John Wesley Powell’s explorations of the Colorado Territory and Grand Canyon provide the narrative core of Vernon’s richly detailed fifth novel, a historical saga closely akin to his earlier La Salle (1986) and Peter Doyle (1991).
The story begins and ends with Powell’s letters home to his wife Emma, with whom he had previously ventured into the southwest desert, several years after serving in the Union Army, and losing an arm to injuries sustained during the battle of Shiloh. In 1869, he sets out again, leading a party of eight volunteers whose (efficiently distinguished) members include “Wes’s” sturdy brother Walter, scholarly cartographer Oramel Howland, and taciturn, quick-tempered Bill Dunn (who’ll become Powell’s chief antagonist, as hardships and internecine tensions multiply). “If the professor could only study geology, he’d be content to live without food or shelter,” Powell’s men complain. In fact, he’s driven by his scientist’s curiosity about the wild, near-pristine country they travel through: specifically, about “the riddle of rivers cutting through mountains” (which he eventually solves). Vernon juxtaposes the story of Powell’s embattled voyage against that of a tribe of Paiute Indians on a “dangerous hunt” and subsequent trek undertaken to evade their enemies the Navajo and strengthen their own numbers—a plan that puts them on a collision course with the white explorers. The Paiute passages do somewhat dissipate the force of the novel’s primary actions—despite the vivid figures of introspective warrior Toab and his expedient brother Onchok (who sells his children for badly needed rifles), and some beautifully realized scenes in which Paiute religious and cultural practices are effectively dramatized. No matter: the lengthy account of the Powell party’s arduous passage through “the great unknown” (i.e., Grand Canyon) refocuses the reader’s attention, stunningly.
A worthy addition to the fiction of western exploration pioneered (so to speak) by Vardis Fisher and Frederic Manfred. And Vernon’s best yet.