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Savage Country by Robert Olmstead

Published by Algonquin Books on September 26, 2017

Everything about Savage Country is stark:  its landscape, its language, its characters. Biblical imagery abounds, from a plague of locusts to kids named after apostles. The novel has an Old Testament feel with its brutal justice and harsh injustices as characters struggle to overcome sinful thoughts in a moral wilderness. Savage Country is a story of ambition and hubris, and stories with Old Testament themes rarely go well for people whose ambition is the pursuit of worldly goods. But New Testament virtues are also on display in Savage Country as characters strive to find their better selves by caring about the less fortunate.

Michael Coughlin is a British citizen who fought for the South in the Civil War. He travels to Kansas in 1873 to pay his dead brother’s mortgage. The payment saves the land from Whitechurch, who held the mortgage and planned to seize the farm. If not for Michael’s stern resolve, Whitechurch might not have accepted the payment. But Whitechurch does not easily let go of his desires, and his need for vengeance is one of the story's themes.

Michael’s brother had intended to mount a hunt for buffalo but died before the hunt could start. His brother’s wife, Elizabeth, intends to follow through on that plan, using the proceeds of the hunt to repay Michael and to meet her living expenses. Michael feels no choice but to accompany her since he cannot dissuade her from entering the savage country where the last buffalo herd roams.

The story details conflicts with man (white men versus Native Americans, white men versus black men, white men versus women of all heritages, bad men versus good men), but the greater part of the plot is driven by conflicts with nature (fire and floods, snow and wind, locusts and drought, buffalo and wolves). While the white men think they are the only ones entitled to make a living and resent the employment of black men (some things, it seems, never change), the greatest conflict is with disease in an era before antibiotics were available to save lives. And while literature professors teach that the three literary conflicts all involve man, Savage Country teaches that nature against nature (wolf versus buffalo, water versus stone) is a larger part of our planet’s story.

Michael plays his part in the decimation of the last remaining buffalo herd, and he does so with regret, knowing that he is stealing from nature, taking something precious from the land. It is the same regret he feels when he kills people, always in the belief that he has no realistic alternative. His choices are dictated more by expedience than morality: the death of buffalo allows humans to survive and prosper; a man in the wilderness who contracts rabies needs to be put down so that he does not imperil the lives of the healthy. It falls to Michael to deal out death because he can.

Robert Olmstead’s research resulted in a detailed description of the work that goes into assembling the scallywags, oxen, mules, wagons, provisions, and supplies required to mount an expedition for buffalo. His description of the buffalo hunt and subsequent skinning and butchering, the smells and sounds and sights, has a visceral impact. His description of a desolate, unforgiving, and savage land is vivid.

Savage Country tells an intense, powerful story that lives up to its title. Yet a strong horse and a loyal dog can provide comfort even in a savage land. People can take care of each other by banding together and forgetting their differences. That may not be enough to assure survival, but the Olmstead seems to be telling the reader that it is the only way for decent people to live.


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