Jeff Arnold’s West

The blog of a Western fan, for other Western fans

The Wonderful Country by Tom Lea

 

One of the great Western novels

 

Thomas Calloway Lea III (1907 – 2001) was a son of El Paso – in fact his namesake father was mayor in the 1910s, and made a public declaration that he would arrest Pancho Villa if he dared enter El Paso, after Villa raided Columbus, NM. Villa then responded by offering a thousand pesos gold bounty on Lea.

 

The mayor’s son is perhaps best known as the artist Tom Lea. In the 1930s he became a friend of the author J Frank Dobie, who wrote about the rough life of settling the Texas frontier, and Lea’s illustrations of Dobie’s works are mostly of cowboys and wild Southwest landscapes.

 

Frank Dobie and his portrait by Lea

 

In World War II, Lea became noted for his work as a war artist, traveling the world with the US military.

 

Tom Lea, war artist

 

But he was also a historian and a writer.

 

Lea wrote four novels between 1949 and 1964, the best known of which is certainly The Wonderful Country, 1952. This was because it was a fine book but also because at the end of the decade a film of it was made, by DRM Productions, Robert Mitchum’s company, released by United Artists.

 

 

While there is plenty of ‘Western’ action in The Wonderful Country, it is not a fast-paced shoot ‘em up but more a quiet and unhurried story of a man from one country who loves another but is, essentially, out of place in both.

 

He is the hero, Martin Brady, known south of the border as Martín Bredi. One character addresses him as “Señor I mean Mister Brady” and Martín reflects, “That Señor and Mister, that is my trouble. I wish I was plain one thing. I wish in my mind that I was not a stranger everywhere.” Americans ask him, “Do you speak English, greaser?” and Mexicans ask, “Quién es este gringo chingao?”

 

At one point Martin considers Mexico “a sad and sorry country. Something holds it. It has got too much patience. It don’t expect enough. In my country – say! – there is too much expecting and not enough patience.” He loves Mexico but is sorry for it and for him the US will always be “my country”.

 

 

Martin fled to Mexico aged 14 after killing the man who murdered his father. At the start of the story, in 1880 or so, he is a hired gun for the Chihuahua warlord Cipriano Castro, who rewards him with the gift of a fine back stallion, curiously named Lágrimas, who becomes Brady/Bredi’s closest companion and who is a key character in the novel.

 

 

On a mission to Puerto, Texas, Martín breaks a leg falling from Lágrimas, and is treated by the sympathetic broken-nosed Doctor Stovall, who fixes him up. We also meet other colorful and likeable people, such as the Jewish merchant Isaac Sterner and his nephew Ludwig, known as Chico. While healing up, Martin meets Texas Ranger Captain Rucker, who tries to recruit him, letting him know that there is no longer any danger of his being prosecuted for that old killing. Martín is very attracted to the Ranger life, and indeed to the captain’s pretty daughter Louisa, but he gets into a new scrape, helping a friend, and is obliged to return south of the border, undertaking an impossible mission for Castro to escort a wagonload of volatile explosives. This blows up, and Martín is blamed, henceforth treated with suspicion by his Mexican overlord.

 

He is sent to assassinate a rival of Castro’s but dislikes and objects to the task. There is a bucolic interlude as he settles with a sympathetic Mexican family on an idyllic hacienda.

 

 

Martín joins up with a column of Union buffalo soldiers who have come, with permission, south of the border hunting Apaches – portrayed as truly ferocious foes, detested by Mexicans and Americans alike. The troop is commanded by Major Starke Colton, whom Martín met back in Fort Jefflin, Texas, and he too is a key character. Martín displays courage and skill. In danger now in both countries, he nevertheless decides to return to the States, and is taken on as a Texas Ranger, where yet again, he is deployed south of the border, once more with Mexican permission (Castro’s brother has become the new governor of Chihuahua), again to hunt Apaches.

 

In the last-chapter climax, Martín will confront an old enemy, with a tragic outcome. Todo acaba en lágrimas.

 

The action throughout the book is dealt with in an almost matter-of-fact way, described from Martín’s point of view, which may reflect Lea’s experience of close-quarters fighting, which he had reported on and painted. It’s interesting how the bad guys are generally kept out of the action, and they are all the more threatening for being an unseen danger.

 

The prose is often lyrical, like Zane Grey but good, and Lea excels at conjuring up the landscape, wildlife and atmosphere of the wonderful country in question – where in fact a majority of the narrative is set. Time magazine’s review of the novel talked of “Lea’s fine descriptive writing, a love for the West that is conveyed with grace and dignity, an authentic sense of place.” One Goodreads reader commented, “The land is a character in this story. The author’s description of the land is so good that when he wrote about the wind and dust I could feel the grit.”

 

The book was indeed very well received. Lou Rodenberge, of McMurry College, said that the novel is “…the best to date of all fiction created from materials of border life”, and Lawrence Clark Powell called it “One of the finest of all Southwest novels by a Southwesterner, whose power with pencil and paint is perfectly matched by his way with words.”

 

Powell says “with paint”, because Lea illustrated the book himself, with superb chapter headings in red pen-and-ink, and he decorated the original binding too. Another reader on Goodreads remarked, “I bought this book in an antique store – published 1952 in the old style, wherein the actual cover, not just the jacket, is illustrated, the drawing wrapping around the front, spine & back.”

 

There are some curious features of the book, almost weaknesses you might say, such as Lea’s decision to render Spanish dialogue (Martín’s Spanish is very good) with a rather stilted literal translation into English. When it came to the movie version, they took an equally strange decision to have Mitchum speak English with a Spanish accent when in Mexico and ‘plain English’ when in Texas. Of course they could have used subtitles in the movie but the book is published either in Spanish or English, so I suppose the author needed some way of differentiating.

 

They made much bigger changes in the movie, most notably a love story between the hero and Major Colton’s wife, Ellen in the book, Helen (Julie London) in the film. In the novel Ellen is indeed unfaithful to the major, but not with Brady, and Brady’s fondness for the Texas Ranger captain’s daughter is a very minor matter. I suppose Hollywood movies needed their love interest. But I do think the movie, well directed by Robert Parrish, did capture much of the quality of the book, and Mitchum, who so often sleepwalked through parts, loved Mexico and invested the character of Brady with real power, in one of his better performances. But click here for more on the film version.

 

Meanwhile, I heartily recommend the book.

 

Tom Lea

 

4 Responses

  1. Thanks for the review. I was lucky enough to come across this book at an antique mall a few years back. I was really thrilled because I knew of its high quality. A fantastic book. I also highly recommend to all the tremendous volume that collects Lea’s WWII writings, drawings, and paintings. It is awesomely put together.

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