Sunday, August 9, 2015

"Into the Savage Country"
Shannon Burke

I enjoyed Shannon Burke’s “Into the Savage Country” for many reasons. I appreciated the complexity of its important characters, I acquired a better sense of the fur-trapping business and its operations in the drainages of the Rocky Mountains during the late 1820s, I applaud the author for visual authenticity of terrain and frontier settlements, I enjoyed his succinctness of dialogue and the uncluttered flow of first person narrative, and I compliment his creative selection of resolution-demanding crisis situations.  The novel entertained me.  I have only one criticism.
The novel is an adventure story and, secondarily, a love story.  It begins in St. Louis in June 1826.   A young man from a farming family in Pennsylvania, rejecting his father’s expectation that he devote his life to farming and his criticism that he is “fainthearted and vacillating,” driven by the desire to seek adventure, test himself, and obtain fortune to prove his father’s criticisms to be false, William Wyeth joins a fur-trapping company preparing to leave St. Louis.  Before leaving he meets Alene Chevalier, an attractive French woman of one-quarter Indian ancestry.  His attempt to initiate a romantic relationship is rebuffed.  The brigade to which he is assigned consists mostly of veteran trappers.  He earns quickly their acceptance.  He is wounded in a large buffalo hunt and is cared for by his companions.  They move him to a frontier settlement to recover.  Here he meets, again, Alene.  Eventually, they become engaged.  As spring approaches, rather than return to St. Louis with Alene to be married, William decides to spend the ensuing spring, summer, and fall months in the wild trapping for a newly-formed fur company.  His quest for adventure and need to validate himself compel him to exact an agreement from Alene.  She will wait for him until the beginning of winter.  Should he not return by then, she will depart for St. Louis to live her life without him.  Much happens during the interim: battles, victories, reversals, competitions, heroics, treachery.
Strong character portrayal is a major dynamic to the success of the novel. 
William Wyeth is a perceptive person who abhors selfishness and treachery yet is able to find some measure of good in the most flawed individual.  Because of this attribute he is able to grow beyond preconceived opinions to forge, ultimately, beneficial relationships.  He perceives the 19-year-old greenhorn Ferris to be a conceited, know-it-all attempting to win favor with the members of the brigade by correcting inaccuracies they make or by imparting information of which he believes they should be cognizant. 
William describes Ferris at first this way: “that he secretly set himself above us.  Ferris’s father, we’d all heard, was a physician and a man of wealth, and Ferris had paid a lump sum to the taken on, as they’d not thought he’d make it halfway up the Missouri.  The knowledge of this pampered upbringing along with his self-satisfied manner damned him in my mind.”
Eventually, William discovers that Ferris is an extremely perceptive person, curious about many things, courageous, unwilling to enable injustice, kind, and thoroughly reliable.  Ferris becomes William’s closest friend.  He is one of three characters vital to the plot.
A character that initially William despises but eventually tolerates and finally appreciates is the mercurial Henry Layton, a St. Louis dandy whose father owns half the warehouses along the waterfront of the city.  William describes him as “an infamous bachelor: a twenty-four-year-old dandy considered to be the most intelligent, unpleasant, and mischievous young man in St. Louis.”  Encountering Layton at Alene’s residence, wearing new leggings and deerskin to impress her prior to his departure, William is mocked by Layton, who is wearing a black tailcoat and white cravat.  “What brings you here in that costume, Wyeth?  Are you off to hunt squirrels and water rats?”  Layton eventually funds a new fur-trapping company, appoints himself its captain, entices William, the companions of his first season of trapping, and Jedediah Smith to sign on by promising huge personal profits for their labor. 
Alene warns William that accepting Layton’s offer is a major mistake.  “… you only see the charismatic side now.  The part when he persuades.  When he wheedles.  When he promises.  When he uses all his charm and cunning and good nature and energy and cleverness to arrange things so men follow him …  But when it is necessary for him to fulfill his promises he will feel the necessity as a form of bondage and he will wilt and turn sour and ugly.  Then you will see the weak, contemptuous part of his soul.    He has chosen you because he saw I was partial to you.  Now he means to ruin you.”
Layton proves in fact to be imperious, mercilessly fault-finding, and selectively cruel.  His men quickly hate him.  William gradually learns that Layton knows that he is psychologically damaged and desires to overcome his “demons.”  He proves he is worthy of respect when he engages in crisis situations but he is at his worst when he is inactive and bored.  He has the capacity of achieving unparalleled success but equally capable immediately thereafter of snatching from it utter defeat.  Layton drives the direction of the plot.
My sole disappointment with this novel is that near its end several very improbable outcomes of important events occur.  For instance, Ferris, the best shot of the brigade, must hit an arrow staked in the ground from an impossible distance to prove to Indians the effectiveness of his Pennsylvania long rifle.  He himself states that it is an impossible shot.  Lives depend on his accuracy.  His shot cuts the arrow in half.  One very unlikely occurrence may be acceptable to tolerant readers.  Several occurrences should not.  Still, I enjoyed the book.