Classics Reissued: The Homesman
by Glendon Swarthout
Simon & Schuster, 2014
The great 20th-Century American novelist Glendon Swarthout has more viewers than readers, which is an oddly ironic twist of good fortune; prospective readers might nod in recognition of his stories, but if confronted they’ll also sing out, “They were books?” A Christmas to Remember, Seventh Cavalry, They Came to Cordura, the cult classic Bless the Beasts & Children, and The Shootist, which was adapted into John Wayne’s last and most touching movie … before his death in 1992, this author had a Hollywood run of Elmore Leonard proportions.
So it’s almost grimly funny to look at the sturdy new paperback re-issue from Simon & Schuster of Swarthout’s 1988 novel The Homesman and sure enough, predictable as the sunrise, see “Soon to Be a Major Motion Picture” emblazoned above the title (far less amusing that this novel starring one of American fiction’s most memorable female characters should have a standard male cowboy on the cover). But readers thirsty as always for the genuine article must take their gifts in whatever wrapping they come, and The Homesman is pure Swarthout: catchy, whittled to perfection, thrillingly wise.
It’s the trusty Western structure of the epic journey, only in reverse: the harsh winters and casual brutalities of the 1850s American West have driven three homesteading wives out of their minds, and as uncomfortable as this makes their men-folk, (“People’ll talk about death an’ taxes, but when it comes to crazy, they hesh up”) even less comfortable is the task ahead of them: to imprison the three sufferers in a wagon and drive them up the long and dangerous trail back to the comparative sanity of the East Coast, where they can, with luck, be restored to their senses. Those men-folk balk at the task, and into that void of responsibility steps one of Swarthout’s best characters, Mary Bee Cuddy, who stoutly defends herself as the logical choice: “I can ride as well as you. And handle a team. And shoot. And I can cook. And I can care for the women better than you.”
She gains the reluctant support of itinerant reverend Alfred Dowd (about him, we’re told: “He was respected for long rides and esteemed for short prayers and sermons. He stepped lively. He was welcome everywhere. Alfred Dowd was beloved”), who has always had a warm esteem for Mary Bee:
She rode her own generous circuit, cheering the dejected, nursing the sick, and playing auntie to the little ones. Oh, she was a pillar. She was educated, she appreciated the finer things, she was gritty as all get-out. In his opinion, Mary Bee Cuddy was an altogether admirable human being. He wondered if there was a way to measure character.
Although her own temperament naturally inclines her toward making the trip alone with her charges, Mary Bee knows that would be foolish. She’s still unsettled on the question when she encounters a nearly-dead claim-jumper named George Briggs and matter-of-factly saves his life in return for the “job of work” she wants him to do for her. He’s a thief and a general-purpose villain, and to her help-oriented way of thinking, he’s one thing even worse:
She knew a loner when she met one. Of course a loner wouldn’t understand an order, or even a suggestion, but what was exasperating, he had never heard of cooperation either. Such a man lived by himself on the globe and believed it turned for his comfort and convenience.
There follows the best kind of voyage narrative, one in which two unlikely people travel toward each other as well as toward a destination. Mary Bee and Briggs face as many hardships and dangers as Swarthout’s invention can devise. Since this is not post-modern anything, the plot has a cantata-perfect structure and a handful of well-turned surprises – like any other of this marvelous author’s books, The Homesman will serve perfectly well as an introduction to the world of Glendon Swarthout’s fiction. Don’t wait for Oscar season.