Friday, 19 February 2016

Review: The Homesman by Glendon Swarthout

Title: The Homesman
Author: Glendon Swarthout
Publisher: Simon & Schuster
Pages: 352
Genres: Western
The Homesman

The Homesman is a devastating, humane story of early pioneers to America's West in the 1850's. It celebrates the ones we hear nothing of-the brave women whose hearts and minds were broken by that life of bitter hardship. When a nineteen-year-old mother loses her three children to diphtheria in three days, or a woman left alone for two nights has to shoot wolves as they crash through the window, it is no wonder they should lose their minds. After a dreadful winter, the Rev. Dowd finds there are four such cases in his parish and, as yet, no asylum in this frontier town.

A 'homesman' must be found to escort the women East to civilization. Not a job anyone would volunteer for, it falls to Mary Bee Cuddy, ex-teacher, spinster-indomitable, resourceful, "plain as an old tin pail." Brave as she is, Mary Bee knows she cannot succeed alone, and the only companion available is the low-life and untrustworthy "George Briggs," a claim-jumper.Thus begins a trek East, against the tide of colonization, against hardship, Indian attacks, ice storms, loneliness, and the unceasing aggravation of a disparate group of mad women, which provides a series of tough, fast-paced adventures and introduces two wonderful, idiosyncratic characters.
If I had to choose one word to describe this novel, that word would be depressing. A good depressing though. The Homesman is very atmospheric, very dreary and I enjoyed it immensely.

The story is essentially about the brave men and women who stake 'claims' in the 1850 uninhabited wilderness of the plains of America. These people try to live off the land as farmers whilst living in sod houses they built themselves out of... well dirt blocks. Often they are quite a distance from the nearest neighbour, consequently spending vast amounts of time alone. The spotlight in this novel focuses on the unfortunate women of this scenario. The women are often doing backbreaking manual labour whilst typically having a baby a year, because you know... men have needs and that's what God created women for. Perhaps unsurprisingly, every year a handful of women are going a bit loopy loo. From reasons ranging from isolation, children dying of disease, and homesteads being attacked by tenacious wolves. It's pretty bleak, yet fascinating.

Enter Mary Bee Cuddy. An amazing, devout, no nonsense, and get on with it type of woman. Cuddy has her own successful claim that she rose from the ground from nothing. Cuddy lives a comfortable life and has some nice things. There's just one problem, she is unmarried. GASP. Presumably because she's a touch over 30 and 'plain as an old tin pail and has a mouth like a viper'. The horror. Basically, the men are intimated as heck by her independence and successful property.

Mary Bee, from the goodness of her heart offers to escort four wives and mothers who have supposedly lost their minds to Iowa to be sent back to their respective families. She soon realises that it's not going to be an easy task and panicking recruits by bribery a man of questionable character, Briggs to accompany her. As expected the journey is not a simple one...

The Homesman is so riveting, I loved every minute reading this novel. The only gripe I have is that the ending is kind of a non-ending and it left me with a feeling of apathy. A kind of wow this is depressing, people lived through this kind of feeling. But overall, I am glad I read it and would highly recommend.

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