The Novel that Inspired the classic John Ford/JohnWayne film THE SEARCHERS
May 6, 2009
A good story which lags a bit in the middle, unfortunately, this book captures the struggle of two men who barely get along, a hard bitten man of middle age and his young foster nephew, to recover the stolen child of the older man's brother, a girl taken in a bloody and deadly Comanche raid.
Rich with detail and color, the book recounts events from the whites' perspective and does not dwell, as more recent Westerns tend to, on the injustices done to the Red Man. In retrospect it's hard to see who had the right of it. Certainly the Indians were here first and the whites pushed them out. And yet the whites' thrust westward was no different, on balance, than the movement of the various Indian groups that fought with and impinged on one another's space, too. And the Indians, particularly the Comanches who are the main group involved in this book, could be especially cruel and brutal.
Just a matter of conflicting values reflecting the culture clash between the two different peoples? Perhaps. But it isn't impossible to say the same of the whites who brought their own insensitivities and brutalities to the plains.
Amos Edwards, the elder member of the party in search of the stolen child in this book, evidences plenty of cold heartedness toward the Indians (as well as toward his own foster nephew, Mart Pauley) and yet we're given to see his reasons for acting as he does. He's not a bad sort, just tied up in himself and somewhat inarticulate while young Mart is haunted by the experiences he no longer consciously recalls when, as a baby, his own family was wiped out by the Comanche. The search these two men undertake lasts some six years and separates them, irrevocably, from the people they have left behind while hardening and teaching them the ways of the trail. On this quest Mart becomes a man equal to that of his foster uncle, the irascible Amos, as the two push on when all hope seems to have fled, in the ever fading belief that they will find and retrieve the missing girl. By the time they do, she is a child no longer.
The book differs in its latter half from the film of the same name starring John Wayne and in some ways is better for that (though the film offered a tighter and more neatly tied denouement). I read somewhere that The Searchers was actually based on a true story but that the protagonist of the search was a black man in Texas who pursued the Indians who had stolen his wife and children. Now, not surprisingly perhaps, a new novel by Paulette Jiles, fictionalizing the original tale (The Color of Lightning), has been published. So we have a chance to see how the story is rendered with a more modern (and perhaps more historically accurate?) sensibility. But The Searchers is well told all the same and, if a trifle dry at times, seems to offer a fairly accurate historical perspective of the settler part of the frontier equation.
At the least, it's deeper and more resonant than the John Wayne film of the same name which, though famous for its cinematography, really seems to have missed much of the character nuance offered by the original novel itself.
Stuart W. Mirsky
author of The King of Vinland's Saga (an historical novel of Vikings and Indians in eleventh century North America)
A Raft on the River (the true story of one fifteen year old girl's survival in Nazi-occupied eastern Poland during World War II)
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