A near-epic saga aims for the literary stratosphere, but its purple prose drags it down.
Homely, hyper-sensitive daughter of gorgeous parents, Gussie Locke is a wanderer. Haywood (The Rest of the Earth, 1997, etc.) ladles her full of scrappy spirit as she careens westward, fleeing prairie Minnesota for wild Wyoming. Repulsed as a teen by the sight of her dad zestfully rolling in a bog with a woman not his wife, she sets out with her mother Leota, a kind of Nordic goddess. Elusive men become her signature cross to bear: She trysts briefly with a soldier and bears his child. He departs, as do virtually all the significant people in her life. Eventually, with her only companions her daughter and a cinematically rendered restless wind, she settles in Wyoming’s Great Divide Basin, there to run supplies for oil and mineral crews. Daughter Anne becomes Gussie in spades—another wide-eyed seeker constantly on the run, pawn of an over-heated sensibility. Beginning in 1903, the tale spans the century, and Hayward evokes period detail with relish, from the sputter of early motor coaches to the parched throats of ranchers during Prohibition. The evocative, the lyrical, the descriptive, in fact, is his keynote: “She’d lift a page with a gentle pinch of her fingers, tun it, lay open the next horizon, the next event, without fear, without a moment’s pause, her voice going on as if the lovely shaping of her lips were the whole act, as if it was all music without meaning.” Such over-ripe poetry is sweet in sips; Hayward almost drowns us in the stuff. And characters who are closer to archetypal crags than flesh-and-blood people don’t help his tale, either.
Self-conscious, strained myth-making clots a good story.