Friday, April 03, 2009

NORTH STAR by Richard S. Wheeler

The Skye novels are unique. They are a blend of the historical literary with the tall-tale dime novel. The characters—Skye particularly—are larger than life, but the beauty of the west and the context of the novels is pure literature. North Star is the 17th title and it is no exception. It is well-written, beautifully detailed, and a touch melancholy as, what feels like the final Barnaby Skye story, is told.

Mister Skye is breaking down with age. He is sixty-five. His eyesight is blurring, and his body aches from too many cold nights on the hard ground beneath his lodge. He yearns for a home: A white man’s home with a wood floor, windows, a soft bed, furniture and rocking chair on the front porch. He has witnessed the west from the early days of the fur trade to the current westward expansion of the white man. It is the end an era—the west is opening up for the homesteader and rancher, but it is closing around the Indian tribes like a noose.

Skye is not a wealthy man. The fur is long since gone and there is little need for guide work in these modern times. He and his two Indian wives—Victoria and Mary—live with Victoria’s Absaroka People. Skye knows money will be a problem, but he also knows he needs a home to grow old in. He also has a place in mind in the Yellowstone Valley. It is a place where the old trappers would often meet in the old days and share stories and trade goods. It is near water, there are warm springs, game and enough beauty to last forever. Unfortunately—as is usually the case—everything that can go wrong, does.

North Star is a melancholy story. It is a story about age and change, but it is also a story about returns—Skye has stayed clear of his own people. He has lived with the Indians for years, but as age captures him he has the need to return to the life his people—the white man—live: a house, a warm stove, furniture, a bed.

The story is told expertly with a weaving and sundry plotline—it isn’t straight and clean, but rather it curls around Skye and his family with destiny’s own uncaring and callous style. It is told in third person and the perspective changes between Skye, his wives and his son Dirk. The prose is vibrant, melancholy and often beautiful with its subtle textures and understated style:

“They reached the riverbank during a spring squall, and continued westward along a worn trail, while wrapped in good blankets. That cold night they raised the lodge and found warmth and peace within.”

North Star is a tale that truly captures the spirit of the west. It is beautiful, harsh, and always dependent on the whimsy of nature. If you think the western is dead, you should read this book. Hell, everyone should read this book.

UPDATE: I received a kind email from Richard Wheeler. Apparently North Star isn't the last of Barnaby Skye. He has a two book contract with Forge to continue the series. The next novel is complete and is titled The Owl Hunt. He said about the next two books, "
The next Skye novels will feature Skye's half-blood son North Star, or Dirk, and will be about early reservation life, and how Indians desperately tried to survive on a piece of land handed to them by white governments."

He also had more good news. He has another biographical novel scheduled for release later this year titled Snowbound. It "
is about John Charles Fremont's disastrous Fourth Expedition, in which he lost a third of his men and all 130 of his mules in the San Juan mountains in winter--for no good reason at all."

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