Into the Savage Country
About This Book
When young William Wyeth leaves St. Louis for a fur-trapping expedition, he nearly loses his life and quickly discovers the depth of loyalty among the men, who must depend on one another to survive. While convalescing, he falls in love with the proud Alene, a widow who may or may not wait for him. And on a wildly risky expedition into Crow territory, Wyeth finds himself unwittingly in the center of a deadly boundary dispute between Native American tribes, the British government, and American trapping brigades. A classic adventure told with great suspense and literary flair, Into the Savage Country illuminates the ways in which extreme circumstances expose the truth about the natures of individual men and the surprising mechanics of their bravery, loyalty and friendship.
This author was completely new to me and I really had no idea what to expect. I picked up this title because the historical subject matter and setting intrigued me, but I was soon delightedly swept up in a rousing adventure yarn very reminiscent of such robust classics as Treasure Island, Kidnapped, and Captain from Castile.
Just like Jim Hawkins or David Balfour in the classic Stevenson novels, young William Wyeth is the only mouthpiece through which the entire story is told, the only lens through which we see his world and meet this colorful cast of characters. As such, he is perhaps the least developed of all the characters, and he necessarily has to be too “telling” at times. But every character he encounters is vividly described, cataloged and classified, and I really enjoyed how, over the course of the story, both his conclusions about these men—and mine—were proven either wholly justified or entirely wrong. It’s challenging enough for an author to create original characters, but Burke succeeds in first introducing his characters as clichés and stereotypes, then transforming Wyeth’s and my opinions about them over the course of the story. As such, I can’t tell you which character was my favorite, because it will spoil the plot! All I can say is, not everyone is who they first appear to be . . . which makes for highly entertaining reading!
This book is a lightning-fast read, and a bit unconventional in that it wasn’t broken down into chapters; rather, it’s presented in just three large, chronological seasons, like acts in a play. Burke allows the action to build gradually as his naïve hero first prepares for his journey, then departs, but as I said, I was quickly pulled into the excitement and anticipation of the story and couldn’t put this book down. It had an engaging mix of external conflict (the elements, wild animals, restless natives, treasonous comrades, and more) and internal tension (who can be trusted? do they have what it takes to overcome and survive?).
What really attracted me to this story was the 1820s American West setting. I was expecting action and adventure, but was really surprised and delighted with the level of political intrigue woven throughout. I suppose I had an inkling in some back corner of my mind that fur trappers played a part in claiming the West for the young United States, but I never before connected that to a true power struggle. Burke uses several real-life characters on all sides of the conflict to really bring this battle for supremacy to life, and his attention to detail and historical accuracy really shine.
There is a romantic interest for Wyeth, and a good chunk of the second act is taken up with his pursuit of the widow Alene, who has several compelling reasons for keeping him at arm’s length, and their courtship has both playful and tender moments. There are no overt spiritual or supernatural elements to this story, but there are some very powerful themes of loyalty and redemption woven into the action. Many characters—and none more so than the hero Wyeth—have to overcome prejudices and misconceptions, and learn to judge their fellow men by their words and deeds . . . and that’s an important life lesson anyone can take away from this book.
I’d say this book is geared more toward male readers, but historical fiction fans of all ages will enjoy this story. I could see future stories about some of these characters, but this book is a stand-alone novel and wraps up in a way that is both conventional yet unexpected, and is altogether very satisfying.
I admit it took me a few pages to get into the flow of Burke’s voice, but once my mind connected with the 19th Century narrative travelogue he was channeling, I was wholly sucked into the drama and adventure of this tale. Some of the dialogue felt a little too modern at times, especially compared to the gritty, sprawling expanse of the descriptions, but on the whole I found this very well crafted and true to the specific style Burke was trying to capture.
While relatively clean for a general market novel, there is a smattering of mild language in this book, though most of what might be considered questionable content falls under violence. There are shootouts, Indian attacks, murders, buffalo hunts, and more, and of course, these men are first and foremost trappers. Most 21st Century readers probably oppose fur trapping in general, knowing what we know now about environmental impact and animal cruelty, and so some might be sensitive to those scenes. (There is one scene in particular of a buffalo killing that . . . well, if you’ve seen the opening of The Empire Strikes Back, you’ll have a good idea of what I’m referring to.) But I appreciated that Burke didn’t try to put any modern, revisionist spin on his story, and instead wrote from the historically-accurate mindset that his early-19th-Century characters would’ve had.
Into the Savage Country blends the Western ruggedness of Louis L’Amour and Jack London with the rousing coming-of-age epics of Robert Louis Stevenson and Samuel Shellabarger to create a stirring, highly enjoyable adventure through the fur-trapping expanse of 1820s North America. Rich historical detail and a naïve, every-man hero lure the modern reader into this fast-paced tale of political intrigue, fortunes won and lost, and the ultimate role of inconsequential men in building the American nation.
Available February 24, 2015 from Pantheon