The lure of the wilderness proves irresistible for a young trapper in this glorious American frontier novel, Burke’s (Black Flies, 2008, etc.) third.
In 1826, civilization ends in St. Louis; beyond is the vast expanse of the prairie. William Wyeth sees in it an invitation. The 22-year-old is looking for adventure, and the fur trade is booming. Wyeth joins a brigade bound for the western mountains, where they will set traps for beaver and muskrat and return with their pelts. The season is interrupted when Wyeth is felled by friendly fire during a buffalo hunt. The incident shatters Wyeth’s illusion that he’s immortal, but his spirits are restored by his fellow trappers’ camaraderie. Recuperating at a U.S. Army encampment, Wyeth meets Alene Chevalier, a part native French-Canadian tanner. After the trapper has another near-death experience, they fall in love, but Wyeth is not ready for domesticity quite yet. The St. Louis dandy Henry Layton is forming a new brigade and offers Wyeth a stake in it. Layton is a complex figure, marvelously well-observed. A bit of a scoundrel, battling his own demons, he is undeniably charismatic. Both Layton and Wyeth will learn that “[t]here is little that ails a man…that is not improved by a season in the mountains.” The second expedition, this one on Crow lands (Layton has negotiated a treaty), is all ups and downs. The overbearing Layton risks a mutiny, but the trappers rally behind him when he fearlessly confronts a British brigade leader. Borders are vague and the expansionist Brits, not the natives, are the enemy. The trappers harvest a record number of pelts, but safe passage back is far from assured. Burke includes fine episodes of derring-do, two involving bears, and there is a thrilling climax, but character is his overriding interest, the way it’s shaped by tests of endurance in magnificent, alien landscapes.
A grand immersion in the past.