In this stark, intense work, Robert Olmstead, the award-winning author of six previous novels (most recently Coal Black Horse), has given us a harrowing landscape where survival is a daily struggle. To become complacent is to die.
The beginning of the novel is tense and foreboding, as we meet Napoleon Childs, a grizzled and jaded soldier more in tune with horses than with his fellow soldiers. It is 1916—the last days of the cavalry—and Childs is the veteran of many battles.
Childs and his men have set up headquarters in the desert of Mexico to search for Pancho Villa. It’s a mostly green crew of recruits, all there for different reasons. What happens to them and to him is horrific and stunning. Childs’ narration brings you into up-to-the-minute action, while still capturing the beauty of the landscape and the people he meets. For some inexplicable reason, Childs is not killed, but left as a witness to what has happened.
Through Childs’ descriptive eye, we see and experience everything around him, making Far Bright Star a riveting read. Childs tells us: “Soon all hell would break loose and this would be a no good place. The next actions would be motion undefined. Action requiring response. Action lurching off in directions beyond prediction. Knowing when to act yourself. And even then the odds unknown and changing so suddenly it would take a thousand patterns reconfiguring in an instant and an instant and an instant.”
Olmstead encourages us to consider what war is, why men go to war, and what is next for Childs. Was it all worth it? Would he trade it for something else? As Childs follows the far bright star home, we don’t get straight answers, but in the end we know him well enough that we can guess what he would do.
After all, this is one of the reasons we read books—to transport us somewhere in time or space, to enter into the thoughts or world of another. And Olmstead has certainly succeeded on that score. This is a book that will stay with you.
Linda White is a writer and publicist living in St. Paul, Minnesota.