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Review: High Rider, by Bill Gallaher
Touchwood, 2015. 263 pp. $16

In 1867, John Ware, a young black man of strong character and dignity, realizes that he has no future in his native South Carolina. His new freedom will mean nothing, so long as any white man with a gun or length of rope may use them on him with impunity. Since Ware has always loved horses and can tame even the most ornery mule, he dreams of being a cowboy. So he sets off for Texas, on foot. It’s a thousand miles across the Deep South, and should the Klan find him, he won’t get there–not to mention that he can’t be sure anyone will hire him. Of course, someone does, and Ware eventually becomes famous as a rancher–in Canada.

John Ware, his wife, Mildred, and two of their children, 1890s (Courtesy blackpast.org).

John Ware, his wife, Mildred, and two of their children, 1890s (Courtesy blackpast.org).

Unfortunately, Gallaher lets this excellent premise–and character background–get away from him. The scenes of slavery speak loudly of cruelty, viciousness, and the struggle to maintain dignity when one is powerless. However, the tendentious commentary, which reminds me of voiceovers in language Ware would never use, undercuts the effect. For example: “Therefore, it was time to go, to leave behind this land of cruel deeds committed by heartless, single-minded people.”

The reader can tell right away who’s good and who’s not. The people who welcome Ware do so with open arms, with nary a conflict thereafter. Those who’d just as soon spit on him lose no time doing so. As a result, there’s little tension, and whatever happens feels utterly predictable, if not ordained. The only character in this novel, black or white, who has the least shade of gray to him is a disabled Confederate veteran who rows him across a river solely because he needs the toll money.

As for the setting, Gallaher describes interiors meticulously, giving you a snapshot of everyday objects. But he rushes through the outdoor scenery, which leaves me wanting a sense of place, particularly the magnificent Alberta landscape that moves Ware to put down roots in Canada.

What a shame, for High Rider could have been so much better. Comparing it to Paradise Sky (July 13), whose hero resembles Ware, underlines the point. I don’t mean that High Rider could or should have been picaresque and funny like Paradise Sky, only that the latter book explored its protagonist’s inner life and emotional transitions. By contrast, we’re informed that Ware longs to settle down and marry, and that he feels ashamed, a little, to visit prostitutes. But I don’t see him wrestling with that shame, or with what settling down means, maybe trying to imagine what it would feel or look like, how he views that next to what his parents had, and so forth. We’re also told his resentment of bigotry–not exactly news, there–or how tired he is of having to prove himself over and over and over before his white colleagues will accept him. Again, however, Gallaher never takes that anywhere, as if these observations were enough and bear repetition. It’s as if Ware never inhabits his skin, even though his skin has determined his life path.

The only quirk Ware has is a passion for breaking horses, at which he excels beyond compare. (The scene I liked the most was the prologue, in which he goes to fantastic lengths to tame a particularly unruly one.) Reading this, I wondered at the metaphor here, of a former slave asserting his mastery over an animal, who’d then be his servant–one lovingly treated, like a friend, but still. I wish Ware had pondered that parallel, or other aspects of his fascinating life. Too bad he doesn’t, and that High Rider never really gets off the ground.

Disclaimer: I obtained my reading copy of this book from the public library.