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Literature

The classic Western frontier story is an archetype of the hero’s journey: A young man, off to seek his fortune in the West, enters the wilderness to prove himself—and emerges both stronger and wiser.

Into the Savage Country follows this pattern, but charismatic characters, good humor, lively language and nail-biting scenes make Shannon Burke’s novel feel as fresh and thrilling as the first time this kind of story was told.

In 1826, 22-year-old William Wyeth is a hunter selling furs in St. Louis. He and the eventual love of his life, Alene Chevalier, meet cute, frontier fashion, when he hires her to brain-tan some hides. Wyeth isn’t the only one sweet on Alene—so is Henry Layton, a hot-headed braggart who “could buy you a drink and do a good deed, but he could not do it without others knowing he’d done it.”

William embarks on a fur-trapping expedition, because, he says, “I was fated to test my mettle in the West. If I’d not make a fortune … I’d live my life up to the hilt and satisfy that inner craving and have something to talk about in my dotage.”

He learns from seasoned trappers, including historical figures like legendary mountain men Jedediah Smith and Jim Bridger. William observes of Bridger, “Though he was as ignorant of book learning as the day he was born, he possessed all the accomplishments needed west of the Mississippi.”

When William re-encounters Alene and Henry at a U.S. Army fort, Henry invites him to join a Smith-led expedition to Wyoming’s Wind River Range, where wild animals still abound, offering “the last, best chance of a big take.”

Burke vividly conveys the complex interactions between French and American trappers, the Crow, the Blackfoot and British soldiers. Burke’s characters constantly evolve and surprise. Blackfoot warrior Red Elk, for example, at first appears despicable, but emerges as a dignified man of canny intelligence. Even Henry reveals endearing qualities.

Into the Savage Country rings with the conviction that a Western story is supposed to be fun above all—and that it need not sacrifice historical accuracy and complexity in order to entertain the reader.

This review originally appeared in High Country News.

Into the Savage Country: A Novel

By Shannon Burke

Pantheon

272 pages, $24.95

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