Richard Wheeler has taken some heat on the Internet the last several weeks for his opinions about the genre Western novel. He thinks it needs to die for a more relevant Western novel to find success in the modern world. I'm not sure I completely agree with him, but he does make some goods points.
I do know that Mr Wheeler is a pretty terrific writer of both Westerns and historical novels. For my money he is in the top ten of his generation and his work has gained strength in both its style and content over the years. He gets better and better. Here is a review of his most recent Barnaby Skye series. A series that is anything but dead. There are at least two more titles expected in the series.
The Skye novels are unique. They are a blend of the historical literary with the tall-tale dime novel. The characters—Skye particularly—are larger than life, but the beauty of the west and the context of the novels is pure literature. North Star is the 17th title and it is no exception. It is well-written, beautifully detailed, and a touch melancholy as, what feels like the final Barnaby Skye story, is told.
Mister Skye is breaking down with age. He is sixty-five. His eyesight is blurring, and his body aches from too many cold nights on the hard ground beneath his lodge. He yearns for a home: A white man’s home with a wood floor, windows, a soft bed, furniture and rocking chair on the front porch. He has witnessed the west from the early days of the fur trade to the current westward expansion of the white man. It is the end an era—the west is opening up for the homesteader and rancher, but it is closing around the Indian tribes like a noose.
Skye is not a wealthy man. The fur is long since gone and there is little need for guide work in these modern times. He and his two Indian wives—Victoria and Mary—live with Victoria’s Absaroka People. Skye knows money will be a problem, but he also knows he needs a home to grow old in. He also has a place in mind in the Yellowstone Valley. It is a place where the old trappers would often meet in the old days and share stories and trade goods. It is near water, there are warm springs, game and enough beauty to last forever. Unfortunately—as is usually the case—everything that can go wrong, does.
North Star is a melancholy story. It is a story about age and change, but it is also a story about returns—Skye has stayed clear of his own people. He has lived with the Indians for years, but as age captures him he has the need to return to the life his people—the white man—live: a house, a warm stove, furniture, a bed.
The story is told expertly with a weaving and sundry plotline—it isn’t straight and clean, but rather it curls around Skye and his family with destiny’s own uncaring and callous style. It is told in third person and the perspective changes between Skye, his wives and his son Dirk. The prose is vibrant, melancholy and often beautiful with its subtle textures and understated style:
“They reached the riverbank during a spring squall, and continued westward along a worn trail, while wrapped in good blankets. That cold night they raised the lodge and found warmth and peace within.”North Star is a tale that truly captures the spirit of the west. It is beautiful, harsh, and always dependent on the whimsy of nature. If you think the western is dead, you should read this book. Hell, everyone should read this book.