I suppose it’s hard to consider any Louis L’Amour novel to be truly forgotten, since they’ve all been in print for decades, some for more than fifty years, including this one originally published in 1955. But of all the L’Amour novels I’ve read (about two-thirds of them), TO TAME A LAND is my favorite, and it’s also one that nobody talks about much.
This novel is an expansion of the novelette “We Shaped This Land With Our Guns”, which appeared in the April 1951 issue of the pulp TEXAS RANGERS. Its narrator is a likable young man named Rye Tyler, who, in the course of the novel, takes part in virtually every sort of Western plot that’s ever been invented. He’s a pioneer, along with the rest of his family. He fights Indians. He scouts for the army. He drives cattle, saves the ranch from rustlers, becomes a reluctant outlaw himself, reforms, becomes a lawman . . . You get the idea. If it’s a standard Western plot, it’s in TO TAME A LAND. That’s why I sometimes tell people that it’s the best example of a “kitchen sink” Western ever written.
Yet in L’Amour’s hands, what could have been nothing more than a gimmick novel becomes something else: a tautly written epic that rings true from start to finish. Knowing some of the history of the West, it’s not all that far-fetched that Rye Tyler could reinvent himself time after time. Plenty of people involved in the settling of the West did just that. TO TAME A LAND is also important because it’s a precursor to L’Amour’s lengthy Sackett saga, only instead of spreading out the action through an extended family, it’s all embodied in Rye Tyler. This book also contains some of L’Amour’s best writing. The final showdown between Rye and his mentor/nemesis (a theme that shows up again and again in L’Amour’s work) is a wonderful scene.
I’m not as big a fan of L’Amour’s books as many Western readers are, but when he was at the top of his game he was very, very good indeed, and he wrote several novels that I consider classics. I’d also put FLINT and THE DAYBREAKERS (the first Sackett novel) in that category. But TO TAME A LAND is the best of them all, as far as I’m concerned. I don’t have a copy of it to give away, but it shouldn’t be hard to find if you're interested in reading it.
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