In the early 19th century, a man quests into the American West and finds a world teetering between extinction and dreams.
A decade or so after the Lewis and Clark expedition, John Cyrus Bellman, a widower and mule breeder, reads in the newspaper of the discovery of “monstrous bones…sunk in the salty Kentucky mud” and is convinced that “the same gigantic monsters still [walk] the earth in the unexplored territories of the west.” Promising to write frequently, Bellman leaves his preteen daughter, Bess, on his Pennsylvania farm and heads west. What follows is the story of Bess’ waiting and Bellman’s wandering; the story of the letters Bellman sends and their unlucky eastward journeys; the story of Bellman’s guide, “an ill-favored, narrow-shouldered Shawnee boy who bore the unpromising name of Old Woman From A Distance” and whose tribe—after being harassed by settlers and paid off in trinkets—has recently undertaken its own less-voluntary western migration. Bess dreams of her father’s return while struggling to evade the predatory attentions of two local men. Bellman, a soft-spoken Ahab, suffers winters “harder than he’d thought possible” yet remains enthralled by “the notion that…there were always things…you hadn’t dreamed of.” Old Woman From A Distance is at once “angry about the past, but ambitious for the future” and must eventually decide whether to undertake a quest of his own. Welsh author Davies’ (The Redemption of Galen Pike, 2017, etc.) slim, complex, and achingly beautiful first novel is a sculpture of daring shifts and provocative symmetries welded together by lyrical, fast-paced prose. Davies dispenses with troublesome thousand-mile wildernesses in a sentence and dashes between the minds of both principal and ancillary characters. The result is a choral performance, reminiscent of those by Penelope Fitzgerald: The reader enjoys a story far greater in its sweep and better-linked in its causes than any of that story’s participants can appreciate. Deployed on the stage of the midlapsarian American frontier, Davies’ chorus manages to weave threads of myth and hope into the gnarly chords of historical tragedy.
A masterful first novel—the sort of book that warms even as it devastates, that forces serious reflection and yet charms.