Angelakfox's Reviews > Hombre

Hombre by Elmore Leonard
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May 04, 11


They say you can’t judge a book by its cover, but when I was staring down the shelf of Western paperbacks, trying to find one that could fill a class requirement while causing me a minimum of mental agony, you’d better believe I was trying. A muted color scheme with simple, commanding fonts versus a cacophony of color and an overly-stylized typeface? A “classic” with blurbs from high-browed literary institutions versus #248 in a series? And most importantly, a solitary horseback rider in a barren landscape versus a swooning bargirl (complete with garter and bustier) and a mustachioed hero?

Oh, I was judging.

And I was judging ALL westerns, not just the pulp series that I quickly rejected. This was an academic exercise to be endured. Westerns are formulaic, mindless morality plays, where the good guys kill the bad guys (who are, often as not, those pesky "Injuns"), rescue gold-hearted prostitutes, and generally ooze testosterone from their very pores…

…right?

Well, sort of. There are definitely characteristics that make a western a western, and themes of justice and morality are definitely central to the genre. However, in the hands of talented authors, good and evil are not clear cut, and the concept of morality can be murky at best. The setting is most often the historical west, the dialogue sparse, and the most prosaic passages saved for describing the land. But beyond these basics, there is wide range of literary talent—as is true with any genre. The book I ultimately chose to read, Elmore Leonard’s Hombre, is a fine example of a writer working within the genre conventions, while playing with traditional concepts.

The story of John Russell (the titular “hombre”) is related through the eyes of young librarian Carl Allen. Allen is a passenger on an ill-fated stagecoach with the infamous Russell. As a white man raised by Apache during his youth, Russell has ties to multiple communities—Caucasian, Native American, and eventually the Mexicans—without ever truly fitting in to any one. When Russell joins the stagecoach, it’s to go to the land that his white relatives left him, yet his white fellow passengers largely insist that he sit with the driver. Later, when the coach is ambushed and a fellow rider is partly to blame, the same stranded passengers realize that Russell may be their best chance of surviving. Russell’s nuanced response to his treatment and Allen’s quickly dwindling naiveté take what could be a preachy and predictable story of racism and make it engrossing and thoughtful. The straight-forward plot (ending with a burst of action) make Hombre a quick read, but one worth trying. Has Leonard turned me into a Western fan? Not quite. But he’s made me less likely to paint all westerns with the same broad strokes.
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