The Revenant by Michael Punke

While working as a trapper and guide for the Rocky Mountain Fur Company in 1823,revenant frontiersman Hugh Glass is savagely mauled by a bear during a routine scouting mission for food.  Captain Henry, leader of the ill-fated expedition, reluctantly decides to leave the mortally wounded Glass behind in the care of two other trappers, John Fitzgerald and Jim Bridger, promising extra wages to them both if they will give Glass a proper burial after he inevitably dies.  Glass, however, stubbornly clings to life, much to the chagrin of the unscrupulous fugitive Fitzgerald who covets Glass’s possessions – particularly his Anstadt rifle – and is eager to catch up with the departed expedition.

When a hostile Native American tribe is spotted near the clearing where they are tending Glass, Fitzgerald seizes the opportunity to legitimately flee, convincing a hesitant Bridger that they must not only abandon Glass, but take all of his belongings with them as well if they hope to survive.  Glass helplessly witnesses this act of treachery and vows to take revenge on the pair, even though doing so requires him to not only recover from his wounds, but to somehow survive in the wilderness without flint, a knife, or his beloved rifle, and crawl hundreds of miles through only partially mapped territory.  Having already endured captivity on a pirate ship and a stint living among the Pawnee tribe, Glass is up for the challenge.

Michael Punke’s The Revenant, based on the true story of historical figure Hugh Glass, is subtitled “A Novel of Revenge”, but it would be more accurate to describe it as a novel of survival.  Page after page, Punke’s lean, sinewy prose details the bloodthirsty determination of various characters and the nascent industries which employ them to survive in hostile times, with “endurance” emerging as the book’s true theme.  Punke’s sparse style allows the story to almost tell itself, and his descriptions of the 19th century American wilderness are a joy to read.  The action sequences are appropriately tense and engaging, while the infamous bear attack stands out as a gory highlight.

Problems only really arise when Punke attempts to set the historical stage in too-broad strokes (the quick history of the fur trade on page 38, for example, reads like a quote from a Wikipedia article), or decides to invent characters simply to pad out the story.  The group of French companions (especially the two brothers) whom Glass is paired with in Part 2 of the book are stereotypes lifted out of any action/war film from the last ten years and wholly remove the reader from the reality the author has worked so hard to create.  The ending is also problematic, but some readers might actually savor its absence of dramatic closure.

Overall, The Revenant is recommended reading.  And for those interested in a version of Glass’s story re-purposed as an epic tale of vengeance, seek out Alejandro González  Iñárritu’s bloody and absolutely gorgeous filmed adaptation of The Revenant, which takes generous liberties with its source material.

(Chris Fox, Central Library)

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