I’m not sure how Elmore Leonard’s Hombre, published in 1961, reads for a young person today.
It seems to me that there is something universal to it that would make the short novel interesting and even thought-provoking for a millennial — or anyone, for that matter. Something about personal integrity.
Essentially, a motley group of people, riding in a stagecoach to Bisbee, Arizona, are confronted by bullies in the form of four robbers. The bandits are after a fairly hefty fortune that Dr. Alexander Favor, the Indian agent, is carrying.
As it turns out, Favor has embezzled the money and is trying to flee with his wife before anyone catches on. But the robbers have caught on. The result is a chase, mostly on foot, through the mountains of southern Arizona.
Hombre is a novel about the veneer of civilization and the real thing. Favor and his wife Audra, for instance, are the most genteel of the stagecoach riders. Yet, it becomes clear that Favor loves his money more than his wife. And his wife doesn’t love him at all.
The real thing, in terms of civilization, has to do with looking beyond sentimentality and wishful thinking. It has to do with seeing what’s real and not wasting time on inessentials. It has to do with doing the right thing.
And at the center of the story is a young man who is shunned by the likes of the Favors, a man called by many names, including John Russell and Hombre.
Shattered and crumbled
Hombre has been seen as an example of a wave of novels and movies of that time — decades before today’s millennials were born — that looked at Native Americans in a sympathetic way. For the reader or moviegoer of 1961, these stories overturned the previous cliche of the savage Indian, and, to one extent or another, saw the world from the eyes of the indigenous people of North America.
But there’s much more than that going on.
It seems clear now in retrospect that stories such as Hombre were rooted in the civil rights movement of the 1950s and 1960s. There was a willingness in many novels and movies to recognize the humanity of not only Indians but also African-Americans, Mexican-Americans and others on the margins of society. Women, too, were seen a full human beings, not porcelain dolls or sex servants.
In addition, Hombre was written at a time when the memories of World War I and World War II were still fresh — the mindless deaths of millions of soldiers along the trench lines at the beginning of the century, and then, at mid-century, the Nazi death factories, the indiscriminate bombing of cities and civilians, and the two atomic bombs dropped on Japan.
At the same time that writers were willing to look at people on the margins as people, they were also looking at how the seemingly solid structure of civilization had shattered and crumbled like so much broken glass.
At the heart of Hombre is the belief that the old ways of doing things had been corrupted. There are robbers, and, like the Favors, there are people who say one thing and do the other. And all of them are over the age of 25.
It’s the young people in Hombre who are honestly groping to find truth and meaning in life — John Russell, the McLaren girl and Carl Allen, the clerk who is the narrator of the story.
Echoes of the youth revolution of the 1960s.
“I wasn’t sure”
Allen starts his story this way:
At first I wasn’t sure at all where to begin. When I asked advice, this man from the Florence Enterprise said begin at the beginning, the day the coach departed from Sweetmary with everybody aboard. Which sounded fine until I got to doing it. Then I saw it wasn’t the beginning at all. There was too much to explain at one time. Who the people were, where they were going and all. Also, starting there didn’t tell enough about John Russell.
There is something innocent and compelling about his admission in the novel’s first sentences that he isn’t sure of himself. He’s groping to find the right way to tell his story, just as, in the story, the younger characters are groping to figure out what the right thing is to do.
The adults — those over 25 — are very sure what they want to do. Favor wants to escape with his money. The robbers want that money. Carl’s not sure of anything.
For her own reasons, the McClaren girl, Kathleen, isn’t sure either. Seventeen years old, she was taken in an Indian raid and lived with the tribe for six months during which she was sexually assaulted. She is angry and sorrowful about those six months but also, from that time, has learned to be able to see the world from the eyes of the Indians. Throughout the novel, she raises the ethical and moral questions that the adults ignore.
“A person acted”
And then there’s John Russell, a 21-year-old with many names, as Carl finds out and pieces together from many stories he hears:
How he had been Juan something living in a Mexican pueblo before the Apaches came raiding and took some of the women and children. How he had been named Ish-key-nay and brought up by these Chiricahuas and made the son of Sonsichay, one of the sub-chiefs of the band. Five years with them and he must have learned an awful lot. Then, after that, living in Contention with Mr. James Russell [as his adopted son] until he was about sixteen.
Russell is young and mostly silent. Yet, he is the leader of the group as they flee from the robbers. He is the one who gets things done, even at the risk of his own life.
Halfway through the novel, Carl realizes that talk is one thing, but action is the real test of what is meaningful in a person’s life. As he tells the reader:
I meant you couldn’t know what somebody was thinking, especially in the jackpot we were in right then. A person acted, and thought about it later.
Fancy words, fancy clothes, fancy position — none of that matters, Carl is saying, when push comes to shove.
Hombre is about doing the right thing — doing.
Patrick T. Reardon