A coming-of-age novel tells the story of an orphaned boy learning to survive in the Old West.
In 1853, the Blackthorn family arrives in West Texas from Wales so that its patriarch, the Methodist minister John, can spread the gospel of Jesus to the “wild heathens on the untamed prairies.” But his would-be flock has other ideas, and a Comanche attack leaves everyone in the family dead except for 13-year-old Nigel, who hides in the hollow stump of a tree. When the muleteer Pascal LeBrun wanders through the burned-out campsite a day later, he mistakes the lone survivor for a ghost: “A black apparition rose unsteadily from the funeral pyre—a wavering shadow in the fading light. Ashes scattered as the ghost-like wraith rose, becoming a smoky, wavering illusion.” LeBrun, a defrocked priest, rescues the boy, though he makes him work for his food—something that the spoiled Nigel has not had to do up to this point. Life on the prairie is hard for anyone. For a doughy orphan apprentice to a French-speaking muleteer, it’s doubly difficult. Nigel will have to get tough if he wants to seek revenge on the raiders who killed his family, but first he’ll have to learn how to navigate his new life as a trader on the frontier. In this series opener, Kelso (California Bound, 2017, etc.) writes in a measured prose that deftly summons the diction and texture of life on the prairie in the mid-19th century: “Pascal rode in silence while he glanced at the mules before studying the nearby plains. By summer’s middle, the rolling prairie had dried, withering to various shades of brown from light tan to dark-brown wallows.” The story is a fairly straightforward one and, in its focus on skill acquisition and personal growth, is reminiscent of teenage novels from an earlier era. (Its depiction of Native Americans as wise bestowers of nicknames and ancient knowledge is a less endearing throwback.) LeBrun and Nigel make a compelling pair, and readers should look forward to the orphan’s further adventures.
A mostly enjoyable, old-school Western.