The aristocratic and very British Berrybender clan continues to tackle the western frontier head-on in the second volume of Larry McMurtry's tetralogy, which unfolds in 1833 along the Yellowstone River, near its confluence with the Missouri. Ensconced at a trading post along with the Berrybenders are Kit Carson, Jim Bridger, a raw crew of fur traders and an intermittent stream of Indians who come to be painted by artist George Catlin.
Tasmin, the beguiling eldest daughter of Albany Berrybender, is pregnant, but her husband, frontiersman Jim "Sin Killer" Snow, refuses to stay at the trading post, whose "walls and roofs made him feel so close that he got headaches." Pomp Charbonneau, Sacagawea's son, who was raised under the wing of William Clark, takes on the role of Tasmin's protector, until he and Jim set off to discover the fate of the steamboat left stranded in the frozen Missouri.
At the birth of her son Monty, Tasmin questions whether he will grow up to be "an English gentleman or a hardy frontiersman." She yearns to talk to Pomp, who has experienced both worlds, but Pomp himself is feeling lost. They both grapple with the puzzle so vividly posed by McMurtry "Which was better: freedom with its risks, or the settled life with its comforts?"Meanwhile, Tasmin's father intends to follow big game throughout the Yellowstone Valley. But numerous grizzlies, a buffalo stampede and several sightings of the Wandering Hill which Indian legend claims is inhabited by "short, fierce devils with large heads " who randomly kill travelers all conspire to put an end to Berrybender's expedition.
Somehow this quixotic mix of aristocrats and mountain men survives, buoyed by McMurtry's ever-present romanticism and understated sense of humor. The dramatic conclusion finds Tasmin coaxing the wounded Pomp back from the brink of death, leaving readers eagerly awaiting the next installment. Deborah Donovan is a writer who lives in Cincinnati, Ohio.