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guest review: The Solace of Open Spaces by Gretel Ehrlich, from Pops

Pops has been making his way through my backlist. See, while we’re at it, his comments on Dream Team. Here, he’s sent a full discussion of The Solace of Open Spaces, which I reviewed here (see his comments there, too). Thanks as always for weighing in, Pops!

Thanks for yet another good recommendation, although belatedly honored.

Ehrlich’s work is as special as you describe, although you commended it with one more cowboy than I might have, likely accounted for by personal taste and happenstance, that nebulous coincidence of reading the right book at the right time (or not).

Two other, little things I noticed. One is her occasional unabashed use of urban references in metaphors or similes describing wild and natural (albeit inhabited) places. This is not so typical in literary works about the wild, but it works well here supporting her personal story as a ‘straddler,’ as she once refers to herself, shifting between places.

The other is a brief mention in her chapter “To Live in Two Worlds,” a title with meaning for her book’s personal backstory, but also for the chapter’s subject describing the parallel Wyoming culture of native Indian tribes. She attends two tribal events; one is the annual Crow Fair, where an Indian friend remarks on tribal mythology about a ‘berdache’ (p.123), a French word which she parenthetically defines as transvestite.

I have read that the American Indian or First Nation usage of a French word derives from French voyageurs, the French trappers in early North American history who were the first European contacts with many native tribes, who then adopted many French terms in their learning of English. The voyageurs encountered the cultural fact of native gender ambiguity, and recognizing a common social reference, contributed their word to an emerging hybrid language of native, English and French words.

From multiple references I have read, Wiktionary seems to get it right: berdache is “a person who identifies with any of a variety of gender identities which are not exclusively those of their biological sex.” An added comment there goes beyond what I have seen elsewhere: “Considered offensive by many Native American communities because of its pejorative and non-American etymology, berdache began to fall out of use in the 1990s; two-spirit and various tribe-specific terms are now used instead.” The latter is wonderfully explicated here by a gay blogger in Montana.

Nevertheless, I find the history fascinating, including that last reference with very helpful context: the contemporaneous accounts, from both Indians and early explorers, suggest both surprising awareness and a more tolerant acceptance of a cultural and social issue that US culture still wrestles with today.

In reading northwest history I have seen berdache, as a word and cultural phenomenon, repeated in things I’ve read lately. Notable are two excellent works of creative non-fiction history, Jack Nisbet’s Sources of the River and Peter Stark’s Astoria. The narrative lines of the two books briefly but importantly overlap, and a berdache is, remarkably, at the center of that historical confluence.

Nisbet’s work references contemporaneous journals of Scot-Canadian David Thompson, who led (and amazingly, accurately mapped) the first European expedition from Columbia River headwaters in Canada to its mouth near Portland, Oregon, in 1811 immediately after Lewis & Clark journeyed overland to the mouth. In his journeys through true wilderness, meeting some tribal parties who have never seen a white person, Thomson first hears tales of a berdache, then meets the person named Qánqon – twice! First is early in the trip, near the headwaters; second is later, at the mouth.

Astoria describes a complicated American expedition of the same period (they and Thompson were vaguely mutually aware), which involved two groups, overland and by sea, converging on the mouth of the river. All three parties converge in the summer of 1811 at the Astorian camp near present-day Portland – and, defying odds, the mysterious Qánqon also arrives, with a companion, to make it four. This motley combination clashes to provide a bit of historical human drama and political intrigue. And it all makes for wonderful reading.

So that’s what I know about berdache. And thanks to Ehrlich for providing yet another reference to an interesting historical thread.

What a turn this review took! I did not remember the term berdache at all, so there you have it. (Also, that was five years and how many hundreds of books ago? Probably nearing a thousand?) Also, although we all know I do not have time for more titles added to my list, I love a review that comes with additional reading recommendations. Thanks as always for weighing in, Pops!

The Poetics of American Song Lyrics ed. by Charlotte Pence

This book took me an inordinately long time – weeks – to finish, but not because I didn’t love it. I loved it. It’s just dense, and took a lot of mental energy. And being a collection of discrete pieces, it was easy to take breaks. And it hit just at the end of a wonderful but wearying semester, so my mind was fatigued. [Post about the semester wrap-up to come.]

I’m going to let editor Charlotte Pence introduce this book to you as she did to me.

Not many editors can pinpoint the exact moment a specific project began, but I can say for certain that it was September 12, 2003, the day Johnny Cash died. I was living in Nashville, teaching composition and poetry writing at Belmont University where 27 percent of the entering freshmen are part of the Mike Curb College of Entertainment and Music Business. The university sits on a hill that hovers at the end of Music Row, those legendary two streets that Nashville record labels and studios call home. When students miss class at Belmont, the reason often involves the words “touring schedule.” Essentially, the music business is an extension of the campus, and there I was teaching poetry and having students ask if they could bring their guitars to class for backup as they read their “poems” for the class to critique.

She goes on: when Johnny Cash died, Tennessee senator Lamar Alexander gave a speak on the Senate floor in which he wondered why Tennessee English professors (“including those at Belmont specifically”) didn’t teach lyrics alongside poetry. Pence acknowledges their “differing politics,” but answers the call nonetheless, to explore this question. Poetry professors have a number of quick-and-easy answers to the question of how poetry and song lyrics are different – I’ve had this conversation with my own favorite poetry professor, Doug Van Gundy, who among others things (like citing a lovely quotation from Glyn Maxwell’s On Poetry) recommended this book to me. But Pence understood that it remains a question in many minds, Lamar Alexander’s and her own undergraduates’, and created a course investigating the issue. In seeking assigned readings for this course, she quickly realized that there was a major shortage of articles analyzing the content and techniques of song lyrics. Long story short, this book was born to answer that shortage.

Pence has more than this to say in her introduction, which I read with great interest. She explains the mix of contributors she’s pleased to present: poets and teachers of poetry; literature professors; and music scholars. They write on a wide range of musicians: Johnny Cash, Sam Cooke, Bob Dylan, Michael Stipe, Bruce Springsteen, Okkervil River, Magnolia Electric Co., Leonard Cohen, and a litany of country and rap artists. They generally depart, I venture, from the more standard poetry professor’s position that music and poetry are too different to share the same conversation. Obviously, here they share the room.

Each essay, naturally, varied in how it worked on me. There were a few I ended up skimming past or not finishing; but only a few. Unsurprisingly, many of them tempted me to stop and listen to an album or four before continuing (I mostly did not indulge in this further slowing of my reading, although I found a few single tracks online to aid me). Some of them made points that surprised me or opened my mind.

A few highlights, for me personally:

Pence’s own contribution, “The Sonnet Within the Songs: Country Lyrics and the Shakespearean Sonnet Structure,” was a good discussion of the traditions of a particular poetic form, accessible to my level of knowledge coming in. And it was exciting to see poetry and lyrics lining up.

“Gangsta Rap’s Heroic Substrata: A Survey of the Evidence,” by John Paul Hampstead, was another thrilling example of traditions of one form recognized in another, apparently very different form. Hampstead considers ancient and medieval heroic poetry (Homer, Virgil, and ninth and tenth century Anglo-Saxons) alongside Lil Wayne, Notorious B.I.G., Short Dawg, and a number of others. He finds five common threads: feasting, raiding, treasure, misogyny, and fatalism. I do mean thrilling: it gives me a thrill to see connections like this made.

Pat Pattison’s “Similarities and Differences between Song Lyrics and Poetry” serves as a good overview discussion of, well, the similarities and differences between song lyrics and poetry, and concludes that they are indeed different beasts: a view held in common with my friend Doug and the Maxwell quotation. It’s well defended here but also pulled apart.

I enjoyed David Kirby’s “The Joe Blow Version,” about the various versions of Otis Redding’s song “I’ve Got Dreams to Remember,” and the richness offered by variability, as opposed to a single, definitive, correct version of a song, poem, play, etc. He quotes a textual scholar, Anne Coldiron, who says “The nineteenth century in particular was an age of canon founding,” the establishment of definitive texts; but the Bible, Shakespeare’s plays, Auden’s poetry, and Brecht’s music are all examples of work with variations. Kirby offers that “Some of the songs that get under our skin the most aren’t written so much as assembled,” that differing versions “remove the mystery and, in so doing, heighten the pleasure.” This essay, by the way, is itself a lovely work of art: Kirby’s arguments are packaged within a narrative of his travels in Macon, Georgia, researching a book on Little Richard and visiting with Otis Redding’s widow and daughter. It is a finely crafted essay and a beautifully executed argument about the value of variation in art, and of the transparency of the creative process.

I also responded to essays studying Okkervil River and Magnolia Electric Co. (the latter a band I’m just discovering through a friend, which is a story unto itself, and a synchronicity that strengthens the reading experience). Those essays are by Stephen M. Deusner and Jesse Graves, respectively. And while the two essays studying Michael Stipe and R.E.M. appealed to me less in their particular subject matter, I was enchanted by the idea of “investigat[ing] the assumption that lyrics should provide literal meanings… ultimately inviting listeners to co-create rather than simply receive meaning from the lyrics.” (Jeffrey Roessner’s “Laughing in Tune: R.E.M. and the Post-Confessional Lyric.”)

I’ll stop there for now. I found The Poetics of American Song Lyrics a stirring and challenging read. For one thing, I lack an enormous amount of the vocabulary and background required for literary criticism of poetry; many of the terms confused me at least a little, and although there is a glossary, it didn’t solve all my problems. Maybe I’m holding myself to an unnecessarily high standard, but I don’t feel qualified to fully appreciate the criticism and in-depth critique in these pages. I felt like I was missing a fair amount. However, the most exciting part is that these essays do the kind of work I dream of doing for some of my own favorite musicians and lyricists: Jason Isbell, Guy Clark, Patterson Hood. I’m not much closer to being able to do that work myself, but I can see now that it’s possible to do such work, and that is exhilarating.


Rating: 9 fading trails.

What It Is by Lynda Barry

This is an interesting piece. Coffee-table-sized, all done in graphic format, and for a number of pages I wasn’t sure there was anything like a narrative here. Four pages of the first 24 involve narrative storytelling; the rest are collage, often with text in comic-style boxes, but not necessarily linear or related text.

None of this is un-fun, but it’s not what I was expecting. The drawing style is fun and quirky and consistent enough throughout that I gradually got to know the artist; and the collage, which involves materials other than Barry’s own creations, is an interesting way to look at the world and her vision, too. There are nearly limitless possibilities to interpret text that’s been all jumbled up together. I kind of enjoyed that. But my narrative-driven, literal, logical-progression-type mind–the mind that struggles with poetry–missed having a thread to grab onto.

There is a narrative, as it turns out. It starts in earnest on page 25. It comes and goes, interspersed with the collage-pages, which come to hold together a bit more as the narrative and themes become clearer.

Lynda Barry tells the story of her childhood, with its devotion to imagination and play, and her childhood delight in stories and pictures, and then the adolescence that stole these delights, chiefly when two questions came to her that refused to leave again. The questions are, is this good? and does this suck? She continues on, to show us how a certain art teacher in college helped her find her own way, release those outside considerations (at least temporarily; they do creep back in) and find the joy and the imagination and the inspiration again.

The latter third of the book is more craft book or how-to (although keeping the graphic format; this is my first graphic craft book!), with plenty of exercises, and a few whimsical characters to help us along. Whimsy does not mean the tone is light, however. Barry is serious about the difficulties of artistic work (writing, drawing, or otherwise), those two questions always threatening to intrude again.

It’s a different take than I’m used to; and I am not personally big on exercises. But it was visually very interesting, and good practice for the brain to take on something different. I respect Barry’s multiple talents, and I appreciate her view on what it takes to make art, and her idea that we tap into something a bit unconscious, or a different consciousness, to do it. I’m intrigued.


Rating: 6 sea monsters.

Handling the Truth: On the Writing of Memoir by Beth Kephart

This craft book has things in common with both Family Trouble and Fearless Confessions. Like the former, it addresses in part the difficulties in writing about real people, especially those we love. Like the latter, it takes a certain rah-rah tone, encouraging aspiring writers to go for it, you can do it, and don’t be bothered by all those nasty critics disparaging the genre that is memoir. I don’t mean to condescend, and I appreciate the support that Silverman and Kephart offer. It is a tiny bit peppier in tone than my personal preference would call for. But it’s valid support that I need and appreciate, and it’s backed up by both writing chops (publications) and a secure knowledge of craft.

So this is not a *perfect* book, for me, but a very good one. I really enjoyed Kephart’s boiling-over enthusiasm for the genre, and I’m inspired by her apparently wild success as (in her own words) an “entirely unschooled” writer. I love her annotated appendix of memoirs to read, categorized by subject (grief, childhood, “unwell,” “mothers, fathers, children,” and more): there are so many such lists out there, but I eat them up every time, looking out for the title that I’ve never encountered before (and there were several here!), for the different perspective. Kephart does a good job, introducing this appendix, of pointing out the subjectivity of such lists, the value a book may hold for one reader/writer and not for another, and the value in a book a reader doesn’t love.* Then she goes ahead and lists–with some discussion/description, which is great. Here, the title I picked up on was Nothing to Declare: Memoirs of a Woman Traveling Alone by Mary Morris. I went ahead and ordered myself a copy on Biblio.

In the body of the book, Kephart offers discussions of what memoir is and what it is not (not revenge, not tone-deaf, not therapy, but rather making the “me” work for “us,” making one’s story universal). A number of short chapters offer prompts, or reminders to include weather, place, food, and sensory detail. Final thoughts on how to turn scraps of writing into a book; and exhortations to always work from and toward empathy, to not make stuff up. I appreciate that one of the central pillars of memoir writing, for Kephart, is the idea of making a story speak to the human condition. That my story is not interesting because of its particular, but becomes interesting when I make the unique universal, make the personal stand in for shared experience, draw conclusions, find meaning. (See Gornick’s The Situation and the Story–though it’s not my favorite articulation of this idea, Kephart appreciates it.)

There is much to love here, especially for hesitant writers new to memoir, or those without the benefit of an MFA program–though I am in a program I love and still found lots to appreciate!


Rating: 7 porcelain dogs.

*I am totally tickled when she writes, “You will blog about my inevitable injustice,” when I the reader find my favorite memoir left off her list. Here I am, blogging! But she listed several I love, by Kimmel, Bechdel, and Bragg; Dillard, Williams, Offutt; titles I haven’t read but have faith in by Sanders and Thomas; craft books by Klaus, King, Lamott; and Doty’s Heaven’s Coast, which I am anxious to get to. Sometimes she chose my second-favorite title by a given author. But I am certainly not here to blog about any injustices, no.

did not finish: Three Kinds of Motion: Kerouac, Pollock, and the Making of American Highways by Riley Hanick

I’m sure this is a good book, but not for me at this time.

The idea is definitely intriguing: three creations, linked by place and certain themes. Jack Kerouac’s On the Road; Jackson Pollock’s Mural; and Eisenhower’s development of the interstate highway system. Riley Hanick is in Iowa. Just four years after Peggy Guggenheim commissioned Pollock’s mural for her Manhattan townhome (where “the narrow width of [her] hallway would have made [proper viewing of the painting] impossible”), she gave it to the University of Iowa Museum of Art. Later, Kerouac’s first draft of On the Road, on a single long scroll of paper, will be on display in the same museum. This museum will flood, and the art will itself end up on the road, in transit.

An interesting concept, to weave these three threads together, three movements. Jeremy recommended it to me in part because I was writing about Houston’s Menil Collection, and traveling home to visit it (after Hurricane Harvey, no less, with notes on what precautions the Menil took). This was a wise recommendation for obvious reasons. But as it turns out… Hanick’s style is sketched, abstract, sometimes taking the form of very short chunks, and conflating his two Jacks until I was often unsure of whom we were talking about. His pronouns run from ‘he’ to ‘they’ to ‘we’ to ‘I’ and I was frequently lost. It was nearly 100 pages in when he first quoted Gertrude Stein, and I thought, aha! that is my problem here: there is too much of the Stein here.

As I put this book down, I remain slightly interested, and in another world, one where I have lots of free reading time, I’d fantasize about picking it back up again. But in this life, when I have too much reading to do that will help me (as a student, as a writer, as a book reviewer) and that I can understand, Three Kinds of Motion is not for me.


I’m forgoing the rating this time.

guest review: The Brave Cowboy by Edward Abbey, from Pops

Pops is catching up with another book I read several years ago (more than five, in fact, which explains why I was so rusty in reconsidering this story). Please note that my review was spoiler-free, where this one does contain spoilers, after a break – I’ll make that clear in the body of the text, though. Here’s Pops on The Brave Cowboy.

Your review covered the high points well. So what did I especially like?

I too was teased by the suggested connection between Burns’ childhood and Fire on the Mountain; I really wanted to see them link up. But I read it now simply as one of those early good ideas an author grabs later and develops into a full story.

I didn’t remember from Abbey such wonderful phrasing as I found here. As you note, the manhunt scenes in the mountains stand out; one cannot miss Abbey’s love of the place, reflected in his care with words.

It was refreshing to hear Burns’ “grumbling in typical Abbey fashion” as you mention, just the general tone of alienation that Abbey does so well. And I appreciated Paul Bondi’s extended monologue in jail, essentially reminding Burns of the passion & integrity behind their earlier anarchist bond:

Jack, old friend, let’s not go on kidding each other all afternoon. We have too many important things to talk about… I don’t see the world getting any better; like you, I see it getting worse… I see my own country overwhelmed by ugliness and mediocrity and overcrowding…

When Burns first reaches the mountains after his escape:

For the first time in nearly two days and nights he felt himself to be a whole and living creature, a man again and not a derelict stumbling through a mechanical world he could not understand.

I was both admiring of and frustrated with Jerry; she is a character with more potential than Abbey allowed (or was capable of providing a woman character?). She was too ‘good’ for Burns (in several senses?) and with fuller explication it likely would have gone the way of Abbey’s usual dalliances. Perhaps it was best left to our imaginations.

I thought Sheriff Johnson was a particularly rich character, not stereotyped as much as realistic and conflicted. He earned my sympathy as a proxy for the tragically independent but tradition-bound westerner from a romantic past, almost Stegner-like, now confused victim of the world Burns sees more clearly. He in fact has more in common with Burns than other characters. In all of his scenes, Johnson is prone to lapse into reverie, wrestling with his thoughts as others bustle about.

In a favorite passage, he takes a moment away from manhunt-madness, as he drinks from the same modest spring where Burns had recently stopped:

Johnson remained for several minutes on his knees before the spring… listening, scarcely thinking, surrendering himself to strange and archaic sensations; he remembered his childhood, forty years gone, and a dim sweet exquisite sorrow passed like a cloud over his mind.

After hearing from a bellowing and overbearing General by radio, “Johnson felt a peculiar shame, not for himself but for his kind.”

In a wonderful segment, Johnson reflects on the imposing terrain. The extended passage is framed at start and finish by a tumbleweed, “the dry almost weightless hulk… bounced over sand and rocks, coming towards them.” This triggers reflection; Johnson knows Burns is in his element in these hills, while Johnson and increasing numbers of searchers are

waiting in the dust or blundering heavily around in the absurd labyrinth of boulders and canyons and thorny chaparral… [Johnson is] conscious of a vague annoyance… general undifferentiated social resentment of this mountain, an impatience with its irrational bulk and complexity, its absurd exasperating lack of purpose or utility… a piece of sheer insolence.

Thinking about it, Johnson began to smile; he scratched his neck and chuckled aloud.

He hears his thoughts mocking himself, amused at his frailty, envying Burns’ comfort in such a place. The passage ends with an entire paragraph describing the nimble tumbleweed’s path, bouncing over and around him in the wind, heading off up the canyon into the hills – like Burns.

Now, for the often interesting story of the edition I read. Mine is published in 1989, the year Abbey died. (Amazon lists my ISBN [0-8263- 0448-6] but it is not the same imprint; they have no version with the Lambert essay I describe below – how is that?! The image (above) matches my cover.)

In following that trail, I did find other interesting tidbits. The original full title is The Brave Cowboy: An Old Tale in a New Time. Three different chapters were published as essays in periodicals:

  • 1980: Ch. 4, the initial jail scene with lots of repartee interaction between various eccentric jail-mates.
  • 1984: Ch. 11, where Burns returns to the Bondi ranch after escaping from jail, his rushed final interlude with Jerry.
  • 1995: Ch. 14, a longish one, the first scene where Burns has reached the mountains, rich with description and his stalking the deer; it ends with the sheriff’s initial foray into the hills before the day-long manhunt; the two men are close and sensing each other, both knowing there is more to come.

Further, from the Google Books version of Ann Ronald’s The New West of Edward Abbey (2000) I learn she has done some research for us on that connection with Fire on the Mountain.

  • Brave Cowboy mentions the name of Burns’ grandfather in the FBI investigation: Henry Vogelin, the grandfather in Fire on the Mountain (I missed this!). The sheriff sends a deputy to interview Vogelin, but we hear no more about him. Given the gap in time between the books, I still think Abbey is just playing with us: two stories, with fun, tantalizing links.
  • Quoting Ronald: “the pompous colonel in Fire bears the same surname as the arrogant general in Cowboy… although spelling differs surely the selection of Desalius/DeSalius for two supercilious military men was no accident.”
  • The owner of the general store near Vogelin’s ranch in Fire is Hayduke!!

The Afterword: my copy also carries a 1977 copyright for the ‘Introduction’ by Neal Lambert, a Brigham Young U. professor of English & American Studies. Interestingly, in my edition his essay appears as the Afterword. (There is no Introduction; I actually agree strongly with this change, given the content of his contribution.)

Lambert covers a few interesting topics in his 7-page comments:

He describes the book’s “narrative pattern that has become a cliché of western writing through years of long use in pulp fiction and Saturday matinees.” He makes a case for that, and I had thought of it with the extended manhunt, a simple showdown formula, the cowboy symbolizing a creature in his native habitat, being hunted by the bumbling but overwhelming forces of modern technology and amorality who see only “This godawful stinkin’ place.” (Too bad the Indian tracker was not more developed, with contradiction and nuance; but again, likely too much for Abbey and/or his chosen form here.)

He spends too much time ‘suggesting’ and describing what we now consider typical Abbey’s themes of nature and alienation, etc, etc; quite a jarring flag of 1977 perspective. That said, he also quotes extensively from the text, including some I have already highlighted.

He comments, as neither you nor I did, about the “interpolated chapters, those brief irregular flashes revealing the movements of the semitrailer load” and interprets its sense of “the inexorable force of destiny… inevitable destruction of the freedom and simple goodness of the natural life.”

He also reminds us of the important balance Abbey provides the story with many examples of good people with good relationships, with the effect of this sense: “There is much of human sympathy, generosity, and goodness in the world.” We see this with all the central characters, and others including Paul’s judge, truck driver Hinton and of course Sheriff Johnson.

And yes, Lambert agrees with me about Johnson, with interesting additions. He playfully (and somewhat ineffectively) tempers his academic analysis by observing this is not “another Moby Dick. Jack Burns is no Ishmael [not Quinn’s, Melville’s!] and to load that poor vernacular cowboy with such a heavy philosophical burden would make it impossible for him to even mount his horse, let alone ride off across the country.”

The ending: spoilers follow.


Here’s the really intriguing revelation in Lambert’s essay, raising a question for every edition after 1977. He has just addressed the question of whether Burns’ efforts (and thus his life) were in vain after failing to rescue Paul or safely escape himself, and concludes, “His effort was neither ineffectual or in vain. This particular meaning is suggested in the first and last pages of the book. For this new edition, Abbey requested that the lines announcing Burns’ death be dropped. Broken though he is, the cowboy must be allowed to continue.”

This of course begs the question of how the endings are different! From everything I can find, all copies after 1977 have the same ending as mine. So, I submitted an inter-library loan request for an earlier edition. Thanks again to the library network: from little Jamestown College in North Dakota, I just received a beat-up first edition Brave Cowboy (1956) – with a handwritten notation from a librarian: “please handle with care” (I did.) Remarkably, it turns out, Abbey’s ‘revised ending’ in 1977 consisted of the removal of only one sentence, the second-last of the book, and the one that declares Burns dead.

So, what of it? I found Burns’ death unsurprising; one always knows Abbey’s characters (fiction and non-fiction) face an uphill battle. Even the directness of having a modern mechanical force as the fatal weapon was to be expected.

What struck me particularly was how Abbey returns us directly to Burns’ close relationship with Paul, as Burns repeatedly speaks to him in his dying stupor. It must be with purpose that Abbey balances the story of a socially-alienated cowboy-outlaw with a traditional, humanizing buddy story. Perhaps the original ending detracted from this?

Or maybe he just wanted the opening for a future book (a sequel)? Or maybe he just couldn’t bear to lose his hero… Abbey strikes me as susceptible to emotional decision-making. (Recall the indulgence of Black Sun.)

I appreciate your reminders. Much of what you refer to here, Pops, felt dimly familiar but no more. So many books between now and then… I have more Abbey waiting on my shelf for when I find the free time (ha). Indulgences and susceptibility to emotions aside–hey, we’re all human–this is a writer I want to return to. Thanks for this studied response.

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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