A rattlesnake causes a horse to throw its rider. A lightning bolt strikes a man sitting by a campfire. A rabid skunk bites another man in the face, giving him rabies. A flash flood threatens to sweep away men and supplies both. Racial tensions escalate among workers. The remnants of an Indian massacre are found. And thousands of buffalo are casually slaughtered day after day.
It’s a savage country.
Or, to be more precise, it’s Savage Country, the new novel by Robert Olmstead. The acclaimed author of Coal Black Horse, which won the Heartland Prize for Fiction, Olmstead weaves a grim, visceral portrait of life in Midwest America in 1873 with powerful, brutal and often beautiful prose.
Across this bleak, untamed frontier come grizzled Civil War veteran-turned-big game hunter Michael Coughlin and his gutsy sister-in-law, Elizabeth Coughlin, determined to save her late husband David’s land from the biggest threat of all: a greedy, treacherous man called Mr. Whitechurch. Along with an assortment of unsavory and unusual characters as allies, the pair leads a massive wagon train cross-country, braving torrential rains, Indian attack and their own selfishness to find the great buffalo herd that will be their salvation. Their plan: kill as many buffalo as they can, then sell their hides, meat and bones to repay David’s debt.
While Olmstead pulls no punches when it comes to the absolute brutality of their endeavor—the legendary buffalo hunts of the 19th century saw the Earth’s buffalo population plunge from 50 million to 500—he somehow finds a way to craft a deeply emotional experience for the reader. Elizabeth journeys from helpless widowed homesteader to a determined yet compassionate entrepreneur, even as the cold-blooded slaughter serves to humble Michael’s nature.
Savage Country is an unforgettable, unflinching, yet distinctly moving story of human greed and desire.