West by Carys Davies

A mule breeder heads west to search out a mythic beast while his daughter struggles quietly at home in this tale of fantasy, hope and risk.

In the newspaper, Cy Bellman reads of bones pulled from the Kentucky mud–enormous, ancient bones, belonging to some mythic creature taller than the tallest trees. Grieving his lost wife, he is now transported: he all but stops eating and sleeping, too disturbed to give his full attention to his work as a breeder of mules, or to his 10-year-old daughter, Bess. He can’t help but go in search of the beasts that have so captured his imagination, and leaves Bess and their small farm in rural Pennsylvania in the care of his hard-edged sister, Julie, with the occasional help of an odd neighbor, Elmer. With some weapons, trinkets for trade and a new stovepipe hat, Bellman travels west, toward the wild frontier.

West is Carys Davies’s first novel (though she’s published two short story collections, The Redemption of Galen Pike and Some New Ambush), and it is an epic tale of early 19th-century adventure in a small package. With fewer than 200 pages, its scale is nonetheless mighty, conjuring both history and fable. Davies’s simple, conversational prose stays out of the way of her gripping plot.

Julie and the town’s citizens think Bellman a fool at best. Bess, however, adores her father, and is heartbroken to be left alone with no books or pleasures, only a motley bunch of mules; her dead mother’s gold ring is hidden away by her unloving aunt. In her father’s absence, she makes up charms for his good luck: “if she made it from the pump to the house without slopping a drop of water over the lip of the bucket, it meant he was in good health.” She takes long walks with her favorite mule, until Elmer’s awkward attentions to the deserted household become too alarming, and she shuts herself up inside.

Meanwhile, Bellman wanders the wild countryside, farther and farther south and west, first alone and then with an unlucky Shawnee boy named Old Woman from a Distance for his guide. Bellman’s dreams of the enormous creatures grow vivid, and then less so, as his distance and time away from home increase. He promised Bess he would be gone two years at the most, but as her 12th birthday approaches, his grip on both his promise and his quest look doubtful.

West is a novel about family commitments, small-town agitations and the irresistible, fanatic pull of the unknown. Bellman is either enchanted or suffering a good old-fashioned midlife crisis. Davies writes of small fates: hopeful young Bess, bitter Julie, the enigma of slovenly Elmer, and Old Woman from a Distance, with a troubled past of his own.

This quick, compelling read will please lovers of historical fiction, legendary quests and stories of humble familial devotion. It may prove as hard for Bellman to find happiness at home as to find the monstrous “animal incognitum” he seeks. Readers, however, are the richer for his efforts.


This review originally ran in the April 3, 2018 issue of Shelf Awareness for the Book Trade. To subscribe, click here.


Rating: 7 incognita.

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