The Searchers by Alan Le May: A Short Review

One of my earliest childhood memories is watching The Searchers (1956), starring John Wayne, and produced by John Ford. Since that time, I’ve watched the movie several times. At the Ozark Writing Workshop last fall (an event I intend to attend again) I heard a Western writer talk of the novel the film was based on. I ordered the book, The Searchers (1954), by Alan Le May, which I read in one sitting yesterday. Like my first viewing of the movie, it was an enriching and memorable experience. I literally couldn’t put the book down.

The hyper-politically correct likely won’t like the novel, but as a committed Texan who had ancestors in the areas raided by the Comanche and Kiowa, who has seen the graves of men, women, and children murdered in those raids, I can at least understand the point of view of the Texans who suffered and fought to build lives and homes in a hostile land. ¬†The reader will learn much about Texas geography, flora and fauna, history, Native Americans, and the life of the Texan pioneers. Le May begins with an epigraph that captures their spirit. It reads:

“These people had a kind of courage that may be the finest gift of man: the courage of those who simply keep on, and on, doing the next thing, far beyond all reasonable endurance, seldom thinking of themselves as martyred, and never thinking of themselves as brave.”

They were a tough and self-sufficient breed of people. ¬†Perhaps I’ll write more on that later. Here are some of my favorite quotes:

“But you get used to unresting vigilance, and a perpetual danger becomes part of the everyday things around you” (6)

“It so happens we be Texas…so we can’t leave off, without giving up that they (our ancestors) were fools, wasting their lives and wasted in the way they died . . . A Texan is nothing but a human man way out on a limb” (66-67).

“I ain’t so sure we’re through it. A thing like this an make trouble for a long, long time” (124-25).

“There is a great independence and a confident immunity to risk, in all drinks made out of cactus . . . The tequila was thinking in Spanish now” (218-19).

“Like most prairie men, they had great belief in their abilities, but a total faith in their bad luck” (261).

“The lost years had left an invisible mutilation as definite as if fingers were missing from her hand” (288).

The storyline has always moved me, but now even more since I’ve found it’s based on historical events. Evidently Le May researched 60 or so cases of kidnappings by the Comanches/Kiowas and it seems to be based most on the story of Brit Johnson, an African-American teamster who ransomed his captured wife and children from the Comanches in 1865. He also searched relentlessly for a captured girl named Millie Durgan until he was killed by the Kiowa in 1871.

Here’s the MLA Works Cited for the edition I used:

Le May, Alan. The Searchers. New York: Berkley Books, 1992.

2 thoughts on “The Searchers by Alan Le May: A Short Review

  1. I was reading some reviews of this book in preparation for our book discussion group tonight and ran across yours. I have a small correction: Lemay actually based his book on the kidnapping of Cynthia Ann Parker in, I believe, 1836, by the Comanches. She was the mother of Quanah Parker, the chief who later tried to foster better relations between Indians and the white man. I found this information in a book by Glenn Frankel entitled “The Searchers: The Making of an American Legend”, which focused primarily on the making of the movie.

  2. I write from Barcelona, Spain. I’ve always loved John Ford westerns, and The Searchers in particular. This spring has been published for the first time in spanish Alan Le May’s book. And I can only say that has been a thrilling, truly emotive experience. Thank you for your post. I sincerely tell you that it’s not necessary to be a texan to understand the motivations, feelings and decisions of these suffered & brave characters that lives in the pages of Le May memorable novel.

    Best regards from Spain!

Comments are closed.