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The BookBrowse Review

Published September 20, 2017

ISSN: 1930-0018

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Savage Country
Savage Country
A Novel
by Robert Olmstead

Hardcover (26 Sep 2017), 304 pages.
Publisher: Algonquin Books
ISBN-13: 9781616204129
BookBrowse:
Critics:
  

A gripping narrative of the infamous hunt which drove the buffalo population to near extinction--the story of a moment in our history in which mass destruction of an animal population was seen as the only route to economic solvency. And the intimate story of how that hunt changed two people forever.

"For weeks countless swarms of locusts, brown-black and brick-yellow, darkened the air like ash from a great conflagration, their jaws biting all things for what could be eaten."

In September 1873, Elizabeth Coughlin, a widow bankrupted by her husband's folly and death, embarks on a buffalo hunt with her estranged and mysterious brother-in-law, Michael. With no money, no family, no job or security, she hopes to salvage something of her former life and the lives of the hired men and their families who depend on her. The buffalo hunt that her husband had planned, she now realizes, was his last hope for saving their land.

Elizabeth and Michael plunge south across the aptly named Deadline demarcating Indian Territory from their home state, Kansas. Nothing could have prepared them for the dangers: rattlesnakes, rabies, wildfire, lightning strikes, blue northers, flash floods, threats to life in so many ways. They're on borrowed time: the Comanche are in winter quarters, and the cruel work of slaughtering the buffalo is unraveling their souls. They must get back alive.

From
Savage Country
By Robert Olmstead

Some distance from town he was met with the smell of raw sewage and creosote, the stink of lye and kerosene oil, the carrion of dead and slaughtered animals unfit for human consumption. He struck the mapped, vacant streets where there was a world of abandoned construction, plank shacks with dirt floors and flat-pitched roofs hedged with brambles and waste. Two cur dogs snarled at each other over a bone. Dead locust strewed the ground three inches deep.

The year was 1873 and all about was the evidence of boom and bust, shattered dreams, foolish ambition, depredation, shame, greed, and cruelty. Notes were being called in for pennies on the dollar. Money was scarce and whole families were pauperized.

For weeks countless swarms of locusts, brown-black and brick-yellow, darkened the air like ash from a great conflagration, their jaws biting all things for what could be eaten. They fed on the wheat and corn, the lint of seasoned fence planks, dry leaves, paper, cotton, the wool on the backs of sheep. Their crushed bodies slicked the rails and stopped the trains.

Michael rode light in the saddle, his left hand steady on the reins. His trousers were tucked inside the shafts of his stovepipe boots, and the buckhorn haft of a long knife protruding above the top was decorated with plates of silver. His black hair was long and plaited into a queue, which hung down his back. A shotgun was cradled in his free arm and on the saddle before him sat a setter dog and behind his right leg hung a string of game birds. The red dog had fallen out a mile ago and he thought that was perhaps for the best.

Farther on was a ravine of tents and dugouts where gambling, drinking, dog fights, and cockfights were taking place. Dingy flaps of canvas were flung back and barefoot women swept their dirt floors into the road. From a tent advertising Turkish baths came the bleating sound of a hurdy-gurdy. Men lay sleeping on the ground undisturbed, a paste of dirt and saliva on their bruised faces.

Ahead was the darker line marking the railroad grade and the looming warehouses lining the tracks, the bone pickers and hair scavengers converging and departing from across the open land. Along the right-of-way was a rick of bones twelve feet high, segmented in the shape of boxcars, and a half mile long. This was the last of the Kansas buffalo.

Soon he could hear the hammering and banging of the blacksmith. There was a fine dust in the air that remained suspended. An eastbound train chuffed to a stop to take on bones, water, and the broke families bankrupted by the plague of locust.

A portly man in fawn-colored trousers and a black overcoat came off the platform in a hurry. He stepped into a two-horse fringed-top surrey parked at one end. The man reached for the whip and gave the team a smart cut across the flanks. The drays stepped out and in tandem, their broken tails lifting in cadence.

At the post office Michael asked after mail for himself or anyone at Meadowlark. There was a letter for him from Mr. Salt.

"Michael Coughlin," the postmaster read, handing him the envelope.

"This letter has been opened," he said.

"It must not have been adequately sealed," the postmaster said.

He handed the postmaster the sealed envelope he carried. He paid the postage to London and inquired when the mail would be sent. The stamp affixed, he took back the envelope.

"I will be happy to take care of that for you," the postmaster said, his hand out.

"You can take care of this one," he said, handing him another.

"You can do that?" he said.

"Yessir," the postmaster said.

There was a plaza in town and a collection of shops on the four sides of it: saddler, watchmaker, gunsmith, mercantile, hotel, barroom, two druggists. Michael stopped at each one, explaining that his brother, David Coughlin, had passed and Michael would settle outstanding balances. From the druggists he purchased their supply of quinine and asked that they order more and make delivery to Meadowlark. The first had nothing to say, but the second one did.

Full Excerpt

Excerpted from Savage Country by Robert Olmstead. Copyright © 2017 by Robert Olmstead. Excerpted by permission of Algonquin Books. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.

This is a story about 19th century, Wild West America told through its land, its animals and its people.

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In Savage Country, Robert Olmstead speaks to the American myths, legends, and ethos that originated with the Pilgrims and early settlers, was tested in the Civil War, and arrived at its last frontier with the expansion and settlements beyond the Mississippi River.

The plot of Olmstead's work is as simple as its theme is complex. In 1873, David Coughlin, a seemingly prosperous farmer-rancher on the Kansas prairie, has died after being kicked by "a big intractable stallion," one he was warned away from by his wife, Elizabeth. She's upset with her husband's carelessness, and then grows angry when she discovers that he was so deeply in debt to the local banker, Whitechurch, that she's now in danger of losing her land. Her worry is aggravated because so many people, mostly men who followed David into "the slaughterous American war," are dependent on the land's prosperity. David's brother, Michael, arrives, riding Khyber, a magnificent Arabian mare and accompanied by two loyal dogs. Michael has lived a life of adventure, traveling the world, of late mostly in Africa where "he thought to get rich in the ivory trade." Before even meeting Elizabeth, Michael pays off David's debts in gold, much to Whitechurch's chagrin. Later, not wanting to be obligated to Michael, Elizabeth decides to organize a buffalo hunt. There's a massive herd ranging south past the Deadline (demarcating Native American Territory from Kansas), into the Comanche country - that's north Texas and western Oklahoma, somewhere "between the north fork of the Canadian and Red Rivers, and from about the 100th meridian to the eastern border of New Mexico." Michael objects but Elizabeth is undeterred, so he decides to accompany her, fearing for her safety.

This simple plot frames an endurance story, an expedition lasting more than a year, with wild rivers to be crossed, prairie fires and blue northers (a sudden cold front) to be endured, bandits to be killed, and buffalo to be slaughtered by the hundreds on days when the big Sharps .50 caliber rifles grew so hot that hunters poured cooling canteen water down their barrels.

The big bull he shot, tormented and mystified, blew and pawed at the ground, throwing clumps of red earth high into the air ... Forming on the bulls lips and nostrils was a mass of bloody foam. This is a story of the snick-snick-snick of skinning knives being sharpened as blood-soaked men rip hides from magnificent beasts, careful to dig out the lead bullets to be melted and used to kill another animal. It is a tale of rag-clad freed slaves slipping from the lost woods where they've been hiding to ask to join the expedition.

Michael, silent, strong, tired of the killing yet obligated to Elizabeth, feeling "the passage of receding time," in spite of his moral qualms, is too real to be a John Wayne hero. Elizabeth, somewhat older than Michael, angry, growing into strength and independence as she endures privation, becomes heroic. Others tag along, prosper, fail, die, or slink away like Reverend Doctor Purefoy, whose ambitions to marry Elizabeth began at the graveside; or a man with the singular name of Aubuchon, "educated for the priesthood, but had never taken holy orders," content now to serve as chef. There are misfits and men near feral. "The old man who wore blue jays in his hat was hired and with him came his woman without a nose" - they poison buffalo carcasses and then collect the pelts of the wolves and coyotes that come to eat their fill.

All together, they are the voice of a laconic, subtle poet, singing. There is a touch of Hemingway in the story's structure, more of Cormac McCarthy as it turns a cold eye toward the violence, all laced with spare stark sentences shaping images from our history too often obscured by myth. The book is an elegy for America, a continent subdued by hard men, Colt revolvers, and Sharps rifles.

Olmstead's Savage Country has a moral authenticity, but it's also a lament, an elegy for the beauty of what was and for what should have been.

Reviewed by Gary Presley

Publishers Weekly
This is a powerful depiction of the brutality of the Old West, where life was cheap and easily taken.

Kirkus Reviews
Starred Review. Another gorgeous, brutal masterpiece from a great American writer.

Author Blurb Tom Franklin, author of Crooked Letter, Crooked Letter
Robert Olmstead gets better with every book. If you know all of his previous books, you know how startling this fact is, and how startlingly good this writer is.

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The Homestead Act of 1862

Sod HouseIt's not mentioned specifically in Robert Olmstead's Savage Country, but his references to settlers driven off the land by crop failures, drought, and other factors might be seen as one of the adverse influences of 1862's Homestead Act, probably the most significant factor in the expansion of the United States across the continent.

Signed into law by Abraham Lincoln, the Act offered 160 acres of "public land" (meaning federal territory) to any head of household. The cost? Eighteen dollars. But there was a condition: "Each homesteader had to live on the land, build a home, make improvements and farm for 5 years before they were eligible to prove up."

Homestead ApplicationOlmstead's novel notes that many of those "homes" on a would-be settler's land were "soddys," homes built from earthen blocks topped by a sod roof. The vast open prairies of the west provided little other building material. Forests were nonexistent. Trees were rare. The "sod busters" (ranchers' term for settlers) began to plow up the prairie paradise, soil so productive that the grasses often grew six feet tall, high enough that grass-covered open spaces could be a danger to children.

In the late 19th century, more than seven million acres of public land were distributed to homesteaders. Later, from 1911 to 1915, more than 42.5 million acres were homesteaded. The Act was repealed in 1976, although homesteading was allowed to continue in Alaska until 1986.

Homestead AdThe Act made the United States "the breadbasket of the world" as it opened millions of acres to settlement and farming. However, the Act, combined with Mother Nature, also created the Dust Bowl. Thousands upon thousands of acres of grassland prairie had been plowed to plant hard winter wheat and other crops. During periods of drought and minimal rainfall, as the land lay cut and fallow, topsoil bled away.

Two verses of Woody Guthrie's song "Dust Storm Disaster" tell the story:

The storm took place at sundown, it lasted through the night,
When we looked out next morning, we saw a terrible sight.
We saw outside our window where wheat fields they had grown
Was now a rippling ocean of dust the wind had blown.

It covered up our fences, it covered up our barns,
It covered up our tractors in this wild and dusty storm.
We loaded our jalopies and piled our families in,
We rattled down that highway to never come back again.

Homestead FamilyModern farming techniques, including irrigation, have ameliorated many of the factors that brought on the Dust Bowl, and the Great Plains continue to be a source of American agricultural abundance. Today, things are poised to change yet again, with depleted aquifers and climate change driving further evolution in prairie farming techniques.

1898 North Dakota Sod Hut
Homestead application, courtesy of www.archives.gov
Land advertisement, courtesy of chnm.gmu.edu
Family pursuing land, courtesy of www.archives.gov

By Gary Presley

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