Book Review: “Last of the Breed” by Louis L’Amour (1986)

“I shall not worry you. I shall move on, further away, and when spring comes I shall go to America.” She lifted a cynical eyebrow. “Is that so easy?” He shrugged again. “I do not say it will be easy. I say I will do it.” (86)

My grandfather has been collecting Louis L’Amour since before I can remember, though for his first fifty years of life, he never enjoyed reading. Then one day my dad loaned him a copy of Last of the Breed, and he’s been hooked on both L’Amour and escapism-through-fiction ever since. I’ve known of L’Amour all my life, though not being a fan of Western novels, I thought this would be a good taste of what the men in my family have loved for years. I wasn’t disappointed.

This is a novel of survival across the world’s harshest terrain, the Siberian outback, as well as a critique of Soviet Communism. After escaping from a Soviet prison, American fighter pilot and Native American Joe Mack must return to his “savage” ancestral past, throw all pursuers off his trail, and slowly trudge his way toward the Bering Straights. Brimming with violence and natural living, this book opens wide the imagination to exciting “What if I…” musings.

Alongside the adventures of Joe Mack and the frigid tundra, L’Amour also reflects upon the struggles of those held under the oppressive thumb of Soviet Rule, where intellectuals are outlaws, and outlaws are politicians. In this alien, yet all-too genuine police state, conformity reigns and freedom ceases to exist, save in the quiet solitude of one’s own daydreams. In this lengthy passage, for example, one former school teacher opens his heart to the wandering American now under his roof, and I get a sense that such memories, though fictitious, were actually been shared by many such souls within the borders of the U.S.S.R. in the mid 1980s:

[Stephan Baronas] stared into the flames. “I hunger for books, not food,” he said. “I have so few.” He gestured toward the door.” So much is happening out there of which I know nothing. Scholars are making discoveries, writing papers, lecturing. Here I know nothing of it. Even we who were in Soviet Russia know so little and miss so much. Knowledge is meant to be shared. There is so much to learn, and we have so little time.

     “When I was a young man and lived in Paris for a year—how wonderful it was! We paced the floors and walked the streets, arguing, reciting poetry to each other, discussing all the things that were happening. We talked of Tolstoy and Balzac, of Fielding and Cervantes! It was wonderful! We drank gallons of coffee and sometimes wine when we could afford it, and we argued about everything! Those were marvelous times!

“And then when I was older but no longer in Paris, we would meet in our own homes or sometimes in a cafe and talk books and ideas. Even in the days when we were poor, there were always books. There were libraries, and we read everything. The mind was free to navigate any course; the world of ideas is a vast universe of unexplored worlds, and we were free to go anywhere!

“Those days are past, yet I would like to sit again with men of my kind and hear what they have done and are doing. New avenues are opening with every breath we draw. In America, in England, France, West Germany, people are free to think what they will, to write what they think!

“Russia has so much to give, yet so much to learn. We should be a part of all that instead of being confined as in a prison. I am not a Russian, yet I have lived and thought and worked so much in Russia that I feel like one. But our growth is being stunted by restrictions and rules made by idiots defending themselves against the shadows that are only in their minds!

“So many of our best dancers have fled Russian ballet for Europe or America. It is not that they love Russia less; it is simply that an art must grow. They wish to escape the cocoon of Russia and, like a butterfly, spread their wings in a larger world with greater challenges. An artist needs freedom, he needs innovation, he needs opportunity, he needs to create.” (195-196)

I recommend this book to anyone desiring a nice little adventure, and perhaps, with a taste for political drama. While it’s not a thesis on Soviet Communism, it offers some good insight into the workings of their elite.

©2014 E.T.

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