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Buster Keaton in Sherlock Jr., 1924

February 8, 2013

BOOK REVIEW

Buchanan’s Siege by Jonas Ward (1973) and 
Blade: The Navaho Trail by Matt Chisholm (1981)

Todd Mason has all the links to this Friday’s Forgotten Books at his blog Sweet Freedom.


Last month, I read two entertaining westerns that were similar in many ways.

Both Buchanan’s Siege and Blade: The Navaho Trail were written by prolific and pseudonymous authors.

While Jonas Ward was William Ard, who wrote detective and western novels with equal ease, Matt Chisholm was Peter Watts, a master of western fiction who also wrote as Cy James, Luke Jones, Duncan Mackinlock, and Tom Owen. Both writers have passed away.

Buchanan’s Siege and Blade: The Navaho Trail have not dissimilar heroes.

Tom Buchanan is a tough drifter. He is strong and dangerous and friendly depending on the situation. He calls himself a “peaceable man” and doesn’t like guns because he has had his share of firearms. In this novel, at least, he doesn’t wear a holster in the beginning, preferring to parley with friends and enemies. Buchanan fights for the underdog and once he takes up a cause he won’t leave until he is through with it, one way or the other. He is willing to risk his life for those whose battles he is fighting.

Joe Blade is called the hero of the savage west, and not without reason. Like Buchanan, he is a drifter who takes on dangerous assignments for anyone willing to pay, usually the government. Blade is also a considerate man who doesn’t think twice before sticking his neck to rescue someone from danger, even if it means running into an explosives-ridden school, hauling a wounded man on his shoulders, and running out again. And, like Buchanan, he would rather go about his task peacefully than exchange bullets with the enemy.

Buchanan and Blade, nemesis of evil and all that is unjust on the Frontier, are two good men to have on any side.

A ranch in Laramie, Wyoming. © Library of Congress

While the plot in the novels is different, their theme and setting are quite similar.

In Buchanan’s Siege, the six-foot-four Buchanan is on his way to Buffalo, Wyoming, to help Colonel Brad Bradbury, the owner of the biggest ranch in the country, reach a peaceful settlement with the smaller ranchers and farmers, which actually means forcing them to sell out and walk away. But, Bradbury’s “friends” in the powerful Cattleman’s Association have sinister plans. They want to take over the other ranches and grab their land by brute force, starting with the framing and lynching of farmer Adam Day for rustling. Buchanan hates lynchers and double-crossers and ends up defending Adam Day’s estranged wife, Amanda, and the owners of some of the smaller outfits holed up in the more impregnable stone house belonging to the Kovacs and Raven, the half Crow girl they have adopted. This is where Buchanan’s siege plays out, as the big man and the handful of honest and unthreatening people, including mountain man Dan Badger toting his Sharps rifle, defend the fortress against more than a hundred gunmen of all shades. They have no choice.

The military Sharps rifle, also known as the Berdan Sharps rifle (above),
was used during and after the Civil War. © Wikimedia Commons

In Blade: The Navaho Trail, which takes plays shortly after the Civil War, Joe Blade is on a federal mission to bring back Colonel Warren Haffner for crimes against the Navaho tribe. Haffner, who served under Brigadier General Christopher ‘Kit’ Carson, thinks the legendary frontiersman was too soft on the Indians and hatches a plot to create trouble on the reservation where the Navaho people are living peacefully. Haffner, who lords over his three grown-up sons, kills Juanito, chief of the Navaho, in the hope that it will lead to an uprising in the Navaho Nation, the largest reservation. Armed to the teeth, the insane Haffner and his sons take over the Indian Agency located on the reservation and wait for the Navaho to come to them. With a bloodbath imminent, it is left to Joe Blade and his girl, the vivacious Charity Clayton, to put an end to Haffner’s evil plans and make peace with the Indians.

Navajo chief Manuelito
© Wikimedia Commons
Yet another similarity in both the novels is the important role played by the Indians.
 
While Raven brings her Crow people to help Buchanan and the Kovacs against the Cattleman’s Association in Buchanan’s Siege, it is Indian Police Chief Manuelito who casts his lot with Blade and succeeds in pacifying the Navaho clansmen, thus averting a bloody uprising, in The Navaho Trail. In both the stories, the Native Americans are portrayed as more sensible and restrained compared to the war-hungry whitemen and their divisive and destructive activities.

One of the reasons I enjoy reading westerns immensely is the many fascinating elements in the stories, retold in the backdrop of historical events, places, and characters, with the Frontier always the focal point of the narrative. A recurring theme in these stories is the triumph of good over evil, of right over wrong, of virtue and vice, of the brave and the coward, of honest and hardworking men and women versus greedy men and profiteers, and of the human spirit that never dies.

In Buchanan’s Siege, for instance, the good and brave people, the Kovacs and the Whelans, have seen hard times that would break most others. They would rather face the bullet and go down fighting for the piece of land they worked so hard to build. The Frontier belongs to them as much as it belongs to power-hungry ranchers, cattle thieves, and shady gunmen who lynch innocent men and burn their houses.

As the likeable mountain man Dan Badger tells Buchanan, “Me and them afore me, we didn’t open God’s country for men like these to hog it, to kill other folks. Some of us had a vision, we seen it is the promised land. Everything’s here, all good. Better the Injuns kept it for themselves, so sez I.”

This is the message that Buchanan’s Siege and The Navaho Trail convey to the reader.

At this point I ought to say a few words about the narrative styles of William Ard (Jonas Ward) and Peter Watts (Matt Chisholm) but I seriously cannot because I am not an expert on western fiction and the many excellent writers who occupy the genre. As an outsider, all I can say is that I enjoy reading westerns and I like the way every one of them is written, each absorbing and entertaining in its own way. I might add, though, that I become so engrossed in all the action taking place that I often overlook the style altogether. What I don’t fail to see is the profundity of the narrative and there’s a fair share of it in westerns.


I am looking forward to reading more  books in the Tom Buchanan and Joe Blade series.


References

Cullen Gallagher has reviewed The Name's Buchanan by Jonas Ward (William Ard) at his blog Pulp Serenade.

You can read more about William Ard and his hardboiled detective and western heroes at Dennis Miller's website and about Matt Chisholm — The Man behind McAllister! over at David Whitehead’s website.

6 comments:

  1. I only know Ard's name from crime novels so thanks very much for all this great info Prashant. it's fascinating to me as this is a literary genre that I have ignored my whole life really though I love the movie equivalent. A good book is a good book after all and I find genre barriers less and less significant as I move on. - cheers mate

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    1. Sergio, I read that William Ard was known more for his hardboiled mysteries than any other fiction but he also seemed to have made a name writing some pretty good westerns, including the Thomas Buchanan series. I started re-reading westerns quite recently and I am pleased with myself that I am right now sitting on top of a pile of western paperbacks. I'd read them all the time if I didn't like other fiction too. For more vintage reads, I go online.

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  2. I'll have to try the Blade books. I haven't seen 'em. The Buchanan books are OK but rather pedestrian to me in many ways.

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    1. Charles, it's interesting to know that you found the Buchanan novels "pedestrian" and I'll have to see if I agree with that once I have read a few more of the books. I think Peter Watts (Matt Chisholm) is a more compact writer.

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  3. Jonas Ward's THE NAME'S BUCHANAN was made into the film BUCHANAN RIDES ALONE with Randolph Scott in 1958.

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  4. Ron, I have yet to read Ward's THE NAME'S BUCHANAN a copy of which I have in my possession. I had a hunch you may have reviewed it and Googled it and, in fact, did find it on your blog dated November 8, 2011. I'll read the book and your review first and then watch the movie.

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