Saturday 20 April 2024

The Tonto Woman by Elmore Leonard (1982)

"Bless me, Father, for I have sinned."

We have a Western double-feature for you this weekend! Both are taken from the "Complete Western Stories" by the prolific and talented Elmore Leonard. Starting with "The Tonto Woman", this is a later work, appearing near the end of this wonderful anthology. There is a cinematic quality to Leonard's writing and it makes sense that many of his works have been adapted into movies or television. Yet, I can totally understand why nobody has dared to touch this story with a ten foot pole in fear of being labeled a racist and immediately cancelled. The story revolves around mischievous cowboy who meets woman that was captured by a tribe of "Indians" and branded with a face tattoo. After being released, she has been ostracized by her husband and society, forced to live alone on the outskirts of town. Hear me out. In the right creative hands, it's a great premise that could go in many different directions, especially as a feminist-take on the Western genre.  As a revenge tale with a strong female lead, it could be quite badass but not without offending the entire indigenous community, so scrap that idea. Her husband and his gang of ruffians are the real villains here. Instead, let's pivot towards are more nuanced approach--a quiet character study. This would explore the woman's trauma and her relationship with the cowboy fella. As an outcast himself, he is empathetic towards her plight and Leonard even hints at burgeoning romantic feelings between them. 

Adopting the "less is more" technique, Leonard's economical prose is taut and meticulously focused on delivering an entertaining story. He mixes together some sharp dialogue and vivid imagery to further enhance the overall cinematic effect.  This is a slow burn and Leonard exhibits remarkable restraint in delaying the main conflict. There are no big action scenes or shoot-outs; rather, it's a story about these complex and interesting characters. The elliptical writing style creates ambiguity, tantalizing the reader with just enough intrigue to leave you craving more.

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