Westerns are a study in archetypes that are almost entirely unique to American civilization. Wanderers on horseback with Stetson hats and gleaming weapons at their sides, these Men With No Name sweep in like knights errant, protecting towns from both villains, and the encroachment of civilization.
In “The Legend of Tommy Jo Sanchez”, our hero is not John Wayne, Clint Eastwood, nor any of the myriad characters who might be found in the canon of Louis L’Amour. TJ Sanchez is a woman, as passionate as her male counterparts are steely. However, TJ does exactly as these men do – stands as a symbol, representing the spirit of the Old West.
Refusing to follow in her mother’s footsteps by becoming a prostitute, TJ steals a horse and sets out for the storied town of Tombstone, AZ, set on building her future. It is a harsh wilderness, one that is deeply inhospitable, even to men, but in spite of the wild Apache, those who seek her for revenge, and her own fiery temper, TJ finds a rough sort of family among the leathery cowboys, gamblers, and prostitutes. She conjures a plan that will allow her to live life on her own terms, by her own code of honor. A talented poker dealer, TJ – with the help of Doc Holliday and Wyatt Earp – sets up a high stakes poker game to draw some big rollers to her table, hoping to win enough to buy their saloon, so that she can secure her own future and look after the girls working there, as well.
This independent sense of justice is not a theme that is foreign in the Western genre. Individual law, whether maintained solely for personal benefit, or for altruistic reasons, is the hallmark of an untamed era, before the sprawl of advancement swept across the arid lands, bringing with it impersonal morality and enforced order. These “knightly” figures are respected, or feared. They live by their own wits and on their own conditions. Within them lie the perplexities that is the Old West – the noble integrity, and the unflinching ruthlessness. TJ Sanchez is all of these things, and must be to survive. She uncompromisingly demands respect, even from the men who seek to woo her. Fortunately, TJ has her share of flaws, otherwise she would be intolerable, and impossible to like as a character. her erratic temper, thick-headedness, stubbornness, and her tendency to run away any time there’s a problem, make her absolutely infuriating, but give her layers that are relatable.
A most notable aspect of “The Legend of Tommy Jo Sanchez” is that the villain of the piece is also a woman. As like to TJ as day is to night, the finely dressed, well-off gambler from Louisiana is drawn to TJ Sanchez’s high stakes game, and quickly shows that although she is equal to TJ in strength of character, she is far more ruthless, and willing to go to lengths unplumbed by her rival in order to get what she wants. Just as TJ Sanchez stands among her peers as a spirit of the Old West, Fannie is an excellent example of the intrusion of progression across the dusty plain. She is more aggressive, more political in her double-dealing. She’s too shiny and too new for Tombstone, AZ. She arrives, however, and she tries to steal those things that most explicitly typify the Old West.
“The Legend of Tommy Jo Sanchez” creates characters that are engaging, genuine, and worthy of the genre. They rub elbows with the likes of Doc Holliday, Wyatt Earp, and Clara Barton, in Tombstone, AZ, gives it a sense of history. It is clear the author enjoyed doing her research, and the details bring the story to life. By way of critique, the book could benefit from an editor’s eye for grammatical, punctuation, and spelling errors. However, “The Legend of Tommy Jo Sanchez” is an exciting read from a genre that receives little attention these days. It offers something to satisfy without following all of the usual tropes, and for that, it is truly unique.