The Homesman, Glendon Swarthout's award winning novel called the Best Western Novel of the year back in 1988, is a deeply moving tale, a riveting thriller and an American West adventure in the style reminiscent of Larry McMurtry. Swarthout is a gifted storyteller with a keen eye for detail, drawing an authentic narrative of the treacherous Great Plains; the harsh conditions and desolation pioneers encountered in the unforgiving frontier of the 1850's, that led to many cases of suicides and madness in that time of early settlement. The Preemption Act allowed settlers to stake claims on land by living on it, improving it, then file and pay $1.25 an acre appraised value. Until the filing was done technically they were " 'squatters' with appurtenant 'squatter's rights', and possession was nine points of the law. But.. where there were squatters, there were bound to be claim- jumpers."
Swarthout portrays the plight of the frontier women with vivid realism that give their tragic stories a solid ring of truth. The four women driven mad by isolation, overwhelming daily hardships and fear become worrisome burdens on their husbands who find themselves incapable of caring for their irretrievably insane wives. ( Sorry, pioneer husbands don't come out smelling like roses here). The only solution for them: to elect a Homesman to escort their wives back East to their kinfolk, or to an asylum.
An Odd Couple-
Mary Bee Cuddy: an ex-teacher, spinster, self-sufficient, strong-minded, resourceful. The onus falls on her to return the women to their families; she's eager to do so but with some trepidation. She realizes she can't manage this alone, "her own foolish heart rushing in where angels fear to tread."
George Briggs: a self-described man of 'low character', chronic battler of catarrh, "hawking and spitting and cursing," unapologetic claim-jumper, ex-Indian fighter, untrustworthy, "conniving but no murderer" (by Mary Bee's estimation). She saved him from a lynching for the offense of claim jumping a neighbor's land, expecting him in turn to help her with her enormous undertaking.
They are certainly an ill-matched team, and at times, it's all Mary Bee can do to watch her back and keep Briggs under control.
Mary Bee put hands on hips. "Oh, no. Bullets and tobacco, maybe, but no whiskey. Not a drop."
" Think about it."
He was actually annoyed. He stuck his head through the window and knocked off his hat. "Why not?"
" I can't have you getting drunk around four defenseless women."
"If I don't get drunk around these women, I'll lose my own mind."
The backtrack journey eastward is a descent further into madness, it's where Swarthout shines as a storyteller of the wild west and the dangers crossing it.
They were to traverse almost the entire Territory, and Briggs set a course due east. Mary Bee preferred to follow the river valleys, which ran southeasterly, in hopes of encountering people who would aid them on their way, the more people the better. He contradicted her. The fewer the better.
"Because we're hauling an odd lot of freight."
"You call it what you want. It's freight to me," he said. "Stop to think. We can meet three kinds of people out here. Who?"
"Well, wagon trains, I suppose."
"And you suppose those men'll want their wives to see what becomes of women in these parts?"
Mary Bee sat silent.
"What other kinds?"
"I don't know."
"Freighters. Men. Haven't had a woman lately. Who else?"
Mary Bee scowled.
"I'll tell you. Indians. After they lay me low they'll have a high time with the five of you."
Briggs steals the scenes constantly.
The Homesman has been recently adapted to film and due to be released later this year; if it is as good as this novel I'll expect many movie awards. I'm very excited!
For more on Glendon Swarthout, here is the official website:
For more on Prairie Madness in American West, here are two links: