Write Byte

The Allure of the Western

(February 8, 1999)

Recently, new Write Byte Editor Andrea Ryan was in touch with Ana Leigh about the long-lasting allure Americans have for the western drama. Be it television, the movies, or books, tales of the west have captured our imagination for many, many years. Here’s what Ana had to say (and, btw, a guidon is the small flag soldiers carried indicating their identification):

“Straight through that pass, Sergeant.”

How often have you heard those words spoken by John Wayne, or a counterpart, wearing the blue uniform of the United States Cavalry? We thrill to that time honored western scenario of guidons flapping in the breeze as the cavalry rides out of some remote western fort. Or how about those exciting cattle drives as witnessed by the success of Larry McMurtry’s Lonesome Dove or the classic John Wayne movie, Red River? Scores of movies and novels by authors such as Zane Grey and Louis L’Amour have added to the popularity of this theme.

Five decades ago James Frank Dobie wrote a book review with the following statement, “Good Lord, another book about the cowboy! What on earth for?”

I believe there are millions of readers who could tell Mr. James Frank Dobie exactly why. For over a hundred years people everywhere have thrilled to novels and movies depicting the legends of the Western frontier. Among this throng are many romance writers and readers, myself among them. Having won the Romantic Times Historical Romance Award two years ago, and Historical Storyteller of the Year award last year, I am a devotee of the Western hero, whether it’s Clint Eastwood’s High Plains Drifter or Paul Newman’s Butch Cassidy, John Wayne’s Rooster Cogburn, or Emilio Estevez’s Billy the Kid. It can be Owen Wister’s Virginian, or Louis L’Amour’s Sacketts, the Magnificent Seven riding to the defense of a Mexican village, the 7th. Cavalry’s making a last stand, or the gunfight at the OK Corral. The Western hero continues to draw a reader’s fancy and an author’s pen–as it has for generations.

And, although the scenarios are similar – as they are in any genre – we never tire of them due to an author’s imagination and creative ability as she weaves the classic themes in a story in which the hero is a Texas Ranger, one of that band of courageous and noble centurions who protected the Texas border. And certainly the feud between cattlemen and homesteader, or cattlemen and sheepherder, or cattlemen and railroad always blend themselves comfortably into Western legend.

Another cliched story line is the wagon train west theme. Invariably sometime in the novel or movie a scout, usually the hero, rides up and cries out “circle the wagons.” Then amidst shouts, cracking whips, and clouds of dust, the wagons rush to form a circle as a band of whooping Indians bear down on them. In my research, I have found only one incident of Indians attacking a train of circled wagons. In fact, according to the diaries of any of these early pioneers going west, wagon trains were drawn into a square at night – not a circle.

And, of course, there is the plot of the appealing outlaw hero–or the more appealing half-breed hero. And of course there will be the good versus evil face-off in the center of the street as the hero–be it Gary Cooper, John Wayne, or Marshall Dillon – wait for his adversary to draw first.

So, as a writer, who do you create as the typical westerner? To avid readers of westerns one prototype emerges . . . the Texas cowboy. The author Walter Prescott Webb described him in this way:

So whoever or whatever they are, these men of steel are our heroes – exclusive to the American West. Their names are emblazoned on our hearts and minds: Wyatt Earp, Wild Bill Hickock, Sam Houston, Buffalo Bill, Billy the Kid, Pat Garrett. The list is endless. Whether we realize it or not, we bring the strengths and weaknesses of these men into each of our heroes. Other countries can embrace them but the American West can claim them. Good or bad, they turned a wilderness into a civilization, from the Mexican border to the Canadian, from the Mississippi River to the Pacific Ocean and in doing so became legends.

Happy tales to you.

— Ana Leigh

Our Ana Leigh Reviews:

E-mail AnaRead a Write Byte on Western Romance by Cheryl St. JohnRead about Andrea Ryan, who secured and edited this Write Byte


Andrea Ryan – I’m 29 years old and live in St. Louis with my wonderful husband, who tolerates my marathon novel reading, an Irish Wolfhound, 2 cats and an African Grey Parrot that loves to talk. I don’t have any children (yet), but I have two extremely adorable (but very demanding) brand new nephews so I’m trying to get in all the reading I can until having children hits me! I have a B.A. in Russian and Spanish and speak, read or write 5 languages. I’m working on a Masters of Public Health degree (long career story) and working full time, so I’m having to find creative ways to squeeze in books between work projects, mid-terms and finals.

I started reading romance when I was about 15 (Laurie McBain, Kathleen Woodiwiss and Judith McNaught) and was hooked immediately. If Judy Bloom counts, then I started with Forever on my school bus in 6th grade. Then, my mom caught me reading Wifey and I was banned from reading romance until high school. That was actually okay with me since I got the shock of my life with that book, anyway.

I primarily read romance (any kind), but will take a break whenever Anne Rice comes out with a new book and sometimes read mystery/suspense. My dad wrote three books when I was a kid and I’ve had a secret desire for years to write a novel. (Will never happen). I love to write, but I leave the books in the book store to those truly gifted (which is not me). My husband doesn’t understand why I read romance, but, coming from a man who flew F/A-18s with the Marines, I don’t take it personally and just tell him to go away.

Although my list keeps growing, some of my favorite authors are Nora Roberts, Julie Garwood, Kathleen Woodiwiss, Judith McNaught, LaVyrle Spencer, Susan Elizabeth Phillips, Diana Gabaldon, Patricia Gaffney, Geralyn Dawson, Connie Brockway, Loretta Chase and Eve Byron. I can’t imagine life without romance books!

Feel free to e-mail me here.

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