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Leigh Brackett, Follow the Free Wind

Follow the Free WindBrackett won the Spur Award from the Western Writers of America for this 1963 novel about the historical figure, Jim Beckwourth. Beckwourth was born into slavery in Virginia in 1798 but was freed by his slave-master father to become a mountain man and trapper in the West. In 1856 a writer named Tom Bonner published a book called The Life and Adventures of James P. Beckwourth that was based on stories that Beckwourth had told him. Brackett's novel is partially based on this book, although she had other sources as well. In an author's note, Brackett says she invented a few of the characters, but many are based on real people as well.

The Beckwourth of the novel is a very Brackettian character: He is impulsive and violent, tormented by social constraints and inner demons. Brackett's 1957 novelette, "All the Colors of the Rainbow", dealt with racial bigotry in a science fictional setting, and she was clearly sympathetic to the cause of Civil Rights. However, the racial prejudice Beckwourth faced is not her main focus, even though she doesn't duck it either. She makes no bones about the fact that most white people hate Beckwourth for his race, and indeed shows him living amongst the Crow for many years by preference. But the freedom of the book's title is more a nostalgic freedom from civilization than anything. Brackett had strong libertarian tendencies, at least in her fiction, and this novel is a celebration of the free life in the the Wild West and a valedictory for the loss of that freedom when the settlers poured in. This is a traditional theme of American Westerns.

The Indians are depicted with great sympathy, although Beckwourth ultimately finds their way of life pointless, with its eternal inter-tribal warfare and coup-counting. But the defeat of the Indians as part of the settlement of the West is treated with the same sense of loss as Beckwourth's loss of his own way of life, which was inextricably wound up with the Indians. The mountain men knew how to coexist with the Indians, in this view, and it was only the encroachment of people who needed land to live on and to farm that created conflict and ultimately transformed the situation. This is treated as both inevitable and tragic, and again this resonates with Brackett's stories of the ancient civilizations of Mars losing their way of life to both time's decay and colonialist Earthmen.

Brackett was no stranger to the Western genre. She co-wrote the screenplay for Rio Bravo (1959) and apparently wrote a novelization of that as well. She went on to work on two more Western screenplays for Howard Hawks, El Dorado (1967) and Rio Lobo (1970) -- both of them essentially rewrites of Rio Bravo, much to her disgust. (Hawks and John Wayne insisted.) Follow the Free Wind, however, is the only Western I know of that she wrote on her own. Beckwourth is a fascinating character, and Brackett does a good job of exploring the conflicts and contradictions in the life of a freed slave who left his imprint on the nation, giving his name to Beckwourth Pass in California, which ironically paved the way for the settlers coming to California in the wake of the gold rush.

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