Friday, May 07, 2021

Hombre - Elmore Leonard

1961 First Edition Cover


Rightfully so, Elmore Leonard is best known for his crime fiction, but Leonard was not always a mystery writer. He began his career, in fact, as a writer of western novels and short stories, and he made significant contributions to that genre. And, just as with his crime novels, several of Leonard’s westerns were chosen by Hollywood producers to become major movies of the day. Hombre, written in 1961, was one of those so chosen, and in 1967 it became a feature film starring Paul Newman as “Hombre,” a white man who had been raised by his Apache kidnappers. 


“Maybe he let us think a lot of things about him that weren’t true. But as Russell would say, that was up to us. He let people do or think what they wanted while he smoked a cigarette and thought it out calmly, without his feelings getting mixed up in it. Russell never changed the whole time, though I think everyone else did in some way. He did what he felt had to be done. Even if it meant dying. So maybe you don’t have to understand him. You just know him.”


As a boy, John Russell was taken from his family by Apaches who made him one of their own. Now, Russell so easily passes for Apache that the light color of his eyes is the only startling thing about his physical appearance. Russell continued to live with the tribe even when it was eventually forced onto the reservation, so for all practical purposes he considers himself to be Apache - not white. But now, John Russell, sporting a fresh haircut and dressed as a white man, is on a personal mission of his own, and he finds himself on a small stagecoach making its final run across that part of Arizona. 


When the other passengers realize who John Russell really is, they want nothing to do with him — even to forcing him to ride atop the coach with its driver. The passengers include a young woman who has just been recaptured from the Apaches who had held and abused her for several weeks, another woman and her Indian Agent husband who has a secret of his own, and an intimidating cowboy who bullied his way into the stage at the last minute. Russell, who has little other choice, tolerates the abuse, but he’s listening to their words — and he’s taking notes. 


But then everything changes. 


Suddenly, the passengers are begrudgingly depending on John Russell to keep them alive. And John Russell is probably just as surprised as they are to find himself defending a bunch of people who hate him so much. 


Bottom Line: Hombre is significant in the degree to which it exposes the exploitation and deadly abuse suffered by the Indian tribes at the hands of those who continually invaded their lands, and it is highly sympathetic to that point of view. It is also a novel about the foolishness and hypocrisy of any kind of racism that happens to have been written in the midst of America’s civil rights movement of the fifties and sixties — and the timing was no accident. This is a reminder of just how good and impactful a western novel can be, and I highly recommend it.


Elmore Leonard in the Sixties

6 comments:

  1. I haven't read any of Elmore Leonard's books although I have quite few on my shelves. All the ones I have are crime fiction although I knew he also wrote westerns. I have one of his westerns, titled The Bounty Hunters from 1953. I will have to look for Hombre after I have read some of the ones I have.

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    1. I have to think that if Leonard had kept writing westerns, he would have ended up being almost as famous as he is today. But I'm also betting that he would have sold a lot fewer books because westerns just don't get the respect they deserve. I'll look forward to hearing what you think of his writing.

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  2. Elmore Leonard was a terrific writer of whatever he turned his hand to. I've read a number of his books, though Hombre isn't one of them. I do remember the movie from long ago starring Paul Newman and I remember it as being very good. Most likely the book was better.

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    1. It's been so long since I've seen the movie that I can really compare the two but I do have a feeling that the book is much better because of the way it delves into motivations, inner thoughts, and prejudices of the character. Doing it to that degree would have been difficult for a movie.

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  3. Okay, I have to read this one! I've been meaning to read Elmore Leonard for years, and I love a good Western. :D

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    1. This is a good western...and if you've never read his crime novels, you need to try one of them, too. The dialogue in those is just brilliant.

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