Will Andrews leaves his studies at Harvard and goes west in search of the wilderness. It is the 1870s and already on the Great Plains buffalo have been hunted almost to extinction . He falls in with Miller, an experienced buffalo hunter who has an obsession: ten or so years ago he discovered by accident a valley in Colorado full of buffalo. He tells Will: ‘I had the feeling no man had been in that valley before. Maybe some Indians a long time ago, but no man.’ This tells all we need to know about his attitude to the indigenous people.
If Will funds the expedition, Miller will make their fortune. The two of them set off with Miller’s bible-bashing, whiskey-swilling friend, Charley, and Schneider who will skin the buffalo.
John Williams begins this extraordinary novel with a quotation from Emerson ending with the lines ‘Here we find Nature to be the circumstance which dwarfs every other circumstance, and judges like a god all men that come to her.’ These men are judged alright and we guess early on Miller’s hubris will be punished in some way. This is a harsh and unforgiving terrain. Early on they pass a couple with three small children who have become detached from a wagon train because of a lame mule. Miller advises then to take a detour from their drive west and recuperate at a fort. The man stubbornly decides to continue – and we understand that they will all die.
This is a tragedy in the classical sense: Miller’s fatal flaw determines the way the plot unfolds. The story could be read as a critique of capitalism or the way human beings exploit and desecrate nature, but none of this is made explicit. The narrative is rooted in the most vividly realised detail: the reader follows step by step the process with which Miller makes bullets, or Will learns to skin a buffalo. It is difficult to read at times: we are spared nothing.
In some ways I think this is a more remarkable novel than Stoner. Other reviewers have compared it – with some justification – to Moby Dick or Heart of Darkness. The book that came to my mind was Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring, published in 1962, nine years before Butcher’s Crossing. In trying to take all, we risk losing all.
Every now and then I like to invite one of my crime-writing friends to be a guest on my blog. This time it’s the turn of Margaret Murphy. I really wanted to know more about Margaret’s colloboration with forensic scientist, Dave Barclay, and how that works. This is what I learned:
The full title is Her Brilliant Career: Ten Extraordinary Women of the Fifties and it’s by Rachel Cooke. It’s had some very good reviews and I must admit that it is a terrific read and that I gobbled it up. But – you knew there was going to be a ‘but’, didn’t you? – I do have some reservations and some of these are, I suspect, to do with editorial decisions. I was a few pages in when I turned to the index, wanting to check something, only to find that there wasn’t one. I don’t like it when a densely textured work of non-fiction like this doesn’t have an index. And I don’t like it when there are no proper footnotes, either. There are a lot of quotations. Sometimes they are attributed, sometimes not. I think this matters. I really want to know who said or wrote what and when. I can imagine the discussion leading to this decision: ‘oh, we won’t have footnotes . . . too stuffy . . . holds up the narrative . . . ‘ But it is important especially when, as here, the private lives of real people are presented in a somewhat unfavourable light.
For these women were for the most part undeniably brilliant – a film director, a journalist, a cookery writer, an architect, a barrister and others – but some of them really weren’t very nice. Admittedly this was a tough time to be a working mother and these women were bucking the trend. Some careers simply weren’t open to married women: a friend of my mother’s who worked in a bank had to stop work when she married. For those who could stay on it was very difficult to combine the two roles, much more so than today (though it’s a problem that never goes away entirely). Sadly the children in this book tended not to come out of things very well. The story of Nancy Spain is particularly disquieting. A lesbian when lesbianism wasn’t illegal only because it was totally unacknowledged, she had a baby that she passed off as belonging to her female lover. She was killed, along with the lover, in a plane crash, leaving no provision, financial or otherwise, for this little boy. Something was cobbled together and he was taken in by the headteacher at the school where he was boarding. He didn’t even know who his real mother was until he was nineteen. Later on he deduced that his father was Youngman Carter who was married to the crime-writer, Margery Allingham. I say ‘deduced’ because the evidence seems to be less than compelling, even though it is presented as fact. No wonder he was dogged by mental illness all his life.
Rachel Cooke doesn’t reach any particular conclusion and I didn’t feel that the whole was more than the sum of the parts – but how very entertaining those parts are.
These days there are plenty of books aimed at the thirteen to fourteen year old female market, but when I was that age, books weren’t categorised in the same way. There was no Judy Blume or – these days – Louise Rennison and I’m not really sorry. I didn’t want to read books that reflected my own teenage occupations. I wanted to be transported to other worlds. Three of my favourite writers were Gerald Durrell, P. G. Wodehouse and Agatha Christie.
I adored Gerald Durrell’s books, requested them as presents, and saved up my pocket money for them. I have those orange Penguins beside me now as I write: Three Singles to Adventure, A Zoo in My Luggage, The Whispering Land, Encounters with Animals, Menagarie Manor and of course that classic, My Family and Other Animals. The inscription on the fly leaf tells me that I was fourteen when I bought this for one and sixpence in Derby market with my friend, Pauline. So it was second-hand to start with and has been read so often that the cover and the first pages have become detached.
That one wasn’t illustrated, but the others were and the illustrations by Ralph Thompson were no small part of their charm. As for the text, the mixture of humour and description of the natural world were pitched at the perfect level. I’ve just been flicking through them. They’re beautifully written and still eminently readable. I read them for pure pleasure, but I learned a lot, too. They enlarged my world and were the perfect escape from the perplexities of early teenage life.