Savage Country, by Robert Olmstead
Olmstead’s title here says all that’s relevant here, but indulge me in a few details. Michael Coughlin has lost his family and wandered off the white man’s reservation into existential territory. He meets Elizabeth, his brother’s widowed wife, whom the brother has left destitute. There’s a strain of Americana in which it’s sought to make joy from sorrow, wealth from poverty, and Michael and Elizabeth head into the untapped American prairie hopeful of gaining such new life from buffalo hunting. Olmstead offers but a single sentence of awareness concerning the part the couple play in all but sending the American buffalo into extinction, the Native American plains culture along with it.
Thus there’s little story here. As the pages turn, Olmstead follows suit with the likes of Charles Frazier and his Cold Mountain in allowing the couple and their retinue to experience the prairie expanse, the buffalo butchering, Indian brutality, racism, murder, extreme weather, and the most brutal of robberies. At book’s end, Michael and Elizabeth gain a workable attachment to one another, but lose all else.
The project of Savage Country is to portray the plains, hence Earth, as indifferent to all life. So indifferent in fact as to not just indulge but encourage life as joyless loss. Of soul. Of material wealth. Of humanity’s connections to one another.
This book has been lauded in reviews and that’s understandable as long as one wishes to read cynically, without hope of being inspired to anything hopeful, or to refrain from pointing toward answers to hard questions put to them. Sadly that apparently comprises a significant portion of the American readership.
My rating: 14 of 20 stars
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