Archive for the ‘Guy Venderhaeghe’ Category

This is excellent historical fiction—which means, not only is the book entertaining, but the history is accurate and well made, and it gives us a path towards  understanding people living in other times and places. In this case, the United States shortly after the Civil War, as the population seethes restlessly westward, creating the new towns and cities which will become the new country.

We start in England, a prosperous family with dangerous undercurrents. Henry Gaunt is one of those tyrannical Victorian fathers—the damage they do has been the subject of many a fine novel–urgently trying to impel his family into the upper class. He has 3 sons, the twins, Charles and Simon, and their brother, Aldington. Henry loves Simon the best, and when Simon disappears on his trek through the American west, the other sons are sent to find him—and on their travels across America, they encounter tangible, interesting people, whose life stories intertwine with theirs, who together move the plot towards a quite astonishing end.

The brothers make their way to Benton,

“a town chock full of drifters, riverboat men, trappers, muleskinners, bull-whackers, old waddies, and sap-green cowboys, all coming to Benton to get drunk, play house with the whores, blow off steam, there’s a bushel of culprits. A boom town draws rogues like a jam jar draws wasps.”

What is a bull-whacker, you will ask:  basically, a truck driver before there were trucks, a freight mover whose truck was a cart drawn by oxen. Waddies are cowboys.

cherokeeFor a guide, the brothers hire Jerry Potts, who is half Blackfoot, half Scots, and ever unsure about where he stands, which heritage is more worthy. They are also accompanied by Custis Straw, a civil war veteran, a good and decent man haunted by war memories, by his time in the army hospital in Washington DC, after the Battle of the Wilderness. He had a vision, that all the wounded boys should pick up their beds and walk, as Jesus told the suffering man in the bible:

“I could not find God there in the dimness, but I did see the shades of boys quitting their beds, shouldering their stinking pallets, shuffling off homeward. I saw them winding up the blue passes of the Adirondacks, fording the black loam of the ploughed fields of Ohio. I saw them drifting along rich river bottoms, every whit as golden as the turning leaves that showered down upon their heads, or blowing grimy-faced as the dirty smoke that came blustering down the broad avenues of New York and Boston. They were tramping under the buckshot stars that riddled the deep blue sky over Pennsylvania and Rhode Island. An Atlantic storm slapped them sideways, filled their boot prints with cold rain in Massachusetts. Home, they said to themselves as they scrambled over snake fences in Iowa or waded through the ditches of Illinois, grass trailing along their waists. Home. “

He is a good man.

Through many perils, the company makes its way through the plains, and in fact they do eventually find Simon. And many other discoveries are made along the way. The ending, as I said, was startling—this is a deft and talented writer.


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