On the road in 1830s Pennsylvania, a boy comes of age with brutal suddenness; a twisty, gripping first novel from British author Lautner.
Thomas is a bookish only child in Manhattan, home-schooled by his aunt. Everything changes for the 12-year-old narrator in 1837. His mother dies of smallpox, and the financial panic forces his father, a mild-mannered salesman of eyeglasses, to visit the young Samuel Colt’s firearms company. (Colt’s pernicious influence haunts the work.) Thomas’ dad will take orders for pistols, traveling with horse and wagon through Pennsylvania settlements before venturing further West. Their expedition ends when a ruffian, Thomas Heywood, and three trashy accomplices follow father and son to their camp, take their guns and money, and shoot the father dead. The boy returns to the store where they met Heywood to report the murder and runs into the redoubtable Henry Stands. The hell-raising, gun-loving old timer was once a ranger; his latest mission is to round up escaped prisoners for a price. A good man or a bad? Thomas, reeling from the actions of a villain, must now learn there are shades of gray. Henry ignores the boy’s plight, but Thomas is persistent, and Henry becomes his reluctant protector. The pairing may remind readers of the grizzled curmudgeon and needy youngster in Charles Portis’ True Grit and its two movie versions, but this novel does not have the straightforward trajectory of the revenge quest. Thomas just wants to go home; Henry is after his bounty. Then Heywood and company ambush them, and Henry has a score to settle. In a further complication, Thomas is threatened with removal to an orphan asylum. There will be two shootouts, with different sets of adversaries, but Lautner offers more than action. There’s a quiet, exquisite moment when Henry, preparing a rabbit for their dinner, stoically recalls his son, who died in infancy.
Despite some loose ends and an unsatisfying framing device, a robust debut that wears its meticulous research lightly.