It’s been a long time since I dipped my eyes into a good Western but I was in the mood for a little change of pace, and one should always rely on writer Larry McMurtry for good storytelling. The Berrybender Narratives, which was originally four books now brought into one large collection, is a fine example of McMurtry’s incredible talent: interesting and quirky characters, a non-romantic look at the American West during expansion, and a sweeping saga of one family’s endurance in history. There’s humor, danger, violence, compassion and true love within these covers.
American history is the underpinning, too. The impact of the travels of Lewis and Clark play out in the background and the war with Mexico at the Alamo comes into play. Historical figures come and go, or are references, in such a way as to place you in a time reference. This is history unfolding, but not from your typical diluted and sterile history textbooks.
The main story centers mostly on the Berrybender clan, a highbrow and rich family who have come from Europe to travel through the new frontier of America as tensions between the American Indians and the American government are shifting into high gear. The family is led by a drunk, and completely unpredictable, father who wants to hunt buffalo and Grizzly bear but the book really centers mostly around his eldest daughter, Tasmin, and her new American husband, Jim Snow — a trapper and frontiersman also known as The Sin Killer for his religious outbursts and justice-seeking violence. Even the indians fear The Sin Killer.
The relationship between Tasmin and Jim Snow is complicated. He is all about survival and quiet. She is all about understanding the world, and talking it through. She represents Europe; He, America. There is a kind of love but it doesn’t last, and the twists and turns in their interactions makes you never quite know where their relationship is going.
McMurtry wisely also brings us into the narrative minds of the American Indians who encounter the Berrbenders, particularly those whose suddenly realize that their time is almost up, and that the white Europeans — with their guns, and their plagues, and their sheer numbers — are about to change everything they have ever known. There’s a sadness to their plight (which we know from our historical perspective), but there is plenty of honor, too, in many of their stories. The rich tapestry that McMurtry weaves here is engrossing and powerful.
The Berrybender Narratives is no cowboys-and-indians story. It is a story with human suffering and human emotion at the center, but it is the rawness and roughness of the American West – the land, as character — that is both breathtaking and formidable to behold. The humans — of all races — never stand a chance, and yet, McMurtry allows us to see some energy of individualism bubble up through the narratives. It seems as if he is saying that partnership with the land itself will be the key to our survival.
Peace (in the wild west),