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Book Review: Road to Reckoning

By (March 11, 2014) No Comment

Road To Reckoningroad to reckoning cover


by Robert Lautner

Touchstone, 2014


The drama of Old West survival has, and probably always will have, a steer-horned lock on our imagination. It’s a grim realm best walked by writers like Thomas Berger, E. Annie Proulx, and Cormac McCarthy. With Road to Reckoning, debut novelist Robert Lautner sticks close to a path beaten by Charles Portis in 1968 with True Grit, particularly as pertains to heroine Mattie Ross and her relationship with U.S. Marshall Rooster Cogburn.

Road to Reckoning sees protagonist Thomas Walker remembering a lonely childhood in New York, where his only interactions with other children had been as characters in books, or silently watching them play outside his window. Until, of course, the fateful day his father decides he needs an adventure. Lautner begins on a downbeat about Walker’s own experience as a father:

My sons died in Columbus in ’65. The spring of the end. I told them the day they volunteered to find a ranger and stick by him and pay no mind to West Point boys. John was nineteen and Henry eighteen. That was eight years ago. I have a letter from Sherman commending them.

After the death of his sons in the Civil War, Thomas Walker reflects back to 1837, a week when his father was violently murdered, and he serendipitously fell under the protective arm of ex-ranger Henry Stands.

John Walker was a quiet man, more so since he lost his wife to small pox. Though successful at selling eyeglasses to those who could afford them, he began working for the persuasive Samuel Colt, designer of a machine-made pistol that would eventually change the landscape of battle.

Loading up the young Thomas and some display pistols, Walker leaves New York, working his way through Pennsylvania and heading west into territory that doesn’t appreciate his New York sensibilities. Walker is soon robbed of his money, pistols, and life, leaving his young son alone.

Thomas finds his way back to Chet Baker, owner of the general store in the last town they’d visited. There, the boy meets a begrudging, cantankerous, somewhat long in the tooth Henry Stands, who eventually agrees to help him return home. During the trials that follow, Thomas learns not to trust too quickly in appearances: a well-intentioned minister might be a deceitful opportunist; a lonely, mine-dwelling isolationist might want to boil him for dinner; and an ex-ranger, who many times acted as judge, jury, and executioner, might be capable of rendering delicate images of wild birds and speaking softly of a lost child.

But the most important lesson young Thomas learns is that no man is completely good or evil; everyone’s born of both, and fate decides in which direction life tips. He would grow up, marry, and have two sons. He would tell them stories of his past (leaving out the worst experiences), and stay in touch with Chet Baker over the years. He’d asked Chet to keep an eye and ear open for any news of Henry Stands, but the man never reappeared.

Then again, Henry was never far from Thomas’ life either:

There is a malevolence that seeps towards me, figures cut out fromthe white lamp. I try to wish them gone and try to fight them gone but my hands are small and I cannot go against them or against the crowd that presses to drown me. There are men in black coats and high collars and I can smell iron and sulfur all around.

But he appears then. Always. He is in a darker black than them, darker than them counterfeits could ever pretend to be. He has renounced age.

The blade of his pistol’s sight has not dimmed in his eye.

He is the dry lightning that stirred me to dreaming.

And they retreat.

They go back into the dark. Away from the actual.

And I go back to sleep.

Though Lautner’s story rings with familiarity, he presents it with quiet strength. In many ways, Thomas remains the outsider he was as a young boy. He chastises himself throughout life for not taking action against his father’s murderers, standing as fearlessly as Henry Stands. However, he was too young and too inexperienced to do anything other than run for safety, with Stands always following and rescuing him from the next imminent danger.

Like a dry, spacious landscape, Lautner’s sparse language brings beauty and brutal simplicity to Thomas’ story. He not only reflects on the strength of Thomas’ character emerging within a crucial period of his life, but as the years pass and he revisits his history,Thomas does so through an adult’s eyes. We’re privy to how the journey positively affected his growth into the man he most wanted to be, and that his life is founded on an admiration for both his father and Henry Stands.

Lautner also reminds us that the ghosts of childhood, inhabiting our darkest memories, can haunt our dreams with the same intensity. Unfortunately for many of us, there is no Henry Stands to come to the rescue.