Savage Country by Robert Olmstead
 
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Savage Country by Robert Olmstead


Praise:

“The precision and poetry of the author’s language have a paradoxical effect: they make the setting strange and distinct while imbuing characters and their actions with a particular immediacy . . . A story about America told through its land and its animals and its diverse people and, especially, through the experiences of two vivid, singular, powerful characters. Another gorgeous, brutal masterpiece from a great American writer.”
Kirkus Reviews (starred review)
 
“This is a powerful depiction of the brutality of the Old West, where life was cheap and easily taken.”
Publishers Weekly

“Fans of Larry McMurtry’s Lonesome Dove will enjoy this thoroughly researched epic Western.”
Library Journal

“[A] deeply emotional experience . . . Savage Country is an unforgettable, unflinching, yet distinctly moving story of human greed and desire.”
BookPage

“Like so many outstanding novels about the taming of the West, there is a tragic ambiguity at the heart of Olmstead’s brutal but beautiful tale of the last buffalo hunt. For a certain kind of uncompromising yet lyrical writer – think Cormac McCarthy, Larry McMurtry, or William Kittredge – the West offers a stage for a special kind of archetypal, almost Shakespearean tragedy, and Olmstead makes the most of it.”
Booklist (starred review)

“Robert Olmstead gets better with every book. If you know all of his previous books, you know how startling this fact is, and how startlingly good this writer is.”
-Tom Franklin, author of Crooked Letter, Crooked Letter

In September 1873, Elizabeth Coughlin, a widow bankrupted by her husband’s folly and death, embarks on a buffalo hunt with her estranged and mysterious brother-in-law, Michael. With no money, no family, no job or security, she hopes to salvage something of her former life and the lives of the hired men and their families who depend on her. The buffalo hunt that her husband had planned, she now realizes, was his last hope for saving their land.

Elizabeth and Michael plunge south across the aptly named Deadline demarcating Indian Territory from their home state, Kansas. Nothing could have prepared them for the dangers: rattlesnakes, rabies, wildfire, lightning strikes, blue northers, flash floods, threats to life in so many ways. They’re on borrowed time: the Comanche are in winter quarters, and the cruel work of slaughtering the buffalo is unraveling their souls. They must get back alive.

This is a gripping narrative of that infamous hunt, which drove the buffalo population to near extinction–the story of a moment in our history in which mass destruction of an animal population was seen as the only route to economic solvency. But it’s also the intimate story of how that hunt changed Michael and Elizabeth forever.

Review

And so we have people seeking wealth within the savagery and beauty of the wilderness in this terrible beauty of prose we visit the clash between peoples and cattle, for foods, skins, monies, and ways. A solider, Michael, a reverend doctor and a business woman Elizabeth of whom is seeking enterprise in turning buffalo into money, along with a band of hired men, to take that others also want claim over.
Killing again in history upon the land, a cycle that has no ends.
Great prose within these pages and something I wished has more length, more pages.

Excerpts

“Michael listened to what the reverend doctor had to say until his mind began to wander. He held no anticipation of punishment or reward after death. He experienced no terror of the underworld, of the afterlife. He had no dread of suffering upon perishing. He believed in the transition of souls into horses and in the second sight of dogs and their ability to see invisible spirits and witches. He believed in omens and dreams and warnings and instinct. He believed, contrary to the Gospels, the meek, however blessed, would not inherit the earth.”

“He despised such as the reverend doctor, their worlds of righteousness and reward, punishment and damnation.”

“New men had been hired when many of David Coughlin’s chosen men decided against going without him, but still there would be Darby, the Miller brothers, Daragh, and Aubuchon, whose wages would be paid monthly, as well as the skinners who’d be paid twenty-five cents per hide for skinning. They were still in need of haulers, a reloader, peggers, and butchers and these men they’d pick up on the trail. Michael looked hard at the men. In these times of crop failure there were so many encumbered with mortgages they could not pay and yet they would not agree to venture south and cross the dead line into the Comanche territory. In their stead, these were the men she hired and each of them had a story, and not a very good one. These men were landless and homeless and blown by the wind of circumstance. When they could find work they chored for twelve dollars a month and room and board. They were men of no home, no house, no place, no romance, no longing for something that never was. They would never again die for land. They had no idea of what lay ahead. They’d keep their rifles within reach and they were determined to never be off their guard, but they didn’t know. Whether the fault of the times or the fault of their own, he had the painful feeling he could place no reliance on them and assumed them to be no better than murderers, liars, drunks, horse thieves, robbers, failures.”

“The days went on as if an eternal passage through hell. Relentless and unremitting night turned into day and day into night. Daragh was missed and then he wasn’t missed. Fire, flood, injury, accident, death—each was an episode to be experienced and endured and forgotten as they plodded south by southwest with the increasing sense there would be no arrival and with no arrival there could be no return.
As the sun climbed, its rays refracted and reverberated from the heated ground. A great part of the road lay through a very sandy country with little water. The sun was wearying, but the oxen were fit. The landscape was alive with mirage. What Elizabeth thought to be water was a mineral efflorescence in the dry sands. In the vapory distance, straggling antelope loomed huge on the shore of a sparkling lake, then a miraculous city, its skyline rivaling New York’s or Chicago’s, gleamed out of some tantalizing future lit from within. She knew what this was and yet she could not resist riding in its direction. Perhaps her willingness was the girl inside her, the dreams of an imagination, hope, and want. If only she could arrive it would be there. She looked again and Michael appeared to be crossing the prairie in midair and then he passed from her vision as if over the lip of the earth.
They trailed south down the line of the meridian, keeping an average of ten miles east on the sandy and dusty freight road to Camp Supply and the valley of the buffalo. According to David’s maps, they were south of Snake Creek and north of Buffalo Creek.
For several days Michael sensed doom. Out there something terrible was happening. Then it was over and the aftermath was waiting ahead.”

“Soon he could see thousands of buffalo roaming the plains and he filled with a strange and powerful feeling, the passage of receding time. There were so many of them he felt diminished, infinitesimally small, insignificant. He lost his breath. It made him wonder on the courage of the first man. Man the shadow. Man the child. Man standing erect. Man just beginning and the wars of civilizations yet to take place.
He traveled south by southwest and soon he’d reached the invisible border of open and hostile country. There were three wild horses and he watched them through the glasses. They were a mare with her daughter and granddaughter. The daughter was nursing from the mare and the granddaughter from her mother. How rich and fecund the country, how it smelled of earth and manure, decay and return, hot, steamy, and reeky, the thousands upon thousands of years of grazing and manuring and birthing and dying on these generative plains. The land, the water, the very air generating life, sustaining life, and receiving its return to the earth as it used to in the old days.”

“He followed the water a short distance east to find a small valley situated in a cup among low hills. Here it was, the course so accurately drawn by his brother that he hit the mark without deflecting. It was an unnatural place, a parklike meadow bounded on three sides by the curving stream. It was unnatural in the way it lay stranded. It would need to be looked for or stumbled upon by accident. Blue-and-white cranes fished in the shallows. There, fire would not be seen and its smoke would float east and close to the water before rising.”

“Upon crossing a low ridge, they beheld the whole country and it was black with buffalo and trailing wolves. Elizabeth could not help herself and gasped. She shaded her eyes from the bright sunlight and then she looked at them through the glasses. Never before had she seen so much wandering life and nothing broke the intense stillness of that first moment.”

“By nightfall they would be skinned and pegged. Tongues, saddles, loins, hearts, and harslets would be taken for smoking, brining, drying, pickling, and sausage, for grill or cauldron. Machinelike their grim work had begun and at day’s end they would return in darkness and in the firelight would be as if the workmen of the devil.”

“That day in the field there were two bulls squared off with each other, their anger mounting. They bellowed and tossed their heads and neither would give ground. “That’ll stir your blood,” Darby said, his eye at the telescopic scope. They pawed the earth with their hoofs throwing the sod high in the sky. When they crashed into each they heard them as far away as they were, and shivers went through the men for how violent the collision. Once more and finally it was decided. Not today would they kill each other. They turned from each other and as they slowly walked away Michael shot one and Darby shot the other.”

“That night Michael thought how the American war was not the end of something but the beginning of learning how to kill more easily, learning that however destructive, however much destruction they did, they were capable of even more. The world would be a warring place. The nations would form and they would take everything they could. The new world would be the old world, only worse. The regimes of wealth, the blood drinkers, the men who glory in their shame—they would determine who had the right to live free. If people would not be used they would be murdered.”

“The Lord was dressed in a scarlet coat and vest with brass buttons, which he wore over buckskin breeches and polished high boots with silver spurs. A silk handkerchief was knotted at his throat and beneath his coat he wore a spotless linen shirt. The Lord’s face was ritualistically tattooed and his forehead was gnarled with scarification. His nose had a high prominent bridge and his eyes were large and velvety and black as the night. In Africa the Lord was respected for his intelligence, his political acumen, his ruthless authority. He was a mganga, medicine man and sorcerer, whose powers included exorcism, prophecy, and the removal of spells. On his wrist he wore an elephant-hair bangle to keep him safe on his travels and this bracelet he would give to Elizabeth.”

“The Comanche would be subdued, their naked children and women clothed, their spiritual lives Christianized, civilized, and after the soldiers, surveyors, and cartographers would be men like him of human will, men with spiritual and executive ability, and they would take over the open land and make it ready for law-abiding productive citizens. There would be an end to foreclosures, economic insecurity, and debt. There would be boom times, times of reverence, fulfillment, and human improvement and the end of despair, fear, restiveness, meaninglessness. No darkness but rather light. There would be farms and ranches, fabulous gold and silver lodes in the hill country. The land would be fenced, grazed, planted, harvested. Roads and canals would be built, a lacework of railroads. Rivers would be diverted to irrigate the crops and slake the thirst of the livestock. The plains, liberally fertilized, would become fields of abundance. Rain would follow the plow. The air would fill with the smell of kerosene and oil. He imagined the little children with their dinner pails marching to school. There would be a new masculinity. It would be a land of yeomen farmers and the work they provided for their hired men. Wages would be kept low to prevent working people from wasting their money on alcohol, gambling, and prostitutes.”

“They were at the center of time and America was history’s fulcrum.”

“Down here there were no consequences for killing men. He’d kill them down here where nobody cared. Water, earth, and sky glowed as if they had been set on fire. The river was cast red as if dyed with blood.”



Reviewed by Lou Pendergrast on 02 October 2017