I hadn’t had a western in my book queue for a while so when the opportunity to snap a few up came my way, I grabbed them. I think like many people, I had some preconceived notions about westerns that were misguided. Simplistic cowboy stories that set the stage for the lone American hero. The HBO series, Deadwood changed that idea to some extent. I started to examine the subtext of what these stories were really about.
Luke Jensen tells the first part of the story in a flashback after he is injured during getting a bounty. It details his time as a confederate soldier and how he and seven other men were tasked with transporting the last of the Confederate gold to a new location in Georgia as Richmond was under attack and before its fall.
During the course of transporting the gold, the commanding officer is killed during an ambush from Union soldiers. Four of the men, including Luke, decide to remain true to the confederate cause and ensure the gold reaches its destination. The other four, sensing the fall of the confederacy, decide to steal the gold. In the course of the theft, Luke’s companions are killed and Luke is severely injured.
He is then rescued by a farmer and his granddaughter. During the course of recovering on their farm, they all find out that the south has fallen and the war is over. In short order however, northerners move to the south and begin the process of reconstruction which for certain of them, means buying up property or forcing out southern owners through political and violent means.
Luke takes matters into his own hands in order to protect his hosts. This forces him to move on ultimately and he then proceeds to become a professional bounty hunter. This brings us to the second part of the story.
His exploits as a bounty hunter are examined. His travels from city to city, the people he meets along the way and bits of information he collects along the way. Some of this information will become important in part three of the book. It also shows us where Luke’s vulnerabilities are and his thoughts and reasons for not returning to his own home in the Ozarks after he left the military.
Finally, Luke ends up rescued from another injury. This time, the rescuer happens to be his younger brother who he hasn’t seen in years and who does not recognize him. There is an eventual reunion and although Luke continues as a bounty hunter, he finally establishes a home.
What got me thinking in this book was about soldiers who returned after war and s pent time searching to find their way. From the civil war when this book is set to today’s vets returning from Afghanistan and Iraq, young men (and now women) return to the civilian world displaced.
For many, entry to the war as a soldier was a career opportunity and once that ends, we expect them to return to “regular” life but they are not built for much except killing. After the civil war, the cowboy myth developed and after World War II, Korea and Vietnam, cowboys were replaced with bikers. So the cowboy myth is really the disaffected soldier reality.
The second thing that sprang to mind was “to the victor, belong the spoils.” Many manufacturers from the north found opportunity in the south and were willing to exploit it. To do that, they were willing to displace and mistreat those southerners who had already suffered extensive damage to their homes and livelihood.
Likewise, after every war we have seen the vanquished displaced from their homes while the victors have exploited the economic downturns suffered by the losers to create cheap manufacturing opportunities. Of course, now we are seeing that as energy issue – oil.
In the cowboy myth, the bounty hunt is an economic opportunity. But after every conflict, we also see an upturn in the hiring of police. More police means we need to have more villains to go around. After the civil war, we saw the westward movement which required states and territories to be formed and legislation to be enacted and enforced.
The cowboy myth is really a dark tale of identity crisis and economic displacement and opportunity. I encourage readers to re-examine the western genre and look at the subtexts. It will be like watching Breaking Bad or Mad Men while reading a both a myth and a history of the post-civil war era.