For years, fans of the genre complained that no one was making good Western films—but then along came The Homesman, Meek’s Cutoff, and the Coen brothers’ remake of True Grit. Similarly, some critics have lamented the decline of the literary Western, perhaps forgetting that Larry McMurtry is still at it, along with the likes of Philipp Meyer, Jeff Guinn, and, somewhere in some hidden slot canyon, Cormac McCarthy.
Give the genre suitably broad definition, embracing the region west of the Hundredth Meridian and involving a clash of cultures and some self-defining climactic moment, and we have a prize contender in Shannon Burke, whose newly published third novel Into the Savage Country is set at the very opening of the West and populated by those who opened it: the mountain men, trappers, and explorers who combed the back country in search of fortune.
Into the Savage Country opens in 1826 in St. Louis, on the very edge of the frontier, where a young man named William Wyeth takes it into his head to go see some of that country. Educated and sensitive to his surroundings and the people who live there, William is something along the lines of the character Robert Redford played in Jeremiah Johnson, even if the real-life historical figure on whom that latter character was based bore the dauntingly meaningful sobriquet Liver-Eating Johnson. William lacks an appetite for violence, though violence catches up with him all the same, affording Burke the opportunity to weave a lightly told story of love and longing into the proceedings, which otherwise hinge on a simmering conflict that plays out between the contending imperial powers of America and Britain and the Indian nations about to be steamrolled by the advance of so-called civilization.
A native of Illinois and long resident in the South, Burke tells Kirkus Reviews that the story has its seeds in his long-standing admiration of and interest in the mountain man Jedediah Smith, “a natural leader, entrepreneur, mapmaker, and explorer” who ranged throughout the Rocky Mountain region in the period after Lewis and Clark explored it, covering huge expanses of territory and making contact with dozens of Indian peoples. “For a while I thought of writing a fictional biography about him,” Burke says, “but in the end I settled on a fictional narrator, someone who was more of a greenhorn. I wanted the reader to be immersed into that world and to take it in at the same time as the main character, so the reader and the narrator are going through the experience together.”
That’s just the way the story unfolds, and at a very far remove from the more immediate, and more immediately fraught, experiences that Burke recounted in his first two novels, the glowingly reviewed Safelight (2005) and Black Flies (2008), the first of which earned a Kirkus Star. Set on the streets of New York and chronicling the life of an adventurer every bit as daring as William—an FDNY emergency responder, that is to say—those books spoke to Burke’s time on the job. But after two books, he says, “I felt like I was finished with writing about being a paramedic.” He looked back into his past as a reader and the pleasures he’d felt turning the pages of books such as Kidnapped, Treasure Island, Robinson Crusoe, and White Fang, and he decided that something along those lines might be fruitful and enjoyable.
Eventually he settled on that period of American exploration, though, he says, “I didn’t know that much about trapping or that time period.” He read, read some more, and then drove the length of the Missouri River, “staying at places where the trappers stayed, camping out, hiking up the drainages they trapped in, getting a feel for it. I did that a few times,” he says, “and I kept reading. And one day, after a year or so, I started to write without much of a plan, which is unusual for me. That was the inception.”
And not just books: Burke reckons that he’s spent two years of his life camping out in a tent, an experience that few moderns can claim to have, and that certainly figures in his pages. Still, that program of reading was comprehensive. Burke combed trappers’ journals, the writings of contemporary historians, and classics such as John Tanner’s The Falcon and Francis Parkman’s The Oregon Trail. It took years, Burke says, but the effort is evident in the wealth of period details, the rightness of the language, and the historical facts throughout the spare but graceful narrative. “Fiction is about making the reader feel a time and a place,” Burke says, “and it’s really hard to do this if the place isn’t rooted inside you. Specifically, I wanted to infuse the book with the sense of wonder and grandeur that I feel personally when I am out in the wilderness, and that I saw mirrored in the trapper’s journals from that time.”
Burke is modest when asked whether he believes he’s contributed materially to the genre of the literary western. He confesses a respect for such critically lauded books as Cormac McCarthy’s Blood Meridian and John Williams’s Butcher’s Crossing, though the book of more immediate importance may surprise diehard Western buffs: “I feel like I was liberated by reading Wolf Hall, which was a history,” he says, “but written in the present tense, and in a much more visceral, modern style than most histories. One of the strengths of Wolf Hall, to my mind, is that you live with [Thomas] Cromwell moment by moment, and that was an important thing to keep in mind when I started my book. I wanted the reader to really feel the land and the sense of being out there on your own.”
Combine that sense with Burke’s natural leanings toward drama, realism, and action, and you have a fine, historically grounded novel of adventure. As to what’s next, Burke says he’s been thinking of continuing down the trail of historical fiction, though with a detour into roman à clef country, exploring what he calls “characters who are basking in the abject circumstances of their mismanaged youth.”
Gregory McNamee is a contributing editor.