All in the family

Robert Laxalt’s biography can be read on the Nevada Writers Hall of Fame site.

Because the best stories are familial sagas told by bards in the family’s bosom, gratitude goes to anyone pushing such archetypal tales.

The greatest such stories seem dark yet luminous, capturing interior thoughts and exterior events, linking emotions with actions, and oozing family foibles or tribal temptations without coming off as soap operas.

It follows that book lovers owe gobs of gratitude to the late Robert Laxalt, the brother of former Nevada governor and U.S. senator Paul Laxalt. I’ll also tip my hat to Joe LaBranch, who shared with me his copy of Robert Laxalt’s Sweet Promised Land. In it, the author told of a touching trek with his father to the family’s Basque homeland.

LaBranch, a product of the rural West, drops by my home occasionally to chat about various topics. He said he got the book he loaned me from the author’s own hand. Inside it, Laxalt inscribed these words:

“Washoe Valley/For Joe LaBranch – Who knew the kind of man I have written about here. “Robert Laxalt, 1994.”

The man was Dominique Laxalt, who came to this country in 1906 and spent a half century as a herder/husbandman running some cattle but mostly sheep in this area. He and Terese Alpetche, also French Basque, were married in Reno. The couple raised six children while earning livelihoods in agriculture and lodging.

Robert Laxalt’s works and what LaBranch started became a literary feast. After devouring La Branch’s copy, your columnist borrowed several more of the author’s books from the library.

In A Hundred Graves: A Basque Portrait and A Cup of Tea in Pamplona taught me about the tightly knit and almost tribal nature of Basques in the French and Spanish old country areas of the Pyrenees Mountains.

It was the Laxalt family trilogy, however, that captivated me. Names were altered to make novels from events and to provide poetic license for alteration of reality to fiction. The Laxalts became the Indart family. Robert became Pete; Paul was renamed Leon.

The trilogy, well received in the 1990s, includes The Basque Hotel, Child of the Holy Ghost and The Governor’s Mansion—the latter an insightful look at how the family and various associates helped Leon (Paul) rise to national stature politically.

Fiction basically mirrors truth. Paul Laxalt was a district attorney, Nevada’s lieutenant governor and governor, and a U.S. senator. He also became a friend, key confidant and “go to” guy of President Ronald Reagan.

Paul Laxalt won his first U.S. Senate term in 1974 by defeating Harry Reid, then Nevada lieutenant governor and now the U.S. Senate majority leader. When Laxalt left after two terms, Reid ran again and, that time, won the seat he has kept ever since.

Now Reid seeks a fifth term and his son wants to be governor.

I’ll have more to say next week about the Reid pair, the aftermath of Nevada’s primary election just completed, and the general election upcoming. A luxury of column writing is that you can collect your thoughts before scattering them for readers to savage or time to ravage.

For now, let’s close with a caveat about Robert Laxalt. A knowledgeable friend tells me the late author once informed on the private life of a colleague at the University of Nevada, Reno. I’m not surprised; a good writer isn’t necessarily always a good person.

The family trilogy provides glimpses of some boyhood or early manhood attitudes and influences that likely helped spur such small-mindedness in this man’s normally large mind. Mon Dieu; ces’t la vie.