Wednesday, February 11, 2015

The Unforgiven

Alan LeMay, even if he had written nothing else, would be long remembered as a very fine writer of western novels because of his two best: The Searchers and The Unforgiven.  The Searchers, of course, was made into a much loved John Wayne movie, and in 1960 The Unforgiven was made into a film starring Burt Lancaster and Audrey Hepburn.  Both the book and film versions of The Unforgiven are somewhat overshadowed by those of The Searchers, but, in a way, their stories are almost mirror images of each other.

In The Searchers, a white child has been stolen by Indians and her family is determined to rescue the young woman from the “savages.”  In The Unforgiven, a Kiowa child has been stolen by a white family, and when the Indians learn the origin of the young woman, they demand her return to the tribe.  Both books focus heavily on the racial prejudice that was so commonly inflicted upon American Indians by the very people determined to steal their homelands from them.  The resulting conflict was both brutal and bloody, with atrocities perpetrated by both sides.  What makes LeMay’s writing special, is that he gives equal weight to both points-of-view.  

The Zachary family has come to Texas for a new beginning and they are determined to hang onto their land and the way of life they have carved out for themselves.  Now, however, because of the drowning of the family patriarch on a recent cattle drive, they must look to Ben, the eldest of three brothers and one sister, for the leadership their father used to provide.  Ben proves himself to be a competent enough ranch manager, but when an old family nemesis shows up and begins spreading rumors about the Zachary daughter, things take an ugly turn.

Soon, the leaders of a group of Kiowa warriors that raids this part of the Texas territory with the coming of each full moon begins scouting the ranch in order to get a closer look at the girl they suspect might be a baby lost to the tribe years earlier.   And if the Kiowa decide that the young woman belongs to them, the Zacharys know that they will fight to the death to bring her home to the tribe.

Alan LeMay
Most westerns written in the 1950s were closer to the pulp westerns of the late-1800s than to serious western fiction.  Alan LeMay’s work is one exception to the rule.   LeMay’s The Unforgiven can, in fact, be called a “literary novel,” and he spends as much time here developing his Kiowa characters as he does his main white characters.  By looking at the conflict through two very different sets of eyes, what the author describes at the novel’s climax feels both inevitable and tragic.  In the real world of post-Civil War Texas, it was unlikely to end any other way.

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