Wednesday, April 15, 2015

Into the Savage Country by Shannon Burke

This old-fashioned western set in the Bighorn Range of the 1820s takes us back to the days when reading a novel was pure entertainment. With this third novel, Shannon Burke exhibits once again his deep curiosity about the world and how it works, and his magnificent talent in writing fiction that makes us notice. His versatility of subject matter is extreme: his first two novels were set in modern-day big city-scapes rather than 19th Century landscapes, though his great talent for making morally ambiguous characters facing difficult choices was as suitable then as it is now.

Burke’s second novel Black Flies featured a rookie paramedic on an ambulance crew that serviced New York City’s Harlem district, Station 18. Reviewed here by Liesl Schillinger in the New York Times, it is described as a reading experience not unlike war reporting. It is a deeply felt, visual, and psychological portrait of a young man learning in the school of hard streets and hard blows.

Now Burke’s third novel is also a psychological novel, though set in big sky country rather than the fast lanes of New York City. The young man narrating, William Wyeth, came from a good family who thought humility important in forming character, and he left home angry and eager to flog what he suspected were his natural gifts in the wide world west of the Mississippi, in unsettled lands. From the first pages when we sink into the muddy streets of a frontier-town St. Louis, we are more than a century away from fifty states and a United States that resembles our own.

The real riches in this novel come from thrilling acts of stupidity and the resulting heroism among the team of men who banded together as trappers. We come to know the men, their faults and their skills, and miss them as they meet their end with a crazy bravery that many of us will never know. Two of the men among the band are artists of a sort: one pens a record of the years together and the other sketches with charcoal the scenes they encounter. Another man is so contrary and full of vinegar that the men consider killing him to keep themselves from aggravation. In the end every man is needed for what they bring, good and bad, and it is Burke’s skill that brings this realization home to us.

This wonderful novel brings with it the scent of cold, fresh air and the color of rocks in the streambed of a fast-moving creek surrounded by tall evergreens shading snow. The work is hard, and though the financial gains aren’t usually great, the pleasure that the men take in working outdoors in a constantly changing landscape is payment in part. Indians of various tribes feature in the story, and the tale wouldn’t be the same without their shifting loyalties to the white intruders on their land.

A strong female character, Alene Chevalier, is the heartthrob that balances the male egos-gone-wild, and she doesn’t seem out of place in this romantic view of the western edge of civilization. All in all, this novel has just about everything one would want for a hot summer weekend or a snowbound winter day. The writing is assured, the story ample, and the author capable of involving us in adventures of long ago. Bravo, Burke!

A final note: this would also make a great teen title that teachers could add to a syllabus reading list or summer reads. It is beautifully and engagingly written and so instructive in observation about personalities that mesh or grate. And of course, it fills the mind with images of Indians and the differences in their lifestyles and culture.

You can buy this book here: Shop Indie Bookstores

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