Archive for the ‘Westerns’ Category

JacketI wrote about the Western Into the Savage Country, which explores the idea of a man going West to prove himself worthy of his father and of a woman he wanted. Today’s book, Crossing Purgatory, explores a different reason for a man to go West: to escape a ruined life back East. It’s also set later in the 19th century, during a time when immigrants, would-be traders, and farmers seeking tracts of their own land set out into dangerous territory with little idea what to expect.

Thompson Grey is a successful farmer in the dark and deep soil of Indiana, but without the capital to expand his holdings. Returning from a trip to raise funds, he discovers that a tragedy has taken his entire family. Grey blames himself, and goes into exile. Along the trail and at the place he breaks his journey, he constantly drives himself with physical labor to blot out his terrible memories.

Almost by accident he attaches himself to a small party, each member of which has suffered tragedy or thwarted hope. Grey holds himself apart, but still becomes an accidental pillar of a group of homesteaders. Through his encounters we come to see the arbitrary nature of death, and the consequences of failure in the early West.

Although the Purgatory is a real river and a significant setting of the story, the river itself is only a stand-in for the searing examination of one man’s conscience and the torments he inflicts upon himself out of guilt. As we accompany Grey on his desperate journey of expiation, we come to hope that his self-loathing will give way to some form of acceptance and peace. But Gary Schanbacher’s storytelling and characters make that journey a difficult  and ultimately rewarding one for us.

Check the WRL catalog for Crossing Purgatory

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JacketAh, jeez – as with so much else we know, it ain’t so. If Horace Greeley ever said, “Go West, young man,” it was in the context of quoting someone else who said, “Go West, young man,” and that may even have been an attempt to create a Greeley-sounding quote. Whatever the case, for some it was advice many young men had already taken on their own. Among them were the trappers and traders who pushed into the Rocky Mountains to forge relationships or fight with the Native Americans over the lucrative fur business.

In 1820, William Wyeth is determined that he is going to make his fortune in the West and prove to his father that he is a man of worth. He signs on with a trapping company in the frontier town of Saint Louis and heads out under the guidance of an experienced captain. Thus begins his adventure, and it is a wild one.

Wyeth is also coming up against the consequences of the fur trade. The companies he works for are pushing the boundaries of American influence against the settled Spanish and the British and French trappers who have long considered the West theirs for exploitation. With each tense encounter, the possible causes of war increase, and some of Wyeth’s companions would not necessarily mind the consequences. And the success of the trade means that more trappers and traders want to get in on it, so resources are disappearing even as conflicts are building.

Burke takes the tropes of the American Western and turns them into a literary jewel. His beautiful depictions of the landscape, exciting details of hunting, trapping, racing, and close observations of both the white men and the natives he encounters become opportunities for Wyeth’s self-examination on the meaning of manhood. There’s also a satisfying love story, a complex antagonist who helps Wyeth determine his own course, and men who open Wyeth’s eyes to the complexity of the native cultures.  Into the Savage Country offers an old-fashioned Western feel and a wonderful coming of age story.

Check the WRL catalog for Into the Savage Country

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epitaphBack in 2012, I wrote about Mary Doria Russell’s superb historical novel Doc, where she relates the backstory of the gunfight at OK Corral, looking at the early lives of Doc Holliday and the Earps. I am happy to report that she does an equally excellent job in her newest novel Epitaph, bringing the story forward through the incident in Tombstone and beyond.

As in the earlier story, Russell focuses on characters and there are lots of them in this story. While not quite as complicated as a Russian novel, the cast here is large and you have to pay attention. This is in part because of the fluid nature of the relationships between the characters–friends, or at least drinking buddies, one day and then deadly enemies the next.

In many ways this is a sadder and darker story than Doc. Where the first story was haunted by premonitions of death, death is constantly present in Epitaph. There is also the pain of seeing relationships that seemed so strong in Doc, especially between Wyatt and Holliday, be tried, and sometimes found wanting. Nonetheless, anyone interested in the Western history, or in the study of human nature, will find much to enjoy in this somber sequel.

Check the WRL catalog for Epitaph

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Cover artSometimes it’s good to hit the reset button. Bram Stoker didn’t invent the vampire, but he carved the archetype: a creature of power, terror, and ruthlessness hidden under a veneer of charm. Vampires have been popular recently, both in fiction and movies, but the trend has been to smooth over their edges, making them suave, stylish, even glittery, in a way that doesn’t sit well with many fans of horror.

Scott Snyder and Rafael Albuquerque decided to go back to basics. In Skinner Sweet they re-created the vampire, one who commands visceral fear, not existential angst, who is bloodthirsty, vicious, and brutal. And then they threw in a twist: their vampire would be uniquely American, born and bred in the Wild West. As such, he would not be like any of the vampires that had come before him. Unlike all the European vampires, Sweet is unaffected by exposure to the sun. As the character himself explains “Sometimes, when the blood hits someone new, from somewhere new, it makes something new. With a whole new bag of tricks.”

The first story begins in Nevada, during the construction of the Boulder Dam (now called the Hoover Dam). As the construction expands, so does the vice in nearby Las Vegas. Where there is vice and money, there is blood, and where there’s blood, there’s vampires. Sweet, living under the name Jim Smoke, is running a brothel called the Frontier. In life, Sweet was a murderer and a thief, with a knack for riling up pretty much anyone he interacts with. As a vampire, he’s even worse. When a man turns up drained of every drop of blood after dating one of Sweet’s girls, the law begins to take an interest. But do they have any idea who, or what, they are dealing with?

Pearl Jones, a vampire created by Sweet in Volume 1, is still struggling to come to terms with the consequences of her new life. Desperate to live as normally as possible, she shuns her vampire side, feeding on blood without killing. But she is forever tied to Sweet, and the people who want him dead have decided that she just might hold the key to getting rid of him for good. Pearl, along with her husband Henry, is also featured in a shorter second story in this volume. Although each of the stories has a conclusion, the reader is always somehow left feeling like none of the stories actually end. They are just pieces of a larger narrative that slowly builds with each vignette.

Snyder’s writing ratchets up the tension, and the angularity of Albuquerque’s drawings enhances the sharpness of the vampire’s bite. For the first volume, Snyder approached Stephen King with his idea for Skinner Sweet wanting a forward, but King was so enthused with the character he ended up guest writing the origin story himself, based on Snyder’s outline. If a stamp of approval from one of the biggest American horror writers wasn’t enough, American Vampire won the 2011 Eisner and Harvey Awards for Best New Series. Recommended for fans of horror and westerns.

Check the WRL catalog for American Vampire.

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High noon at the O.K. Corral (actually around 3pm), The Earps and their pal John “Doc” Holliday face down the Clantons, and when the smoke clears there are three men dead, and a trail of vengeance begun that would lead to more deaths. That is all most folks know about Wyatt Earp and Doc Holliday. Here, Doc never makes it to Tombstone.

Instead, Mary Doria Russell has written a superb story about the Earps and Holliday that explores their lives in Dodge City, Kansas in the years before they made it out to Arizona. John Holliday has left his native Georgia to make his way West, in hopes of easing the effects of the tuberculosis that would kill him in less than a decade. Seeking to set up a practice as a dentist, he supplements his meager earnings through his skills at the faro and poker tables. In the course of his time in Dodge, he meets and becomes uneasy friends with sometime lawman Wyatt Earp, second oldest son of a large and close family originally from Illinois. In Russell’s able hands, the Earps and Holliday escape the bonds of gunslinger mythology with which they have been so long entangled. Holliday’s illness and touchy temper shape his encounters with everyone from priests to prostitutes to cowboys. As Russell depicts him, Holliday is a faithful, if at times difficult, friend, and a bad enemy. He moves quickly from charming to deadly cold, but cares deeply about people. Wyatt Earp may be the most sympathetic character in the book. His patience with Holliday, his affection for his brothers, and his resolute honesty make it impossible not to like him. The other characters, fictional and real, are equally appealing and equally complex.

Russell not only excels at character, she also does a fine job at creating a sense of place that feels all too real. Dodge City comes to life in all its squalor, casual violence, political corruption, difficult family lives, and occasional humor. Frontier towns were not all cowboys and saloons: actor and comedian Eddie Foy brings his show to town and becomes friends with Holliday and the Earps. Russell also introduces a fictional priest, an Austrian Jesuit, who becomes friends with Doc and Wyatt.

Doc is death-haunted. Holliday knows that he will not live long, and it is painful to read about the agonizing effects of his TB. There are numerous deaths in the book both prior to the time of the story and in it. Accidents, illness, and all too common violence take their toll on the characters. Nonetheless, this is an optimistic story. Although we know that many of the characters, Doc, Morgan Earp, and others, will meet hard ends down the road, here, we see them as fully-realized human beings, trying to make their way in a difficult world. Regardless of whether you are interested in the West or in westerns, you should read Mary Doria Russell’s Doc. It is the work of an outstanding writer at the top of her game.

Check the WRL catalog for Doc


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What an attraction it must have been.  Stories of thumb-sized gold nuggets just laying in a Yukon streambed for the taking drew men from around the world to make their fortunes.  In the midst of a worldwide Great Depression, many walked away from failing businesses and farms, left their families, and headed North to Alaska in search of wealth and redemption. Some would become rich beyond their dreams, while many others would lose everything, including their lives, in their search.

Along with the would-be millionaires came confidence men, counterfeiters, thieves, pimps, and jaywalkers.  Hoping to gull the marks, they worked in gangs which were often protected by the police.  While usually not violent, they did have enforcers who would take care of anyone who protested about losing their money, or use strong-arm tactics to collect  protection money.  Alongside the reputable businessmen who served the legitimate needs of the growing territory, they would rake in the cash by indulging the darker side of human needs.  Such men gave places like Skagway, Alaska–like every boom town before and since–a reputation as wide-open and lawless.

Three men–outsized personalities all–are the perfect filters to tell the story of the Yukon Gold Rush.  George Carmack was a deserter from the Marines who lived with the Tagish tribe of coastal Canada when he wasn’t searching for gold. Charlie Siringo was a former cattle drive boss, a successful cigar merchant, an unsuccessful writer of Western tales and eventually a Pinkerton’s detective.  And Jefferson R. “Soapy” Smith was an accomplished con man, leader of a gang of specialists who could separate even the most suspicious mark from his last dollar.  The three of them would eventually converge on Skagway, where they would face off over a fortune in gold.

Blum traces their lives, using contemporary records, their own letters and writings, and in-depth histories of the region.  Readers see Carmack and his Native partners carrying enormous loads of supplies through the wilderness and stumbling across the creek that started the Gold Rush.  We ride with Siringo in his lengthy search for desperadoes, then on his investigation into the impossible theft of gold bars from the world’s largest gold mine.  And we learn about the variety of large and small scams that gave Soapy his fortune and ambitions for respectability.

Blum evokes the feel of a country where independence was giving way to corporations and associations, and where civilizing influences were driving free spirits into remote outposts.  He captures the feel of cattle drives, the growing towns and cities, the loneliness of isolation, and the thrill of discovery.  He also finds the humor in the stories.  One particular tale, involving retribution for bigotry, is especially delicious.  This is a great piece of North American history, which demonstrates the adage “Truth is stranger than fiction.”

Check the WRL catalog for The Floor of Heaven


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The end of the early,  “wild” west has always been a great setting for stories, and Leif Enger’s second novel So Brave, Young, and Handsome adds to that tradition. It captures an exciting time when one generation, one way of life, was passing into the sunset, but another way of life was being born.

It’s 1915, and the protagonist is Monte Becket, a Minnesota man who wrote one great adventure novel, but despite several false starts, cannot find the thread for his next book. He’s considering giving up writing and returning to a bland job in the post office, but he wonders what that will do to his marriage and the adulation of his son Redstart. Becket doesn’t just have writer’s block, his whole life has become stuck.

That changes when a mysterious man named Glendon Hale appears on the local river. The two men strike up a friendship, although Glendon remains elusive. But ultimately, when Glendon decides to journey to Mexico in search of some kind of reconciliation with his lost wife, Monte, with his wife’s encouragement, goes along.

What follows is a rambling adventure on rivers, trains, and on early roads through little towns, a late Wild West Show, and out to California. Along the way, Becket encounters two more characters, who along with Glendon, will forever change his outlook. The first is Charles Siringo, a prairie version of Hugo’s Javert, a vicious and egomaniacal lawman who is continuing a long chase. The second is Hood Roberts, an upbeat young man in search of Western adventure. Becket is a waffler compared to all three of his companions, who while they have little else in common, are all men of action. As he’s dragged through chases, near escapes, and disasters, he begins to pick up a little of their gumption.

Enger captures the more formal speech and writing patterns of early America beautifully, and that especially shows in the audiobook, read nicely by Dan Woren.

Addressing various themes such as what it is to be good, whether one can ever shed guilt, how failures can damage a relationship, the driving force of revenge, and the different ways in which we can create the story of our lives, this is an enjoyable and powerful book. Like Enger’s excellent first book, Peace Like a River, this story features a great American journey and some truly American characters in the process of finding themselves. He’s one of our best current novelists, and I look forward to his future work.

Check the WRL catalog for So Brave, Young, and Handsome

Look for So Brave, Young, and Handsome in Large Print

Or try it as an audiobook on compact disc


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