The beast in the west

West by Carys DaviesCarys Davies is the award-winning author of the short story collection The Redemption of Galen Pike, a highly praised book from 2014. I haven’t read it, but after reading Davies’ new novel West, the short story collection is now ordered and on the way to my reading table. From reviews I’ve read about it, the collection is written similarly to the novel, which comes to life in concise, beautifully written prose that maintains a masterly grasp of the passage of time. Davies moves the story forward with brief, lyric brushstrokes that fill our imagination. Clearly, this must be this author’s signature style, and it’s one that is uniquely captivating.

West succinctly delivers the story of a journey into the unsettled 19th century American West. That journey begins with a newspaper article about the bones of a mammoth creature discovered in the salty Kentucky mud – a creature that has “teeth the size of pumpkins, shoulder blades a yard wide, jawbones that suggested a head as tall as a large man”. The novel’s main character, Cy Bellman, a widowed mule breeder, keeps the carefully folded article in his pocket and obsesses over its content, imagining the magnificent creature roaming America’s uncharted territories far to the west of his Pennsylvania farm. He’s so driven by the idea of seeing the creature, he can think of nothing else; and so, he packs up his horse, tells his 10-year-old daughter Bess he’ll be back in two years and then heads west. He entrusts her care to his judgmental, unbelieving sister and the farm to his neighbor and occasional helper, Elmer Jackson.

There were no words for the prickling feeling he had that the giant animals were important somehow, only the tingling that was almost like nausea and the knowledge that it was impossible for him, now, to stay where he was.

Carys Davies’ eloquent words paint the danger and beauty of the westward journey into an impressionistic vision. In simple but powerful language, she communicates Bellman’s courage and determination in the face of harsh unpredictability. And there’s this perfect magic amidst her words that keeps us aloft with Bellman in his believing in the possibility of what could be, even though we know this man is on a fool’s journey.

Just outside St. Louis, a 17-year-old Shawnee Indian joins Bellman as his guide. He’s got a strange name of Old Woman From a Distance and a compelling story of his own that involves the cheating white man. Here Davies uses what we as readers know today to create a chilling foreboding when the young Indian’s relatives get caught up in the shiny objects the White Man uses to trade for their land. Old Woman From a Distance cannot abide with the sorrow and resignation he witnesses from the betrayal of trust, and he heads out on his own.

Then one very old man said they should take nothing of what they’d been given — not a shirt, not a handkerchief, not a bead. He said that if they gave up their land for trifles, they would waste away.

Together Old Woman and Bellman creep forward, following the Missouri River, as did the earlier, famous expeditioners Lewis and Clark. They endure severe winters and enjoy spring’s relief, while Bellman continues to hope to find what comes to stand for a mythical beast. Meanwhile, he writes bundles of letters to his daughter that he gives to strangers for delivery, but Bess never receives them. Back home, Elmer Jackson lusts after the young girl, as does the librarian who helps her find books about Lewis and Clark.

Bellman eventually reaches a point where he longs to see his daughter more than he longs to see the creature. He’s been gone for those two years, and the arduous journey has taken its toll. By now we are aware this accomplished story is exploring not only the ideals of the untamed American west, but also moral and philosophical questions about life choices and responsibilities. Davies seems to suggest all we can do is make the best decision with the information we have at the time. It’s what Bellman did when he read the article that prompted him to set out on his journey, and yet he couldn’t have known the future it would bring – nor could the Native Americans – in this remarkable story.

A version of this review aired on NPR member station WOSU 89.7 FM, broadcasting throughout central Ohio. West by Carys Davies is published by Scribner.