ROBERT SIEGEL, host:
Many young adults get their first taste for history through fiction. But beware: Many of those great details that can pull a young reader into a historical novel are often only that, fictional details, not facts by a long shot.
That was the case for author and historian Elizabeth Cobbs Hoffman. For our series, You Must Read This, she recommends an author whose work may be questionable history but great reading.
ELIZABETH COBBS HOFFMAN: They always had men on the front cover: tall, handsome, rugged men, looking towards the burnt sienna buttes of Colorado or New Mexico.
My uncle Thaddeus kept two stacks on the dinged-up coffee table and another on the laminated kitchen dinette. Sometimes I'd slip my hand behind the recliner cushion and find one that had slipped down the back.
My uncle never knew, but when I was about 12, I read every Louis L'Amour novel I could find in his little tract house in El Cajon, California. We lived over the mountain and drove into town on weekends so the grown-ups could play pinochle.
We called our cousins city-slickers because they wore shoes all the time, even in the house. It seemed a sorry habit until we saw the grimy sidewalks. Give me clean dirt anytime.
But it was in suburbia that I found the West. I grew up with the Sacketts, that clan of laconic gunslingers with a dry sense of humor who killed a man only when he needed it.
L'Amour's characters gave zeitgeist a Western twang. No Sackett was ever much on the brag, Tell says. We want folks to leave us alone and we leave them alone, but when fighting comes, we stand ready.
The Sackett brothers were shy around women, but I knew I could put them at ease. I would make them pie and show them round the ranch. My blanket roll and mess kit could be ready in 10 minutes.
When I became a historian, chockfull of postmodern theories on subalterns and The Other, I realized that Louis L'Amour would never find his way into footnotes. Cowboys and Indians, not usually enemies in L'Amour's novels, were now. And don't even mention senoritas, or we'll be on about the feminization of Mexico all night.
It wasn't simply that Louis L'Amour was a dime-store novelist. He wrote about a West that no longer existed even in history books. I branched out. I read Larry McMurtry, who took higher aim. I read Max Brand. I tried, really. But some Americana is not to be missed.
For a glimpse into the beating heart of the West, you must read Louis L'Amour. I'm already saddled up.
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SIEGEL: Elizabeth Cobbs Hoffman is the author of "Broken Promises: A Novel of the Civil War." If you want to discuss books with other NPR listeners, you can join the NPR Facebook community. Just search for NPR Books and click like. And you can find the complete list of You Must Read This recommendations at npr.org.
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