I’ve been so busy that reading this book–this short book that I enjoyed–felt like a battle. Which is fitting for Michael Punke’s The Revenant, a historical fiction book about one man’s battle for survival against man and nature in the historical American westward expansion.
About the book: Hugh Glass has had an adventurous life, consorting–not always by choice–with noblemen, sailors, pirates, and Indians; but nothing could have prepared him for his fateful trip along the Grand River in 1823 with the Rocky Mountain Fur Company. When Glass is brutally mauled by a protective mother grizzly bear, his fur trapping companions assume he’ll die of his wounds. For a few days, the company carries his ailing body along their route, but it’s imperative that they reach shelter before winter settles in, and Glass is slowing them down. The captain decides to leave two men with Glass until his death, to provide him humane treatment in his final days and a decent burial. The two men, however, have other ideas about what to do with Glass. Impatient to rejoin their crew and greedy for Glass’s extraordinary rifle, they take Glass’s belongings and leave him to die alone in the wilderness. A slowly healing Glass fights for survival and revenge with few tools beyond his sheer determination, intent on retrieving his prized rifle and ending the lives of the men who left him ill and defenseless. With a little luck and a lot of skill, the injured Glass sets out to traverse hundreds of miles of wilderness in the name of revenge.
“Still, he thought, there was no luck at all in standing still. The next morning he would crawl forward again. If luck wouldn’t find him, he would do his best to make his own.”
I used to believe that wilderness survival stories were very similar–if you’ve read one, you’ve read them all. Food is a problem. Fire is a problem. Shelter is a problem. And the main character is always alone. As a consequence, it’s been a long time since I’ve read this sort of book, and I was surprised by how immediately and thoroughly I became immersed in Glass’s tale.
One of the biggest draws of The Revenant for me is the addition of extra characters. Glass is often alone and even when he’s not he keeps his story and his opinions largely to himself, but there are enough additional characters and groups of people in this book that politics come into play, and the reader becomes invested in the fate of more than one person. Death and disaster become real, worrisome enemies in a way that single-character survival stories struggle to convey because here, while one character manages to keep them at bay, his friends and enemies do not. Furthermore, the inclusion of other prominent characters allows this book to remain in man-vs-man territory, rather than succumbing entirely to the man-vs-nature battles that often fill wilderness stories. Glass is prepared for the wilderness. Survival is a struggle, but it’s not his main goal. The Revenant is truly, primarily, a novel of revenge.
“Having crawled toward this moment for a hundred days, the prospect of vengeance was now immediate, the power to consummate requiring no more than the gentle squeeze of a trigger. Yet a mere bullet seemed too intangible to express his rage, an abstraction at a moment craving the satisfaction of flesh against flesh.”
The blended feel of fiction and nonfiction in this novel is what fascinates me the most. I hadn’t realized before I began reading that The Revenant is based on true events, and many of the other elements–the setting, the fur companies, the big events–have a basis in reality that gives the book a very life-like feel. The combination of fiction and nonfiction is a phenomenon that always piques my interest–I like to believe that neither can truly exist without the other, but also that the line between them is often blurred. I felt like I was learning something about America’s history while I read this book, but it didn’t seem even remotely like a textbook. Punke navigated the line between truth and fantastic speculation with a masterful eye for selective detail and entertainment value. The craziest aspects of the story are lent credibility by the link to truth, which is an element that gives a survival story more punch every time.
“Through the long morning, Glass’s body fought against the infection of his wounds. He slipped between consciousness, unconsciousness, and a confusing state in between, aware of his surroundings like random pages of a book, scattered glimpses of a story with no continuity to bind them. When conscious, he wished desperately to sleep again, if only to gain respite from the pain. Yet each interlude of sleep came with a haunting precursor–the terrifying thought that he might never wake up again. Is this what it’s like to die?“
My reaction: 4 out of 5 stars. I grew up in the Midwest and took a drive through the Badlands and Black Hills of South Dakota this fall, so the historical setting of the Westward expansion through a part of America that is reasonably familiar to me was especially intriguing. Also, I couldn’t help picturing Leonardo DiCaprio as Hugh Glass, even though I specifically set out to read the book before watching the movie to avoid having the visuals cloud my impressions of the novel–but Glass did seem a perfect role for DiCaprio, and I think with as many times as I had to pick up this book and set it back down it was actually helpful to have a few ideas about it already in place. As far as wilderness survival stories go, this one has probably been my favorite, but now that I’ve read one it’ll probably be years again before I feel the need to pick up another.
- Erik Larson’s The Devil in the White City is a nonfiction book about a serial killer and the World’s Fair in Chicago in the late 1800’s. This one, although not a fictional novel, reads like fiction, immersing readers in a grand but precarious world on the cusp of greatness, but also pinned under the watchful eye of a monster. If you like Punke’s writing style, try Larson’s.
- If you like historical fiction set in the 1800’s, pick up my personal favorite, the classic Gone With the Wind by Margaret Mitchel. Although the battles in this book have more to do with war and the trappings of society than abandonment in the wilderness, it is a novel about survival and the nature of man (and woman).
What’s next: I’ve just finished reading Colleen Hoover’s newest release, It Ends With Us, which is a romance novel that also features perspectives on homelessness and domestic abuse. I’ll have a review posted for this one soon, as well.
The Literary Elephant