Thursday, May 30, 2019

WEST, a concentrated, almost freeze-dried, tale of the American West and its casualties


$15.00 trade paper, available now

Rating: 3.9* of five

The Publisher Says: When widowed mule breeder Cy Bellman reads in the newspaper that colossal ancient bones have been discovered in the salty Kentucky mud, he sets out from his small Pennsylvania farm to see for himself if the rumors are true: that the giant monsters are still alive and roam the uncharted wilderness beyond the Mississippi River. Promising to write and to return in two years, he leaves behind his only daughter, Bess, to the tender mercies of his taciturn sister and heads west.

With only a barnyard full of miserable animals and her dead mother’s gold ring to call her own, Bess, unprotected and approaching womanhood, fills lonely days tracing her father’s route on maps at the subscription library and waiting for his letters to arrive. Bellman, meanwhile, wanders farther and farther from home, across harsh and alien landscapes, in reckless pursuit of the unknown.

My Review: A lovely little book, a slip of a thing that has the gravitas of a far longer book in a far more concentrated and sharp novella.

I can't blame anyone for finding the story sad, it surely is; but with an ending so deeply felt and so beautifully wrought that the most size-conscious reader can't come away feeling gypped. Old Woman from a Distance, the teenaged Shawnee veteran of the Trail of Tears, is a beautifully rendered portrait of The Survivor; Bellman, the red-bearded widowed dreamer, is the portrait of The Fool. Deveraux the French fur trader and Aunt Julie Bellman are sides of the coin that shifty neighbor Elmer and faithless frontiersman Hollinghurst steal with simple, transparent tricks. I knew I'd loathe Aunt Julie on p23:
After a month {Bess} asked her Aunt Julie if they could go to the library so she could look at the big journals of the President's Expedition and see the path her father had taken into the west, but Aunt Julie only looked at her in a kind of irritated amazement.
"And when, child," Bellman's sister demanded to know, "do you suppose I have time to sit in a library?"
Yeah, no. We ain't a-gonna be book-besties, me'n'Julie, no way no how. Nor does Bess, Bellman's amazing daughter, find much to love in her father's sister:
Aunt Julie said what a pretty girl Dorothy had turned into and she wouldn't be surprised if Sidney {a rich-but-loutish boy Bess told off some time ago} and Dorothy weren't a married pair a few years from now. What did Bess think of that?
Bess said she thought nothing of it. Bess said that was the last thing in the world she'd think of thinking about.
Aunt Julie in a nutshell; Bess to the teeth an anti-Julie like anti-matter is to baryonic matter. A horrible life to live, one with someone who simply isn't capable of connecting with you. But worse is to come, as we know.

When events unspool in the second half of the book and several separate tragedies unfold, it's Author Davies's skill at telling the story that keeps pages turning. You see, this is a tale told, not a life lived in prose. This book is the well-written story of the story. It's a distancing narrative strategy. I don't mind it too awful terrible much when the sentences are lovely and the paragraphs lead me to the finish line without becoming arch, or unfocused. Archness is perhaps the bigger danger, since Author Davies is an experienced hand at writing short stories (eg, Some New Ambush, The Redemption of Galen Pike). In fact, this feels like a novella that sprang from a short story which simply couldn't contain the entire necessary plot.

So I'm a fraction off ecstatic, but on the high end of very well pleased, at the end of the read. I recommend it to anyone who needs a dose of a truly spunky and resourceful character (Bellman) and a stern, steely hero (Bess) who meet their fates without a single illusion between them and reality. The illusions have all burned away. This explains their differing ends.

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