In this novel of the modern American West, Mark Spragg exposes the stark lives of two men struggling to find happiness amid the raw landscape of Wyoming.
Barnum McEban, a 40-year-old rancher with a lame foot and an equally crippled past, stolidly maintains his family's land with Ansel, a weathered cowboy who speaks with laconic wisdom on everything from calves to women. When McEban's best friend, Bennett, discovers his wife, Gretchen, has run off to be with her lover, the two men embark on an odyssey to find her. Along the way, they pick up a pair of Shoshone Indian siblings: the enigmatic woman-child, Rita, and her younger brother, Paul. The four make a curious band of companions but quickly grow into an odd family unit, doggedly pursuing Gretchen.
In addition to this narrative of the present, Spragg includes a parallel thread, that of McEban's childhood. We learn of McEban's alcoholic father and the rancher's love for Gretchen, which further complicates the present-day quest. The novel is laced with quick bursts of violence that appear jarring at first, but these episodes never cross over into gratuitous brutality. Indeed, they serve a distinct purpose, underscoring the harsh nature of the West and the fragility of its people, though Spragg's characters possess a hard-edged grace. Despite hardships and tragedy, they demonstrate remarkable compassion and empathy for one other; moreover, their honesty, a blunt brand of candor that obscures all traces of maudlin sentiment, mirrors the sobering realities each must face and negotiate. Spragg's writing reflects the plot and characters, flowing in sparse, elegant prose.
A Wyoming native and author of the well-received memoir Where Rivers Change Direction, Spragg handles the dual narratives effectively, easily delineating between the two, yet splicing them together to form the larger story. He has applied his considerable storytelling skills to give us a tale of love and loss under the broad skies of the contemporary frontier, a landscape that looms gray and bleak, stripped of mythology but possessing memorable pockets of humanity brimming with haunting stories. Michael Paulson teaches English in Baltimore.