The Last Ride (The Missing) by Tom Eidson is one of several book I’ve ordered because of recommendations on BBC Radio 4’s, A Good Read. It still seems odd to me that I found out about this terrific novel by an American writer set in the American west through a discussion among three English celebrities. Perhaps Americans find the western so far outside of the category “literature” that we no longer give it any notice. That’s too bad really, because if there are more books out there as good as The Last Ride then we’ve been missing out on a lot.
The Last Ride, most recently published under the title The Missing, contains both classic western plots: a stranger rides into town and a stranger rides out of town. The stranger, Samuel Jones, is a dying man, a mystery man, come back to white society after years of living as an Indian. He finds his daughter, Maggie, whom he has not seen since he left her mother a lifetime ago, married with two young daughters, living on a successful ranch. Maggie knows that he left her mother for an Indian woman and blames him for her mother’s breakdown and death. She will have nothing to do with him, won’t allow him into her house. Her husband, Brake, refuses to send a dying old man away and lets him sleep in the barn. Maggie tries to keep her daughters away from him and his Indian ways, but her youngest daughter, Dot, is taken in by the notion of an Indian grandfather and, of course, by his small dog, Chaco.
Several days later, Maggie’s husband, their farm hand Mannito and their daughter Lily are attacked by a group of Apache Indians who have “gone off the reservation”. Mannito is horribly killed, Maggie’s husband is grievously wounded and Lily is kidnapped. Dot begs Jones to use his Indian magic to find Lily like he found her missing cat Harriet, but Maggie puts no faith in anything but the Christian God. Jones tells them that the local sheriff and his posse are heading in the wrong direction, walking into a trap instead of following Lily’s trail. He sets off to rescue Lily. Dot runs off after him followed soon by Maggie. The three of them form a very uneasy alliance in the search for Lily.
This is John Ford’s The Searchers, starring John Wayne and Natalie Wood, but it’s much more than The Searchers. The relationship between the whites and the Indians is not kept at a distance like it was during most of The Searchers. The hero, the John Wayne role, in The Last Ride is a white man but he is also fully an Indian. The conflict between the two societies has already been played out in the life Samuel Jones lived before he arrived at the start of the novel. Now, what remains to be done, is to rescue Lily, his white granddaughter, and reconcile with Maggie his white daughter. He has already lost most of his Indian family, massacred by whites. He must also reconcile himself with the reader as well because he did abandon his wife and family and, no matter what your position is, this is an unforgivable act for the hero of a novel to commit. The rescue attempt and the eventual reconciliation are what make up the bulk of The Last Ride.
The aspect of The Last Ride that sets it apart from most historical fiction, and that many readers may find difficult to accept, is how integrates the reality of Indian spirituality. Samuel Jones has constructed a belief system based on the many Indian tribes he has spent time with. He believes that the visions he sees in his dreams are real, that his spirit guides will lead him to Lily. And they do. Throughout the novel, Jones spiritual life is presented as true and real and as the key to many of the plot developments, so much so that the novel begins to border on a type of ghost story. The Last Ride is a western, but a western that almost passes into the realm of fantasy.
It seems a shame to me that American audiences have basically abandoned the western genre. Books like The Last Ride, movies like The Searchers, still have much to offer. Leaving this ground behind is understandable I know, but I think we leave behind a large part of the American consciousness as well. So, I’m giving The Last Ride by Tom Eidson five out of five stars. I’m also adding the author’s other westerns to my wish list at Paperbackswap.com. I also warn readers that Tom Eidson writes westerns in the tradition of Larry McMurtry; neither of them shy away from depictions of violence.
In the years since I first published this review in 2008 one my old blog Ready When You Are, C.B. I’ve become a regular reader of Westerns. I’ve even run a Western reading challenge. What I have not done is read more books by Tom Eidson. In fact, I forgot all about him and all about this novel. Maybe that will change now, and I’ll read a few more of Tom Eidson’s westerns. I will be reading more westerns, of that I am sure.