Book Bag: Savage Country

Monday, October 23, 2017


By Robert Olmstead

Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill



The Wild West might have been at its wildest — and ugliest — in the two decades after the Civil War, as the last of the Native Americans were forced onto reservations or killed, the great herds of buffalo were annihilated, and the boom and bust cycles of the economy left shattered communities in their wake.

The title of Robert Olmstead’s newest novel, “Savage Country,” seems particularly apt, then, for a story set during this period. In the midst of one of the era’s worst downturns, the Panic of 1873, a lone horseman rides into a dismal Kansas railway town where many people are reduced to living in squalid tent encampments and wooden shacks. The empty streets are full of unfinished houses, and the air reeks of “raw sewage and creosote, the stink of lye and kerosene oil, the carrion of dead and slaughtered animals unfit for human consumption.”

On that cheery note — the ground is also covered with millions of dead locusts that have decimated the corn and wheat crops — Michael Coughlin comes looking for his widowed sister-in-law, Elizabeth, to see what help he can provide in the wake of her husband’s death.

Michael’s late brother, David, has left huge debts; Elizabeth is on the verge of losing her farm to a sleazy and merciless moneylender, a Mr. Whitechurch, in town. She convinces Michael, a Civil War veteran with a mysterious past, to join her on a buffalo hunt that David had planned to try and recoup his losses.

The two pull together a small hired crew made up half of seasoned men and half of boys and various misfits, like two brothers who “reeked with smoke and dirt and sweat … and seemed to be good honest haters of everything.” They head south for the bleak plains of Commanche territory — dangerous ground — where the last buffalo are reported to be.

Olmstead, the director of creative writing at Ohio Wesleyan University and the author of several previous novels, writes in an unadorned, elegiac style that seems a good fit for depicting the brutality of the Old West, where life is cheap and danger comes in many forms — rattlesnakes, sudden ice storms, prairie fires and lightning strikes. Larry McMurtry wrote about some of this same terrain in “Lonesome Dove,” but Olmstead’s tone is considerably darker.

“The black clouds were upon them in a mighty pall spreading over the earth from west to east. Then came a rift … It was the bright light of the fire and this made for a new horror, as the flames were seeking out what they would destroy. The men wetted their neckerchiefs and hid their heads to prevent being smothered. They choked on the particles of soot they breathed.”

The crew also sometimes stumble on reminders of the potential violence they face as they move deeper into the plains: Indian massacres of other white travelers. “The men and women had been stripped and scalped. There was a dog and it had been scalped. An ox stood by, its sides quilled with arrows. Vultures fed everywhere.”

Yet the grim descriptions of carnage in “Savage Country,” like the unremitting slaughter of the buffalo, are never gratuitous; rather it’s the author’s lament for the way man defiles nature with his greed and violence. And at its best, Olmstead’s prose reaches toward the poetic, with symbols and portents all around: “The world was as if in suspension, poised on its axis, waiting, expecting, and a deep uneasiness set in.”

“Savage Country” also builds its narrative around Elizabeth, who grows in strength and confidence as the leader of the expedition, and Michael, a seasoned frontiersman whose background is slowly revealed. The two begin to draw closer; they must rely on one another more and more as the story moves toward its dramatic conclusion.

Steve Pfarrer can be reached at spfarrer@gazettenet.com.

Robert Olmstead will read from “Savage Country” Tuesday at 7 p.m. at the Odyssey Bookshop in South Hadley.