Saturday, September 5, 2015

"Far as the Eye Can See"
Robert Bausch
Robert Bausch’s first person narrated “Far as the Eye Can See” is the best historical novel that I have read this year.  It is instructive about hostile relations between Native American tribes and whites (and, especially, the U.S. Army) in the West during the 1870s, it is character driven with important romantic elements, it is an adventure story -- I was to the very end of the novel concerned about the protagonist’s fate -- and it is philosophical. 
Bausch’s protagonist is a twenty-nine year old man that calls himself Bobby Hale.   We are told that much of Hale’s childhood was devoid of affection.  His mother died of cholera when he was nine.  His father abandoned him immediately thereafter.  He was raised in Philadelphia by a spinster aunt, who “never once looked upon me with anything but impatience and disparagement.”  During the Civil War he joined the Union army seven times to collect enlistment bounties: each time joining, collecting his bonus, deserting, moving to a different Northern city, changing his name and enlisting.  Near the War’s end, not able to desert, he experienced fierce combat.  “I seen men dropping next to me in rows like something cut down by a thresher in a wheat field.”  After the War he stayed in the Richmond, Virginia, area for four years working menial jobs but dreaming vaguely of living a free life in the Far West “where land was there for any fellow with the nerve to stake it out and call it his.”  Eventually, he bought a horse, a 32-cartridge repeating carbine, and other essential equipment and accompanied a wagon train out of St. Louis headed for Oregon.  All of this is important for us to know prior to the first major event that Hale narrates.
“Far as the Eye Can See” opens with a prologue.  Hale has done something not yet revealed that has caused him to abandon his job of scout for the army, whose mission is to find and collect all of the Indian tribes in the Yellowstone River area and move them to specific areas near specified forts.  The act that Hale has committed has him believing that both soldiers and Indians have good reason to track and kill him.  Traveling hastily toward Bozeman, Montana, he discovers that he is being followed.  Hiding behind an outcropping of large boulders, he sees what appears to be an Indian crawling through underbrush seemingly intent on attacking him unawares.  He wounds the Indian and discovers the person is a young woman.  The shot has ripped a shallow tear across her abdomen.  She tells him that she is a half breed, has escaped from a Sioux village, and is fearful that her Indian husband is tracking her to kill her.  Hale treats her wound and they leave, together, determined to find a distant sanctuary.
The novel now backtracks to Hale’s experiences prior to his meeting “Ink,” the half-Indian, half-white woman.  We read of Hale’s adventures of being a part of the wagon train headed out of St. Louis.  We meet several white characters possessing varying degrees of bad character.  (They reappear later in the novel)  We meet also two individuals who will influence positively Hale’s evolving character.  One is Theo, the wagon train leader, wise of the shortcomings of mankind, of life on the trail, and of Indian values and behavior.  The other is Big Tree, Theo’s wagon master, a six and a half foot massive Crow.  Both men believe that when Indians and white men interact more often than not it is the white man who is the savage.
Theo, Hale, Big Tree, and several other members of the train ride out ahead of the wagons.  Indians suddenly appear.  Surrounded by a party of galloping, yipping Sioux braves, not understanding that individual braves are taking “coup” – touching the tops of white men’s heads with the tips of their lances not to kill but to enhance their reputation for courage and to make good medicine – Hale shoots one of them.  Theo is disgusted.  He must now prepare the wagon train for certain attack.  He tells Hale, “But the truth is, we went into Indian country and murdered a brave.  That’s what we done.  There ain’t no other way to look at it.”  Big Tree’s assessment of whites, expressed after a later incident, is “Wasichus [white men] kill for gladness.”
Theo stops the wagon train at Bozeman and nearby Fort Ellis to wait out the winter.  Deciding to reside permanently in Bozeman, he urges Hale to lead the train to Oregon in the spring.  Hale refuses to take the responsibility.  Theo then recommends that Hale accompany Big Tree on a winter hunting, trapping expedition through the wild lands of the eastern Rocky Mountains.  Hale and Big Tree do this for seven years.  What Hale learns about Indian life from Big Tree and from his experiences is the second major section of the novel.
When Big Tree and Hale eventually part, Hale returns to Bozeman.  In route, he overtakes a wagon owned by two white women whose husbands, missing for more than a year, are presumed to be dead.  He helps them reach Bozeman.  During this third major section of the novel we observe an evolving relationship between Hale and one of the women that tests Hale’s reluctance to make commitments.  Hale eventually promises to escort the two women to Oregon in the spring.  He chooses in the meantime to scout for the army because it will provide him an income and warm shelter when he is not on the trail.  Hale witnesses firsthand the intractable thinking of the officer class regarding “the Indian problem.”  We experience the incident that causes Hale to flee and, eventually, to wound the half-breed girl called Ink.  The final section of the novel depicts the dangers he faces and the extent to which he is willing to accept the obligations he feels he must honor regarding the women in Bozeman and Ink’s safety and future.
What interested me most in the novel was Hale’s journey toward commitment to others.  Because of his experiences, he has, justifiably, a harsh opinion of mankind.  At one point in the novel, he and other wagon train members witness a bald eagle seize a puppy and carry it to its nest.  The puppy, observing the humans below, wages its tail, then whimpers, then commences to howl.  The train moves on.  We do not need to be told the puppy’s fate.  Hale comments: “I couldn’t help but think that maybe we’re all a little bit like that dog.  We occupy our little space of earth and wait for the damn bird to strike.” 
There is so much viciousness that he witnesses, so much stupidity, so much hatred.  Life daily is “strife and struggle.”  Awaking each morning, he must “look for trouble again.”  He wants to believe that there is goodness for him, goodness for any man.  Thinking of the two women that he had left in Bozeman, he muses: “It’s a tragic kind of world we find ourselves in, all the time looking for some way to have what we want, hoping for nothing but a reason to hope.”  And, “we don’t know all the time what is taken away and what is given.  Sometimes we know what we have been given only when it’s been lost.”  In the novel’s final chapter he reflects that people talk of living in peace, of not wanting to go to war, of not wanting to kill or be killed.  But these, he decides, are just words.  “We’re all lying to ourselves and everybody else.  … Something way down inside of me feels like it’s dripping and damp and completely evil.  I know I am a animal that can talk and there ain’t nothing that will ever save me or no one else.”   But, like every human, he has innate needs.  Not like every human being he can be empathetic.  Ink recognizes his goodness.  The final five pages of the novel reveal whether or not he is strong enough to utilize it and whether or not the malevolence of others will eliminate the opportunity.