by Louis L'Amour

Review by
Robert Wilfred Franson

Bantam, New York; 1961
151 pages

May 2005


It was getting close to sundown when I fetched through a keyhole pass into a high mountain valley without growth of any kind. Bleak and lonely under the sky, it was like a granite dish, streaked here and there with snow or ice that lay in the cracks.

Timberline was a thousand feet below me, and I was close under the night-coming sky, with a shivering wind, scarcely more than a breath for strength, blowing along the valley. All I could hear was the sound of my horses' hoofs and the creak of my saddle. ...

Off to the left lay a sheet of ghost water, a high cold lake fed by melting snow, scarcely stirred by that breath of wind. It lay flat and still ...

A Sackett in the West

As is typical of most Louis L'Amour novels, Sackett is a fairly short book, a genre Western novel by one of the masters of the form. It's a good one, solid-built of true Western materials. In the above passage near the start of Sackett, the narrator William Tell Sackett is following an odd, old trail into the high San Juan Mountains of Colorado. It is wild, beautiful, dangerous country.

Louis L'Amour tends to write novels with rather straightforward plots, and straightforward values. He does not have the space to make the characterizations too subtle, but the main people have some depth and breadth, and the reader cares how they make out. Like Tell Sackett, his heroes often are minimally schooled, but they favor reading to improve themselves while in lonely camps where other sorts of men concentrate on drinking. The Sacketts tend to be slow to anger, but ready when necessary to fight for what's right.

The prospect of gold riches in the ground; gambling, romance, and gunfighting; the high wild mountains; cold winter survival; and even town planning — make up the substance of Sackett. Told in first person as by Tell Sackett of that distinctive family of Westering pioneers, it's an exciting story.

Sackett family, Sackett series

The Sackett series is L'Amour's most famous, and — including its outrider novels — his longest set of related stories. As he wrote more novels, L'Amour extended the Sackett family saga forward a few years, and backward a couple of centuries.

Of the series' core novels in the American West after the Civil War, Sackett — set in 1874-1875 — is one of the earliest written, and I think as good a place as any to start. The first I myself read was Mojave Crossing. The official Louis L'Amour site gives the chronological sequence of Sackett novels, with some short stories slipped in for good measure.

Truths in the wilderness

In L'Amour's own commentary on Sackett, a couple of passages particularly struck me. As usual he knows the real locale behind his story:

I had good binoculars with me ... and often I'd sit for a half hour or so just studying the country, watching the animals, and seeking out trails or possible routes. However, in that high country, as in many such places, following trails was always good business. Somebody had gone that way, and if it was worn, many people had, so it was passable. Many routes that seem good end in steep drop-offs, and one has to climb all the way back. If there is a trail, stay with it. That's my advice. Look around if you like but when you move on, stick to the trail.

Even today, in American wilderness that is designated parkland in forest or desert, becoming seriously lost is an adventure you may not survive to tell about. Again:

In my years of wandering about in wild places, often alone, I have never taken unnecessary chances, and anyone who does is a fool. Recklessness is not bravery. I am inclined to agree with the explorer Roald Amundsen [first to reach the South Pole] that what we call adventure is simply bad planning.

Louis L'Amour
both quotes from the section on Sackett, in
The Sackett Companion

Very good points of advice, from someone who knows. Either may save your life.

Take a foray into the pioneer wilderness of the American West in Sackett. A fine story, and a good trail-blazer or introduction to the series.


© 2005 Robert Wilfred Franson


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