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Review: Savage Country, by Robert Olmstead
Algonquin, 2017. 293 pp. $27

It’s rural Kansas, 1873, and many farmers have gone bust, whether from overextended investment, rapacious creditors, or the swarms of locusts that have wreaked destruction of biblical proportions. Elizabeth Coughlin, recently widowed and deeply in debt, decides to try to recoup her fortunes by assembling a buffalo hunting expedition. Properly cured buffalo hides are worth a fortune, prized as leather for factory drive belts or other applications requiring particular strength or resiliency. And to lead her expedition, Elizabeth asks her brother-in-law Michael, newly arrived from his latest journeys as a big-game hunter. Against his better judgment, Michael agrees — and no sooner has he said yes than the party gathers and prepares to head south. Michael, it seems, would rather do just about anything than talk, and when he’s around, life-changing decisions happen in a New York minute.

Digitally retouched photograph dating from the mid-1870s of a pile of bison skulls, to be ground into fertilizer (courtesy Wikimedia Commons; public domain in the United States)

But he anticipates the dangers that lie ahead. As they cross the so-called dead line separating Kansas from Comanche territory, Michael finds the remains of a couple wagons whose murdered and scalped occupants make a grisly display. You know right away that Elizabeth’s quest will be a struggle to the death, but, as it happens, the Comanches aren’t the main antagonists. When it comes to raiders, white brigands are the worst; and if something burns, bites, floods, or falls from the sky, the Coughlin crew will have their fill of it. But what’s in the human heart causes even more misery, for it’s the pursuit of wealth, especially wealth that comes through killing, which destroys the spirit as well as the body.

Savage Country shows this in its vivid, gruesome descriptions of the buffalo hunt in its appalling carnage, and the inevitable rivalries and prejudices that divide the expedition. For instance, when a group of sick, starving black escapees arrives from a turpentine plantation — a form of industrial slavery — Elizabeth hires them to skin hides as a kind of rescue. But you sense that violence will erupt sooner or later, because not all her employees share her outlook.

It’s violence that shapes Savage Country, and I say that even as I recall other unflinching novels about the West, such as The News of the World or The Way West, which involve their share of brutality. Olmstead’s tale will deter some, but I, who consider myself squeamish, didn’t recoil. Maybe it’s because the violence establishes its own context, and that the characters, Michael and Elizabeth especially, try to make sense of it. And Michael has seen it before:

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.

But Michael, the rock of the narrative, resembles that substance in his refusal to express anything, which grates after a while. His deliberate terseness sometimes comes across as harsh and unyielding as the weather. The narrative succeeds best, I think, in its vivid descriptions of life and death on the prairie, which are as tense and dramatic as could be. But when it comes to human speech, the characters — even those who show more of themselves — don’t speak as much as they declare, as if they were coining homespun aphorisms, or trying to. I don’t believe that late-nineteenth-century frontier folk avoided contractions like the plague or snarled their syntax to avoid saying an extra word. Here, their language can be so stilted as to sound pretentious, and these people are anything but.

Still, I found the novel worth reading, both for its depictions of nature and the way it dramatizes its central themes. As Elizabeth observes, “For all the slave lords the war had killed, a new generation was born in their ashes and born inside of the new generation was the enmity of the old.”

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