Enslaved to an Indian to settle her father’s gambling debt, a young girl escapes and makes her own way in mid-19th-century Nebraska.
Poet and author Svoboda (Black Glasses Like Clark Kent, 2008, etc.) has an elliptical prose style that makes demands some will find irksome. Those willing to stick with her tough, resourceful narrator, however, will be rewarded by an unsentimental picaresque recalling True Grit in its matter-of-fact portrait of a harsh society that mirrors the West’s vast, indifferent landscape. True Grit’s Mattie Ross is a creampuff compared to 12-year-old Harriet, who doesn’t tell us her real name but assumes the sobriquet of a fellow captive who killed herself. Tied to a tree and temporarily saved from being burned alive when her dancing brings rain, Harriet manages to slip her bonds and limps off (she’s been hobbled to prevent flight) to find her Pa. She acquires a baby whose family has been struck by lightning and winds up in a town being looted by soldiers—no one knows from which side, since the chaotic first year of the Civil War has given rise to armed bands of no particular allegiance. Undaunted by seeing a shopkeeper shot dead at his door, Harriet starts selling his supplies, telling the townsfolk she is his niece and has just arrived with her orphaned cousin. Over the course of the war, she establishes herself as a canny businesswoman while facing down with aplomb such threats as the arrivals of a peddler who knew her as a captive and of her crazy Indian captor. She acquires a suitor, damaged veteran Henry, who proves to have secrets of his own. Pa never shows up, and the baby who kept her from roaming farther to find him grows into a 13-year-old whose dreams are at odds with hers. Yet we never doubt Harriet will seize as much satisfaction as this hard life can spare.
Difficult, but worth it for a marvelous heroine with an iron will and a unique voice.