Far As the Eye Can See by Robert Bausch
|Far As the Eye Can See by Robert Bausch|
|Category: Historical Fiction|
|Reviewer: Lesley Mason|
|Summary: An epic tale of the old West following the adventures of several-time deserter Bobby Hale as he seeks a new life after the Civil War. Slow to draw the reader in this is worth persevering with, for an ultimately emotional and deeply satisfying excursion in the human side of history.|
|Buy? Yes||Borrow? Yes|
|Pages: 298||Date: December 2014|
|External links: Author's website|
It was a bit slow was probably my Mam's worst condemnation of film… but I'm going to forgive her for not appreciating slowness, because it was she that got me into appreciating westerns. Of course she preferred the all-action kind, but through watching those with her, I started to watch and enjoy the long, slow, ones and to appreciate the back-drop to all of that action… and then somewhere along the line I got interested in what might really have happened: not just in the West but the whole of what became the U.S. in the early days of settlement.
I got interested in the fact that amongst all of the killing and obscenity that the Europeans brought to the continent, there was a fair amount of that already going on… and that in amongst it all there was nobility and honour and things in different ways of living that should have been cherished more by those on the opposite sides had we only been able to find a better way to understand each other.
I got interested in the fact that whatever was being painted on the broad canvas (and the wide empty spaces of unsettled north America* are as broad a canvas as any ever was) there were individuals, people, families, men, women and children, just living day to day lives having no concept of anything bigger than their own circle, or having a concept and choosing not to care very much, or not being able to care, or just scraping by one way or another. Like we all do.
I started to love the western – not just in films, but in books too.
Which is how, eventually, I came to be reading Bausch's Far As The Eye Can See.
Mam's comment is relevant though, because it echoed through the first few chapters of the book. Where some novels immediately suggest themselves as films, this one lends itself to the mini-series (provided the producers could restrain themselves to the text), but if it were done I fear my mother wouldn't get to love it because it does take patience.
We meet Bobby Hale in March 1876, on the run from both the U.S. army and the Indians, with a lame horse and little else to his name, he makes a bad call and shoots Ink. Ink is a Sioux, more or less, called Stand Alone Woman by the Indians, and christened Diana at birth, her father called her Ink because she was so dark. Darker than a white man might have expected of his mixed race daughter. She is also alone, on the run, and frightened.
Back in time. Bobby, who tells the story, takes us back to 1869, setting out alone from St Louis. He's got a big red mare called Cricket, a fairly new .44 Colt Dragoon sidearm… army pup tent, some blankets, and a few cooking utensils… ten pounds of coffee, some dried beans, smoke ham, and five pounds each of sugar and salt...some sowbelly and molasses, stocked up with whiskey and two canteens of water. But his best investment was an Evans repeater, difficult to load but holding 34 shells – you can fight for a long time with 34 in the hold.
And Bobby knows a bit about fighting. True he had deserted and re-enlisted several times under different names during the civil war (the enlistment bonus being such an enticement) – but when he found himself in a battle, he fought along with the best of them . And carried the mental scars better than most: in that he bore them well, but learned from them too.
He learned how to kill, and the willingness to do it at need, but also a distaste for it.
From St Louis, he picks up with a wagon train heading west. He doesn't intend to join the train, he's better off alone he figures, but events lead in that direction.
Far As the Eye Can See then takes us through everything that happens next as he rides in company and without it, mostly trying to be on no side at all but his own, for the next ten years. We follow the life leading up to that point in the hills when he shot Ink, and everything that follows leading inexorably to the Battle of the Little Bighorn.
Written as a campfire tale told by the man who lived it, it is superbly conversational: easy to read and enthralling even when not much is happening. I'd love to say I was entranced from the first page, but I wasn't. For a while, I was being my mother's daughter and wanting something more dramatic to happen, until eventually the place and the time seeped under my skin and I settled into the rhythm of this man (and whoever else) riding day by day, surviving on what could be killed or traded along the way, that unsettled peace of just taking the quiet pleasures of the world as it is.
It does seep in. You begin to care about the man now calling himself Bobby Hale. You begin to care about the people who cross his path, whether they're Indians (of whatever named tribe) or Army or white civilians, or in many cases mixtures of the above. You begin to understand that there was nothing remotely romantic about this hardscabble existence and yet that there was something in the essence of it that we'd have done well to recognise the value of and fought to retain.
It's a book about honour and bravery, about fear and freedom, strength, weakness and love. It's also about a particular time and a particular place and, yes some of the horrors that were perpetrated, but also about some of those trying to stand outside of all of that, or not appreciating how they were the cause and or the effect of it.
If the first few chapters were easy to read one at a time and walk away from, that became harder as the book went on. The camp fire stayed lit longer to hear just a little more. And I confess to a totally unwarranted tear or two towards the end: an ending which (unlike many modern novels) is deeply satisfying.
It took a while to appreciate this book, but the only word on closing the final page was: brilliant!
- Just in case folk take objection to the expression 'unsettled north America' I should maybe explain, that I'm not in any way decrying the native American way of life nor suggesting that they didn't have prior claim to the continent. My observation is merely that their way of life was not 'settled' and so I think the term is valid. It's not a value-judgement, just a description. Likewise, I use the word Indian, because that's word used in the book.
If you like this, then you cannot help but love and want to read and re-read Dee Brown's masterpiece Bury My Heart At Wounded Knee by Dee Brown
You can read more book reviews or buy Far As the Eye Can See by Robert Bausch at Amazon.co.uk.
You can read more book reviews or buy Far As the Eye Can See by Robert Bausch at Amazon.com.
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