Hunting the last of the buffalo.
“For weeks countless swarms of locusts, brown-black and brick-yellow, darkened the air like ash from a great conflagration, their jaws biting all things for what could be eaten.” This sentence appears on the first page of the novel. The use of imagery from nature to describe a human tragedy is emblematic of Olmstead’s (The Coldest Night, 2012, etc.) style, as is that idiosyncratic—and harrowing—final clause. Like Coal Black Horse (2007) and Far Bright Star (2009), this is a historical narrative that takes place in an unforgiving landscape, and the precision and poetry of the author’s language have a paradoxical effect: they make the setting strange and distinct while imbuing characters and their actions with a particular immediacy. Even the simplest phrase can be heavy with meaning. For example, a locket that contains not a photo, nor even a photograph, but a “photographic portrait” suggests the newness of this medium, suggests luxury, makes us understand that this image is precious. It puts distance between the reader and the man with the locket even as it helps us understand something about this hard man gazing at a woman’s face. Olmstead makes the reader pay attention, which seems fitting in a world where one careless move might result in a rattlesnake bite or a gunshot wound. This story begins in 1873, in Kansas, where Michael Coughlin has arrived to settle his dead brother’s debts—debts he’d hidden from his wife, Elizabeth. Even as she’s adjusting to her loss, she’s forced to confront the fact that the beautiful home, the vast farm, the cattle…none of it is hers. She realizes that the buffalo hunt her husband had been planning before his death was a wild effort to save all of them. What follows is a story about America told through its land and its animals and its diverse people and, especially, through the experiences of two vivid, singular, powerful characters.
Another gorgeous, brutal masterpiece from a great American writer.