Monday, February 13, 2012

Monte Walsh by Jack Schaefer

The pages are yellowed and brittle and looking pretty ragged.  The cover is torn and held on by tape which has become yellowed and brittle and been replaced several times.  I've owned it 30 years or more and the book was published ten years before I found it in a second hand shop.  Read maybe 10 times by me and at least five times by my son, Monte Walsh is beyond a doubt the best western ever written and one of my all time favourite books.

Monte Walsh is not a typical western novel. There is no steely-eyed hero single-handedly gunning down the mysterious villain and his henchman, saving the lovely maiden and carrying her off to his newly secured ranch.  Rather, through the life of one man, Monte Walsh, a "good man with a horse", the book tells of the American West of the open range and the working cowboy. Over a 41 year period from 1872 to 1913,  it begins with the cattle drives from Texas in the 1870's through to the huge ranches financed by Eastern or British money in the 1880s to their inevitable break up by the turn of the century with the advent of fenced pastures and more intensively managed herds.

Much of the book centers around the riders of the Slash Y, of which Monte was one.  The cowboys are typical of the men who herded cattle on the open range; each with his own skills and peculiarities.  They ride for the brand, doing what is required of them and more.  The dangers and hardships they face were also typical of the times as were the fun times - the boys could party hearty, especially Monte.  Each chapter is a story in itself, tied together by people, place and time.

The book is alternates back and forth, funny, serious and sad.  The background mood seems to be rather sad even in the hilariously funny parts because it documents a way of life that came and went in just one generation, leaving behind a man who didn't fit in a world where "ranching is just another form of farming", who could not help "being what he is".

The writing style requires description by someone more schooled in such things than I.  But one of the techniques Schaefer uses so well in this book is repetition of phrases to indicate the things unchanging even in a changing world.

They came out of distance going into distance, Monte Walsh and an old leggy dun.  Afternoon sun slanted down on them, a man and a horse, complete in themselves, all that they owned together on them and in the blanket roll behind the saddle, moving together across the immensity of the big land.
They came along a rutted road that led out of seeming nowhere and on into the same, Monte Walsh and a young deep chested leggy dun at the easy fast jog he had taught it along with many and many other things.  Clouds rolled along the horizon and wind whipped past them, a man and a horse, complete in themselves, all that they owned or needed to own on them or in the blanket roll behind the saddle with the recent addition of a new slicker rolled and tied to it.
Together, the man and the horse, complete in themselves, all that they owned and all that they needed on them and in the saddle roll, jogged steadily along the road out of town, westward, towards the mountains and the river beyond them and the remnants of range land on beyond.
A man and a horse. A tall squint eyed aging man, outside any conceivable exact calculation, any age at all past the half century mark, lean and weathered like a wind-whittled mountain pine and an aging compact cow pony, dun in color, wide between the eyes, stout muscled, deep chested.

As far as authors of Westerns go, Ernest Haycox is tops in my thinking, followed by Will Henry and then Louis L'Amour, though not all his books are good.  There are a few other good writers - Frank O'Rourke, Dorothy Johnson...and Jack Schaefer. Schaefer's classic Shane is considered to be the quintessential Western novel though The Virginian by Owen Wister is the original cowboy novel having been first published in 1902. 

But no Western written beats Monte Walsh. If you only read one Western in your life, make it this one

Note: a couple of movies have been made by the same name, Monte Walsh.  They are in my opinion, trash.


  1. We have inter-library loan available at our local library - Monte Walsh will be the next book I read.
    the Ol'Buzzard

  2. I've read all of Louis L'amour except for the poetry and the sailing stuff, and a fair bit of Zane Grey. Also one or two of some horrible dreck that was a cross between bad romance and good western. Can't remember the author. But if both you and Graeme recommend this, then I'll give Monte Walsh a try!

    1. We have both read a great many of them. Bronwyn too, though she is a Louis L'Amour fan like you are. Some of the "new" western genre are terrible trash because the writers have not done their homework. The guys who began writing in the 20's and 30's are much better or who like L'Amour, actually did at least a little research.


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