The desert isn’t as empty as we think. Sands crawl over sands, rippling with wind or the tracks of sidewinders. Ruins gape, abandoned by the men who made them and left for an inheritance of the relentless sun. But it’s not only elements, lesser creatures, and the relics of human habitation that fill the desert. The desert is also home to gods and saints: lonesome ones, and crooked.
I did not expect to write this book review/comparison. I hadn’t even considered the two books together, though I read them concurrently: Maggie Steifvater’s 2017 standalone young adult All the Crooked Saints, and Louis L’Amour’s 1983 bestselling western The Lonesome Gods. How to even begin to compare them–from two different eras, two different genres, two radically different writing styles. Not to mention the different audiences they are aimed at. So I was surprised when, reading All the Crooked Saints (I’ll call it Saints from now on for the sake of brevity), an inkling of something familiar nudged at my mind–something similar to the other book I had started reading prior, The Lonesome Gods (called Gods from now on). It didn’t sink in until I finished Saints and resumed Gods: in both stories, the desert was a character. Specifically, the desert was a character that was a friend to some of the main characters.
So striking was the similarity, both in execution and function story-wise, that I was sure there was a literary term for the insertion of setting as character. Similar things happen in Gothic fiction or modern horror where the setting possesses its own personality, be it the moors of the Bronte sisters or the mountain-top hotel of Stephen King’s The Shining. Often the setting comes alive partially, but not exclusively, through the appearance of supernatural entities: ghosts, spirits, and the like. The spooks are rarely the sole explanation for why these places are so full of vitality and energy, however. Instead, it is usually due to a pre-established powerful magnetism of the setting that such beings are attracted and remain in it. But, unlike general Gothic/horror procedure, the desert’s persona turns out to be far from unfriendly to our protagonists.
Johannes Verne begins Gods narrating in a style both simple and mature, as he is a child in the mid-1800s who has been raised on literature and the conversation of adults. His parents came through the desert before he was born, and now his dying father is returning him to the desert to live in the house of Tahquitz. Tahquitz—one of the many legends of the desert passed down by the Cahuillas—was a monster who preyed on girls until one day the tribe tracked him to his cave and walled him in. Now they say he is back, as someone has built onto an abandoned adobe and there are signs of someone living in it but no one is ever seen. In this house, periodically accompanied by a mysterious presence, Johannes begins the desert life which threatens to result in his death.
Saints does not begin with character, but a palpably present narrator waxing poetic on the nature of miracles—and AM radio in the 1960s. The first character encountered is Beatriz Soria, sometimes saint and all-around mad inventor. She, along with her two cousins, operates a pirate radio station which broadcasts for a short distance in the desert of the San Luis Valley. But while illegal broadcasting is a family affair in this case, it is not the family business—performing miracles is. Enter Pete Wyatt, having hitched a ride with a man in search of a miracle. Little does Pete know that when he encounters Beatriz in the desert, he’ll find a miracle of his own.
Johannes finds he loves the desert, like his mother did, and Pete falls in love with it for no apparent reason. Throughout their respective journeys, working hard for their dreams, falling in love, finding and fighting with their families, both boys end up in the desert. The desert personified is not always kind. Johannes is told never to take it lightly: “If you do, she’ll rise up, an’ the next thing you know, the wind is playin’ music in your ribs and honin’ your skull with sand.” We are told in the narration what Pete should know: “This strange cold desert does not care if you live or die in it.” Yet both come to love it. And the desert, strangely enough, loves them back.
Johannes, grown up and pursued by those who tried to kill him as a child by leaving him in the desert, now leads them into the desert:
This was my world, this barren, lonely place, this vast pink-and-copper silence, this land of heat waves and cruel ridges. Here where even the stones turn black from the sun, if they followed me they would leave their bones to mark their trail… The desert itself was my friend.The Lonesome Gods
Pete, after a fight with Beatriz, is prepared to leave her to her darkness, until he thinks better of it with a little help from the desert:
But as he thought about leaving the desert, he realized…there wasn’t enough love in the world to help him survive leaving the desert so soon after leaving Beatriz… The desert…cast a wind the rose sand and dust, and this amorous breeze rolled Pete head over heels…until it brought him here to Beatriz.All the Crooked Saints
Although I didn’t end up finding a particular literary term for it, it is clear that in these stories the setting itself becomes an agent of change necessary to the development of the character and plot. It becomes an intrinsic piece of the narrative. Neither of these stories could take place in any other setting, in the same way events of Wuthering Heights could not occur in a small town, nor The Shining in a seaside motel. The setting is its own entity, framing the narrative and shaping it in its own image. The desert in Gods is detailed, mapped, and realized in order to convey its sharp atmosphere, while the one in Saints is more of a fantastic personality, as generalized and blurry as needs be to allow it the freedom to act irrationally. But it is always the desert–barren, dry, dangerous, and full of those who walked in and never walked out. And it invites our characters, and their readers, into its alluring expanse.
Both Gods and Saints are stories of self-discovery, with main characters spending time alone in the desert in peril of their lives. Throughout all their journeys, they encounter living legends, kindly spirits of ancestors, and their own darkness. In the end, the desert saves both Johannes and Pete, carrying them safely back to their loved ones, assisting them to defeat their foes, and leaving them with the promise of always looking after them. Johannes lives in peace with the inhabitants of his desert, the lonesome gods, and Pete the inhabitants of his, all the crooked saints.