Sunday, June 25, 2017

The Searchers by Alan LeMay

Before it was a classic Western film starring John Wayne, The Searchers was a novel written by Alan LeMay (published 1954) and now having read The Searchers I can say the book is every bit the movie's equal.  Here for example is a passage from chapter one of The Searchers.  To set the scene it's a few years after the Civil War and the Edwards family is living in a remote part of Texas, near Comanche territory. As night aprroaches Henry Edwards is standing guard on his porch looking out at the vast land in front of him.  He is worried and reflects on his decision to keep his family here all these years:

"Once they could have quit and found safety in a milder land. They couldn't quit now, with fortune beyond belief coming into their hands.  They were as good as rich - and living in the deadliest danger that had overhung them yet...But you get used to unresting vigilance, and a perpetual danger becomes part of the everyday things around you.  After a long time you probably wouldn't know how to digest right, anymore, if it altogether went away. All that was behind could not explain, exactly, the way Henry felt tonight".

We are not shown tbe massacre.  Instead, the next day racing to the burning Edwards ranch, Amos Edwards (Henry Edwards' brother) and Martin Pauley (who the Edwards adopted as a young boy after his own family was killed by Comanches) come upon the mutilated body of Henry Edwards, his wife Martha and their two sons. The Edwards daughters, Lucy and young Debbie have been taken captive. Amos, Martin and a few other men from the area begin the search to rescue Lucy and Debbie.  A few days later, Amos finds Lucy's body. That leaves Debbie still out there and the thinking is that since she was young, the Comanches may have spared her and are raising Debbie as their own..

After a week, the neighborhood men go back to their lives.  But Martin and Amos continue to look for Debbie, a search all over the Southwest which will take years. That's the heart of this book, the epic journey that Amos and Martin go on and how it changes Martin Pauley in particular.  Martin soon realizes that Amos is more set on revenge against the Comanches which will risk Debbie's life in the process.  Martin is determined not to let that happen.

Amos though gruff and out for vengence cares about Martin. Amos is a man in his early forties who has been fighting in wars and living out on the range for years.  He warns Martin not to follow his example and to go home and start a life.  An old Buffalo hunter reinforces this when he relates his dream to Martin about how all he wants as he comes to the end of his life is "a bunk, a little grub and a chair by the stove".  Martin thinks, "there you had it - the end a prairie man could  look forward to". But Martin is as stubborn as Amos and so the search continues.

Even if Westerns are not your genre, I would recommend The Searchers by Alan LeMay.  The first chapter alone in which Henry Edwards stands on his porch realizing that his family's luck has run out is a powerful and haunting dissertation about the dangers we get into when we live in denial.  And the remainder of this very well written book lives up to the first chapter as we learn about life on the plains, the lives of Cowboys, the lives of Indians and above all Martin Pauley who starts his search for Debbie when he is eighteen, grows to adulthood during his six year odyssey and ends up at the end a very admirable and interesting young man.  He is no two-dimensional cowboy and you will enjoy meeting him.

Wednesday, June 7, 2017

Fathers and Sons by Ivan Turgenev

One of the great things about keeping a book review blog is that it pushes you to read books that would otherwise have remained on your to do list.  Such a book is Fathers and Sons by Ivan Turgenev (published 1862).  I'm a big fan of Russian literature and so I wondered would Fathers and Sons be as good as I hoped?  The answer is yes.  It's very good and I would also add a wonderful introduction to the 19th century Russian novel.

Fathers and Sons is set in Russia's rural countryside and the year is 1859. Russia has recently lost the Crimean war.  Alexander II has suceeded his father as Emperor of Russia and has ushured in a new age of reform.  The question of the Russian serfs (who will be emancipated in 1861)  is on everyone's mind.  It is a time of  turmoil in Russia.  Things are in flux and this is particularly true in the divide between the older and younger generations.

And so when the novel begins, Nikolai Kirsanov, a landowner, is waiting for his son Arkady Kirsanov.  Arkady has been away at the University of St Petersburg, and he has brought home with him a medical student friend, Yergeny Bazarov.   Nikolai is thrilled to have his son home from college and is very welcoming to Bazarov. Arkady's uncle, Pavel Kirsanov, looks at Bazarov, his long hair and arrogant manner and takes an immediate dislike to the young doctor. Arkady announces to his father that he and Bazarov are nihilists.  They reject authority and question everything. Bazarov explains the disillusionment he and his fellow nihilists feel with society as follows:

"We saw that even the clever ones amongst us, the so-called leading figures in society and the social critics as they're called, were no bloody good and we were busy talking alot of nonsense, fussing about with this and that kind of art and unconscious creativity and parliamentarianism and a legal profession and devil knows what, when the real business of life was about one's daily bread, when the grossest superstition was stifling us, when all our joint-stock companies were collapsing simply because there weren't enough honest people, when even the liberation  of the serfs which the government's been so busy with, will scarcely do us any good because our peasants will be glad to steal from each other simply in order to drink themselves silly down the local pub". 

Fathers and Sons has a number of sub plots involving other characters but primarily this is Bazarov's story.  Bazarov is a fascinating character who has an effect on everyone he meets.  His friend Arkady idolizes him, Arkady's uncle despises him. Arkady's father is just trying to keep the peace.  The beautful young widow Anna Odintsova, who is every bit Bazarov's equal intellectually, is intrigued by him. Bazarov's parents feel their son walks on water and when Bazarov comes home troubled about something he asks for privacy and his father tells his wife:

"You and I, my old dear, wore out our Evgeny a wee bit on his first visit.  Now we've got to be more sensible." Arina Vlasevma agreed to what her husband said but gained little from it because she only saw her son at meal-times and finally became frightened to talk to him at all ... and then she'd go off to Vasily Ivanovich and ask him, leaning her cheek on her hand: 'How can I find out, my dear, what darling Enyushka'd likes for dinner, cabbage soup or borsch? 'Why haven't you asked him yourself?'  'But I'd bore him!'

What troubles Yevgeny Bazarov is that he has fallen in love with Anna Odintsova and he is not so much heartbroken that she does not feel the same (though she does care about him) as he is angry that he let his guard down.  As Bazarov told his friend Arkady earlier in the book:

"And what's all this about the mysterious relationships between a man and a woman? We physiologists know all about these relationships.  Just you study the anatomy of the eye - where's all this enigmatic look, as you call it, comes from?  It's all romanticism, nonsense, rubbish artiness". 

Bazarov returns home and decides to join his father, also a doctor, and take care of the patients in their rural community.  The father is thrilled and boasts to all his friends that his son knows all the new medical treatments.  But there is tragedy looming at the end of this novel which I won't recount here in order to preserve some suspense.

Fathers and Sons when it was published back in 1861 was controversial.  The older generation felt Turgenev was glorifying nihilism.  The younger generation felt that Turgenev had turned Bazarov into a caricature of a young radical.  But today Fathers and Sons is recognized as one of the great novels of world literature where it is often included in 100 best novels of all time lists.  I really enjoyed Fathers and Sons.  One of the best books I've read since starting my book blog back in 2015.  It's not a very long novel, 200 pages, and since translation is key I would advise reading the Oxford World Classics edition, translated wonderfully by Richard Freeborn.  You won't be disappointed.