well what the outcome will be, and we ain’t disappointed.
There will be battles to be fought and won, against both nature and man, before that happens, but of course it does happen.
Like all these Louis L’Amour novels – and we’ve reviewed quite a few on this blog over the years, as the index will tell you – this one is short, terse and tough, written by someone with a deep knowledge of and a love for the Old West. It won’t take you long if you give it a go, and you won’t regret it. L’Amour was no great literary stylist but he knew how to put together a Western paperback, no doubt about it.
Come back soon for the movie version!