Thursday, March 6, 2014

Discovery! The Homesman by Glendon Swarthout

I remember back in the olden days as a child, going to the library and simply grabbing a book because it looked interesting…not because I’d heard of it or the author or because “everyone” was reading it.  I decided to take this approach during my recent Seattle trip—extended several days thanks to weather issues; more on this later—when I had the chance to visit the (rightfully) famous Elliott Bay Book Company book store in the fun and funky Capital Hill neighborhood.

My mission:  buy some books, preferably west coast-oriented, that I had never heard of, by people I had never heard of.

I spent a delightful two hours wandering the aisles in what is, truly, the most inviting bookstore I’ve ever been in.  Lots of room, lots of face-out books, lots of books period.  I took my time because I had it—nowhere to be, nothing to do (also like the olden days)--pulling out anything that caught my eye due to title, color, randomness.  I read and pondered the staff recommendation tags, which were exceptionally well-written and descriptive.  I ended up with an armload of books—okay, one was by someone I had heard of—but all of my books focused on either Seattle or the west.

The one I selected to read on the airplane home was The Homesman by Glendon Swarthout (first published in 1988, at the end of the author's life).  On the cover is a picture of a sod house on the prairie so it’s no surprise I was attracted.  And then the premise:  it’s the 1850’s and four women lose their minds during the hard Nebraska winter and must be escorted back east where they will be sent back to their families or an asylum.  A hale and hearty young (by our standards) spinster steps up to this sad and difficult task, enlisting the aid of a claim jumper everyone wants run out of town or worse.

I worried this book might be sappy or overly sentimental but by the bottom of the first page, I was pretty sure it wouldn’t be when I read this line in a litany of woes suffered by one particular family of homesteaders: 

“Then one of their oxen got the warbles, worms under the skin. You could cut open the swelling and douse the worms with coal oil to kill them if you had any coal oil. Let be, the worms would suck the very soul out of the ox, Line [the wife’s name] was sure, and come spring, yoked up, it would fall down dead in the field, the poor creature.”

By page 9, something so horrific happens I can’t tell you what it is.  And that’s just the beginning.  I lost track of how many times I gasped or murmured, “Oh my god,” as I read.

This book is totally unsentimental and is definitely the dark side to the Laura Ingalls Wilder books that I so loved back during the days I was wandering the Iowa City Public Library.  People go to the outhouse here, and how people suffer—from events, from nature, from others, from bad luck and poor decisions, from the fact that it was damn hard to scratch a living out of that unforgiving land.  

The book is well-researched, and every now and then I felt that research weigh a bit heavy, but mostly what I learned was fascinating, the bits of history that fall through the cracks (for example, now I know both how to jump a claim and how to roust a claim jumper).  The narrative is spare but with moments of immense beauty—like the landscape, I suppose—and just when I found myself doubting an authorial craft choice midway through the book, it paid off and wrenched my heart almost beyond reason.

I see this book is going to be a “major motion picture” with Meryl Streep, Hilary Swank (good luck making her “as plain as an old tin pail”), and a number of famous people.  Do yourself a favor and read the book before they prettify things up…though this story is so powerful, I hope even Hollywood can’t wreck it.

Here’s more information about the author, Glendon Swarthout, who seems to be defined as a “western writer”; many of his books were made into movies.  Time to stop ghettoizing writers!  Bring this book into the canon!  Read some sample pages here and decide for yourself.

Then buy yourself a copy…here’s the Elliott Bay Book Company link.


DC-area author Leslie Pietrzyk explores the creative process and all things literary.