Several times I picked up this book, read the blurb and put it back down, feeling that a boys' own adventure in the American west probably wasn't what I was looking for at the time. It was on the strength of some pretty heavy praise from trusted readers that I was finally persuaded to pick it up. (These recommendations I will in all future circumstances take on with gusto.) This is an astounding little book brimming with big ideas. Overflowing, even. But it is the tiniest of volumes, with precise sentences, snipped words, and short paragraphs. You can, and probably will, devour it in a sitting. You will almost certainly return to it.
One of my favourite movies is 'Dead Man' by Jim Jarmusch, and there is something of that surreal, dreamy feel to this book. A take on the wild west that is refreshingly new, that offers something other than violence and dispossession. There is a subtle humour running through it, and a sense of futility that is overpowering.
Starting out in Pennsylvania in 1815, widowed mule farmer Cy Bellman gets it into his head, after reading a bulletin about mastodon fossils, that he wants to be the man who can find not just fossils but living evidence of such beasts. Much like President Jefferson, Bellman doesn’t believe these animals are extinct, but have just relocated to other unexplored regions of the west. He studies the route of Jefferson’s real-life explorers, Lewis and Clark, who were sent on a similarly ludicrous quest by their president, and he plans to follow their journey to a point.
In taking on this expedition, Bellman leaves his 10-year-old daughter Bess in the care of his lonely sister Julie. He includes in his pack some clothing and other trinkets which had belonged to his wife - for trading purposes on the journey. Bellman is considered to be a fool by every person in the small community, and his purchase of a stovepipe hat seems to provide them with the evidence.
After his departure, Bess lives the bare bones of a life herself – a whittled down life with an aunt who doesn’t express any tenderness towards her, in a house with only the one book (I don’t need to tell you which book), without friends, and with an opportunistic neighbour who has odious plans of taking over the Bellman house, and eventually Bess herself. She waits for the letters her father has promised, for him to return and prove to all the naysayers that his quest was successful.
Bellman’s quest takes him into the Kentucky interior, the Wild West, and he suffers through two winters in his search for the great ‘monsters’. Along the way, he takes on a companion/guide in the form of a 17-year-old native-American boy called Old Woman From A Distance. (Like the Indian character Nobody in 'Dead Man', the Indian names give the impression that their identities are just barely there.) Their travels take them deeper and deeper into the country, and eventually Bellman, through exhaustion and despair, has forgotten the point of his quest, realising too late the most important thing in his life.
Back at home, Bess has just barely dodged a devious lecherous librarian, and, like a rabbit, is on high alert from the danger lurking in her own house in the form of the neighbour, Elmer Jackson. It is obvious her aunt Julie cannot be relied on, as she keeps inviting Jackson over for coffee, for meals. In the most chilling paragraph in the book, as he is spying on her in the bath, he finds Bess to be “a perfect little thing – reminds him of milk, or cream, cooling in the shed, a silken chill when you dip your finger but a soft warmth inside. Oh dear God, for a taste.” As the reader, you desperately want that milk to remain unsullied.
This book isn’t a boys’ own adventure. This book isn’t a fascinating glimpse into America’s history. It’s not even a book about extinction or loss, deluded presidential obsessions, the displacement and erasure of native populations or the myriad other ideas contained in this tiny volume. To me, this book is a mother’s worst nightmare. It is a mother’s fear of her own death, and of what disastrous fates could befall her children without her love and protection. Bess makes the comment to herself on page 82, "I am twelve years old, I am too young to be without any kind of protector." Throughout it all, Bellman has been oblivious to the dangers he has exposed through his absence in Bess's life. It is only when Elsie’s voice (Bess’s mother) comes to him on page 102 of the book, “You did what?” that he realises his adventure might have cost an impossibly high price.
Carys Davies is an award-winning short story writer and I’m now on a quest of my own – to read everything else she has ever written.