This two novel edition, capturing both tales of Josey Wales by Forrest Carter who briefly wrote in the seventies about the western life, is worth it if you are a fan of westerns or adventure. Although Carter's hero is a bit over the top at times, a veritable western superman, the background of his life and the regions depicted are vivid and compelling while the character is likeable despite his career as a Confederate irregular (a guerilla fighter) in the bloody Kansas-Missouri theater of the Civil War. A Missouri dirt farmer who lost his wife and child to the pre-Civil War raids of Kansas Redlegs (anti-slavery supporters of the Union), Josey joins up to fight them and anything Union for the duration of the war and after. A man from the Tennessee hill country, Josey has all the instincts and blood vengeance values of his Scotch-Irish mountain men forebears, and he hones his skills as a fighter under the tutelage of Confederate raiders Bloody Bill Anderson and the infamous William Quantrill.
After the war, in the first novel, Gone to Texas, Josey foregoes an offer of amnesty and takes up a life of crime against the Union conquerors that isn't much different from his wartime raiding except now it's directed against banks and other Union institutions a la Jesse James and the Younger brothers, the role models, according to this volume's introduction, for the fictional Josey Wales. The novel and the movie based on it diverge here since the film suppresses Josey's criminal career. Nevertheless, the book engages our sympathy for the misunderstood cold blooded killer anyway, and you can't help rooting for him as he struggles to keep his wounded partner alive while fleeing Union soldiers after a botched bank job, first in his effort to reach Indian Territory (later the state of Oklahoma) and then as he begins his journey across Texas to hoped for safety in Mexico.
The book is very good on the details including what it takes to keep a horse in top shape and how important that was to men like Wales. It also gives us a very good picture of the early gunfighter. Unlike the later ones, with whom many of us are more familiar, the first western gunslingers to take up and master the Colt revolver (which made its debut in the 1830's but didn't become widely spread in the West until the 1840's or inspire proficient users until the Civil War and the period immediately following) necessarily had to carry many guns on their persons. The revolver, unlike earlier pistols and rifles could load and shoot six "bullets" but loading them was not much easier than loading the older single shot weapons. They didn't have what we recognize as bullets today but fired lead balls with gunpowder, added separately into the chamber, and relied on percussion caps, also added separately, to fire. The hammer didn't automatically pull back with the triggering mechanism either but had to be manually cocked each time before firing.
So a man who relied on his guns had to spend a bit of time preparing his weapons. Needless to say, you didn't want to be stuck with only six shots in a real shoot-out so the early gunfighters carried lots of guns. Josey carries one on each hip, a smaller Navy Colt under his armpit and, when mounted for a shoot up, a couple of supplemental pistols strapped to his big roan horse. In a fight, Josey, described as a consummate guerilla fighter, likes to shoot from the saddle and ride down his enemies -- though he is not above standing for a shoot-out as he does several times in both novels.
No goody-two-shoes white hat hero, Josey is nevertheless an outlaw with a heart of gold who has his own sense of honor and, when he's not robbing banks in Missouri and Kansas, won't bother anyone who doesn't bother him. Unfortunately his bank robbing career fixes it so he's going to be bothered quite a lot as he makes his run south to Mexico. Along the way, in the first novel, he picks up an aging Cherokee from the Indian Nations (one of the five "civilized tribes" that had been forcibly relocated across the Mississippi from their original homes in the east during Andrew Jackson's presidency), a Cheyenne squaw who's been abused by Commancheros and others, and an elderly white woman and her seemingly shell-shocked daughter on their way south from Arkansas (not Kansas as in the film, making them more Josey's kind than his enemies) to reclaim the old woman's brother's abandoned Texas ranch near the Mexican border.
In the second novel, our hero Josey is called upon to avenge the wrongs done to some of the people who befriended him in the first novel when a contingent of corrupt rural Mexican soldiers cross the Rio Grande into Texas and terrorize the little town where Josey's friends live. When he learns of the vicious actions of the Mexican Rurales, Josey heads south into Mexico to rescue one of his abused friends and avenge the others, following, Carter tells us, the hill country creed of his youth -- you always avenge your kin. To Josey, adrift and initially alone in a hostile world, these folk have become kin.
The first novel is a little fresher and richer in its portrayal of the era and the environs from Missouri to south Texas and all the country in between. Josey seems fresher, too. By the second novel his almost unbeatable skills seem a little tiresome and we hear too often that he is a trained guerilla fighter, a backwoodsman born and bred in the feuding country of Tennessee and, even more, about the contemptible nature of governments, bureaucrats, the church and civilized whites generally. Josey, a natural born warrior, is more at home with the noble though ferocious Apache (in the second novel) or the equally noble and barely less ferocious Commanche (in the first). They speak one another's language and all the white folks and civilized Indians around him seem to come to worship the ground Josey walks on.
The stories are good, crackling adventure and very, very good on background. The characters are nicely limned, as well, but they are none of them fully developed human beings with the kind of complex psychological lives most of us have. Nevertheless, that would have made for a very different book, not Gone to Texas and its successor story which are clearly what their author wanted them to be. And they kept me reading into the small hours of the night. What better recommendation for an adventure loving reader is there than that?
Stuart W. Mirsky
Author of The King of Vinland's Saga