A drama set in the wake of the Civil War follows a U.S. marshal’s pursuit of coldblooded killers.
In 1871, Joe Oscar is a quietly tough 17-year-old—both a precocious student of boxing and an impressive marksman. His best friend, Dave Wall, moved to St. Louis from Gettysburg in 1864, after his father was killed in the Civil War; his mother died soon after. Joe begins to develop a powerful, romantic attachment to his sister’s best friend, Marci O’Hara, feelings he has reasons to believe are reciprocated. But then tragedy suddenly strikes: two out-of-towners kill Marci’s Uncle Matt, apparently because he was a witness to a criminal enterprise that profited from the brutal trafficking of former slaves, now free citizens. The ringleader, Harold Lee, who operated his nefarious business out of New York, dispatched the assassins. Outraged by the grim act, Joe volunteers to become deputized as a U.S. marshal and pursue the killers. The author describes Joe’s indignation in bloodlessly earnest terms, unfortunately characteristic of the novel’s writing overall: “No one can be allowed to come in to our lives and wreak such havoc, I thought to myself. I will fight for what I care about and who I love. I wanted a civilized life for all of us here on the edge of the frontier.” Joe and Dave set out West together deep into Wyoming Territory on a dangerous mission motivated by a desire for justice and, in Joe’s case, revenge on the behalf of the woman he just realized he loves. Offner’s (Joe Oscar Undaunted—1876, 2014) previous book stars an older Joe Oscar. In this prequel, the author astutely depicts the grotesque opportunism that followed the conclusion of the Civil War—a newly freed population became fodder for different kinds of exploitation. In addition, he provides a stirring picture of a still feral frontier, not entirely governed by law. Joe is a memorable and attractive protagonist—a peculiar combination of youthful naïveté and surprising fortitude. But the plot takes far too long to find its stride, even within a brief work—it’s more a short story than even a novella. And the writing, especially the dialogue, lacks even a hint of the grittiness of the plot.
While it offers uneven prose, this Western delivers striking historical details and an appealing hero.