Features

History with a human face

"History with a human face" Continued...

Issue: "Summer Books 2002," July 7, 2002

The reader finishes Mr. Nevin's novels marveling at all the things that could have gone wrong and that could have snuffed the life out of the fragile young republic. Mr. Nevin does little with the religious dimension. But readers can still put the books down thanking God that He has preserved this nation.

Those who miss the point

Steven Pressfield is a fine historical novelist who specializes in ancient Greece. His Gates of Fire, on the Spartans at Thermopylae, is a compelling treatment of that heroic battle between the West and the East. His Tides of War, on the Clintonesque leadership of Alcibiades and his corruption of the Athenian democracy, is also a powerful and instructive tale. Both do convey the spirit and the feel of those ancient times, including the Greek's pagan religious sensibility.

His latest book, though, Last of the Amazons, attempts to give a historical treatment of a pagan myth. In doing so, it gets all tangled up in its feminist subtext. Contemporary preoccupations spoil both the history and what was good about his other fiction.

Larry McMurtry, a respected novelist in the literary world, broke through into popular success with his epic Western Lonesome Dove. Then came a host of sequels and prequels, none of which lived up to the original.

Now he has started another Western epic. He calls it The Berrybender Narratives, a series of four novels about an English lord, his family, and his entourage visiting the Western frontier for a hunting expedition. Such tourists did make their appearance, and the premise sets up some fine conflicts between Old World and New, aristocracy and democracy, civilization and the wilderness.

The first novel in the series has just been published, with the promising title Sin Killer. As the Berrybenders follow the trail of Lewis and Clark by cruising the Missouri river in a paddleboat-shooting at the animals as they go by-they encounter a mysterious frontiersman named Jim Snow, a young man whom the Indians call Sin Killer.

He is a master of the wilderness, a terrifying Indian fighter, and also a preacher. Drawn from accounts of actual Bible-reading mountain men, Sin Killer rescues Berrybender's restless daughter Tasmin and actually marries her.

The situations have much potential, but the manner in which Mr. McMurtry makes them fall is particularly disappointing. For one thing, the Berrybenders are so uncivilized themselves-they are promiscuous, apathetic, and shallow, without even the pretensions of genteel behavior that one would expect at least as a façade from Victorian nobility-that the thematic possibilities are wasted.

As for Sin Killer, the only real manifestation of his Christianity is when he slaps Tasmin when she takes the Lord's name in vain. That's it, at least in this first novel. Other than that, we learn that he is polygamous, with several Indian wives in addition to Tasmin, and he never gets around to preaching.

Mr. McMurtry clearly does not "get" the Christianity of his historical sources. For him, showing faith in a character is just another way to make him seem eccentric, which is about as far as he gets with all of his characters.

Still, this boom in publication and popularity of historical fiction and narrative history may push the broader culture toward an encounter with the fascinating and often exciting and inspiring accounts of what happened in the past. That can only mean a somewhat brighter future.

Gene Edward Veith
Gene Edward Veith

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