Savage Country

Robert Olmstead, author of The Coldest Night, has crafted another dark, contemplative western with his new novel, Savage Country. Olmstead's voice is distinctive: his brutally spare sentences create an apocalyptic mood reminiscent of Cormac McCarthy's Border Trilogy and his characters are similarly tightlipped. Olmstead's plotting is also unusual, mostly eschewing tense gunfights for a grimmer story of survival and environmental destruction.

Savage Country opens in 1873 with recently widowed Elizabeth Coughlin setting out on a highly dangerous buffalo hunt in a last-ditch effort to rescue her finances. She enlists her brother-in-law Michael, a veteran and experienced hunter, to help her navigate Indian Territory as well as the racial tensions, wild animals, illnesses and loose morals that variously afflict the men hired for the journey. Olmstead portrays the environment as at least as dangerous as hostile outlaws or Comanche, an unforgiving world embraced primarily by tough, mean people with little left to lose.

Despite the dangers, the hunt goes well for Elizabeth, so well that the novel's focus shifts to the enormous costs inflicted on the last of the buffalo. After days of shooting buffalo, Michael muses: "He'd begun his part in the great vanishing and he knew it. It was as if he was taking apart the world around him one life at a time." The novel's perspective is a cynical reinterpretation of American history as an exercise in higher profits fueled by increasingly efficient killing. Savage Country is a pitiless vision of the dark side of westward expansion. --Hank Stephenson, bookseller, Flyleaf Books, Chapel Hill, N.C.

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