A large, disparate cast of characters populates Ross’ historical fiction, a sprawling tale about the westward migration that marked America’s expansion during the 19th century.
In his gritty debut novel, Ross, a career writer and editor for newspapers and magazines in Ohio, embraces the ambitious task of depicting American history during the tumultuous period between 1830 and 1870. This involves covering the horrors of slavery, Andrew Jackson’s program to relocate all Native American tribes living east of the Mississippi, the Indian Wars and the Civil War, and the rampant cruelty inflicted upon those seeking a better future on the Western frontier. All “trails” in this sweeping narrative lead to Abilene, Kansas, what has been called the first “cow-town” of America. To get there, however, readers must travel with and become invested in a plethora of unconnected protagonists from Mississippi, Louisiana, Texas, Virginia, even New York, and Vermont. Initially, it’s difficult to keep track of them all. They include displaced Native Americans, Texas Rangers hardened during the wars with the Comanche, escaped and freed slaves looking for a new life, and a soulful musician whose tragic loss leads him to leave the Louisiana bayou. Some grew up with—and lost—wealth and privilege: Eli Whitney “Whit” Brody from Natchez, whose family was wiped out by a tornado, and the Chase brothers from Vermont, who witnessed and suffered from the carnage of the Civil War. Everyone is damaged in some way by cataclysmic events, be they personal and/or social. Heartbreak, physical torture, and despair are never more than a few pages away. But there are also many moments of gentle kindness and great bravery. Cameo appearances by George Armstrong Custer and Mark Twain, as well as encounters with more than a few recognizable outlaws, add historical flavor. Ross even includes a good old street shootout. Amid the episodes of extraordinary violence perpetrated by all manner of miscreants, he manages to carve out a multitude of poignant, essentially short stories that coalesce into a coherent, positive reading experience.
A vivid, messy portrait of the Wild West, with a satisfying high-energy conclusion that celebrates the triumph of the human spirit.