Louis L'Amour,
The Burning Hills
(Bantam, 1956)

Let's talk for a minute about Louis L'Amour's female characters.

They are often strong women, it's true. He writes a lot about women who can walk beside a man, not behind him, which is a fine philosophy that, when you think about it, shouldn't even have to be said. Then again, he was writing in a different time, and he was writing about an even more distant past, so some elements of his attitude toward women can be excused on that basis.

But sometimes, he takes it too far.

In The Burning Hills, protagonist Trace Jordan is already wounded, near death, on the opening page. His horses had been stolen, his partner murdered, and he was out for revenge when he faced far too many of his foes and took a bad bullet to the side. If Maria Cristina hadn't found him on that ledge, where he'd found cover and eluded his pursuers, he'd have died.

And I suppose it's natural that a man whose life is saved by a beautiful woman might turn his thoughts to love. But Jordan doesn't know a lot about wooing. Take this scene, for instance. They are on the run, and he decides to propose, sort of.

"Stay with me."
She looked up, her eyes flashing, almost angry. "With you? For why? Why I go with you?"
"You're my woman, Maria Cristina."
She glared at him, then said contemptuously, "For why am I your woman? Because I help you? I do it for a dog. All right ... I am in trouble. They hate me. I hate them too."
"I'm not going to let you go, Maria."
"You have nothing to say if I go or stay."

Rebuffed, Jordan tries another tactic a page later.

"I need you, Maria."
"You need
me? You need a woman ... any woman. Then you ride on. Maybe sometime again you need a woman, you find one again." She looked at him with a taunt in her eyes. "Anyway, I don't think you need a woman very often."
He ignored the comment and relaxed. "Trouble is," he mused, "I let you ride that horse. I should have made you walk ... all the way."
He sat up and began to roll a smoke. "And I should have made you carry the pack too."
She glared at him. He took a stick from the fire and lighted his cigarette. "A good woman needs to work," he said. "They aren't happy if they aren't working. Keep 'em busy, that's what I say."
"You!" she said witheringly. "What do you know?"
He drew deep on the cigarette. "I know you're my woman, Maria Cristina. Maybe I'll make you my woman tonight."

This is not what I'd call positive flirtation. And it gets worse toward the end of the book.

She moved past him in the darkness and he put his arm out and pulled her to him. Swiftly, she struck down his hand and started to move away but, seized by a sudden hot gust of desire, he caught her and drew her into his arms.
She fought desperately, wickedly. Her body was suddenly a bunch of steel wire. She drew back, struggling to free herself. He caught her face and twisted her lips roughly toward him.

Believe it or not, his strategy eventually works. Bear in mind, earlier in the novel Maria is brutally beaten and very nearly raped by Jordan's antagonist, and yet somehow this kind of blunt, aggressive "romance" bears fruit.

Otherwise, the story is good, and Trace Jordan proves to be a resourceful man when it comes to outwitting and outshooting his enemies.

And yet ... I kind of hope some night, not too long after the book's "happy ending," Maria Cristina stabs him in his sleep.

book review by
Tom Knapp

22 October 2016

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