Book Review: "The Burning Hills" by Louis L'Amour

Published in 1956, "The Burning Hills" avoids many of the formulaic elements that appear in L'Amour's later novels and may be one of his best works.

You don't sell millions and millions of books without being good at your craft. And writing is a craft! Nobody illustrates that better than western writer/icon Louis L'Amour. Famous for cranking out a prolific body of work from the 50s until his death in the late 80s, L'Amour was often criticized for being rather "formulaic" in his writing. His characters tended to be one-dimensional, his plots fairly predictable but, by golly, his stories were fun to read and readers responded by making L'Amour "the world's best selling frontier storyteller".

"The Burning Hills"

Originally published in 1956, "The Burning Hills" seems to eschew much of L'Amour's typical formula, perhaps because it was written early in his career before L'Amour had fallen into his routine. The novel does not have many of the recurring elements found in his subsequent works but it does have a lot of what makes him such an enjoyable read. For example, L'Amour is a master at painting visual pictures. His descriptions of landscapes and physical settings make the reader feel like they are there. In "The Burning Hills" the physical environment seems as much a living, breathing character as any of the people. Additionally, what he may lack in diverse character development he more than makes up for in his ability to create and describe the action. It can never be said that his books lack action.

"The Burning Hills" synopsis

"The Burning Hills" opens with a scene of a wounded and weary cowboy, Trace Jordan, being pursued by a posse from the Sutton-Bayless ranch bound and determined to kill him at all costs. Through a flashback it is revealed that Jordan had found his partner murdered and his horses stolen. Jordan confronts a man riding one of his horses who pulls a gun on him. Fortunately for Jordan, Jordan is the faster draw and kills the man. Unfortunately for Jordan, the man he kills is Bob Sutton, owner, and leader of the aforementioned Sutton-Bayless outfit. The man-hunt ensues and Jordan is nearly dead when he finds shelter beneath a cliff overhang.

Jordan is found and helped by Maria Christina, a Mexican farm girl whose family raises sheep nearby and whose father was killed by the Sutton-Bayless outfit years earlier. At the risk of bringing the wrath of the ranchers down on her family, Maria Christina nurses Jordan back to health and helps him escape from his pursuers.

Jordan and Maria Christina head south to Mexico in an effort to lose their pursuers. They are confronted by Apaches, desert storms and eventually a shoot out with the Sutton-Bayless outfit before eventually making their way back north to safety.

Maria Christina

The character development of Maria Christina is much deeper than the typical female character in L'Amour's novels. She is portrayed as very strong and independent and basically acting as the leader of her family even though she has both her mother and an older brother at home. In one scene, Bob Sutton's son Jack is making threatening advances at Maria Christina. Jack is used to having his way and is therefore quite stunned when Maria Christina pulls out a pistol and shoots him in the ear.

Even the relationship between Maria Christina and Jordan is not your typical L'Amour fare. There is a tension between the two that is not normally seen. The reader is aware of Jordan's romantic interest in her, but is never quite sure of Maria Christina's interest in Jordan. She is a much more complex character than the typical female foil L'Amour creates.


"The Burning Hills" features an action-packed plotline with typical L'Amour flash but features deeper character development, especially in the case of Maria Christina, and a tone that is darker than much of L'Amour's subsequent work. It departs somewhat from the normal formula but in a positive way. For those of us that are true fans of Louis L'Amour, we don't mind the familiar formula - in fact, often it's the formula that makes us return again and again to his novels. We find comfort in that formula. But for those who have limited experience with Louis L'Amour or Westerns in general, "The Burning Hills" is a fine introduction.

Grade: 4.5/5

Copyright Joseph Kirby. Contact the author to obtain permission for republication.


Get Children Motivated When They Don't Want to Go Back to School

The Value of Education

Starting a New School Can Be a Scary