When the bones of a large, unknown creature crop up in the muds of Kentucky, Cy Bellman reads about the discovery in the newspaper and is absolutely captivated. As he goes through the motions of his daily life, he daydreams about the bones and the beasts to which they could possibly belong. Are the animals carnivores or herbivores? Do they travel in packs or alone? Are they still out there in the unexplored west? Finally, his curiosity gets the best of him and, inspired by the journey of Lewis and Clark, Bellman decides to set off on his own expedition to find the mysterious beasts for himself. In doing so, he must navigate the western wilderness and learn to coexist with his native guide, a boy by the name of Old Woman From a Distance.
However, as he departs on his quest, the widowed muler leaves behind his young daughter Bess, who must learn to adjust to life – and grow up – without the guidance and protection of her father. Her aunt, convinced Bellman has gone mad, watches over her and is a good caretaker but ultimately never really bonds with the young girl. As Bess tries to find her way, she also realizes that the men in town have less-than-righteous intentions when they try to befriend her. Her only hope for companionship is the promise of letters from Bellman that will tell her of his journey.
“West” is a rather short novel, but it’s packed from beginning to end with an interesting tale of exploration and adaptation in 1800s America. I read this book in close to one sitting, equally charmed by the untamed landscape of the era as I was the main characters of the story. In today’s world of constant connection and paved roads, it’s easy to forget that at one time large swathes of the United States were completely unknown and unnavigable. However, as I read about Bellman and Old Woman From a Distance enduring harsh winters and living off the land, I was transported back to a time when life was simpler and more rooted in nature – a time when new discovery was close enough to exist in your backyard. While the hardships made me appreciative of the modern luxuries afforded to us today, this novel gave me a sense of longing for that communal sense of marvel and exploration that used to be more prevalent in society.
As I already mentioned, the characters, too, won me over and their writing is definitely one of the highlights of this story. Initially, I wanted to dislike Bellman. After all, who leaves their child parentless to pursue what is unquestionably a fool’s errand? However, the almost childlike wonder with which he viewed the natural world, as well as his yearn to form a connection with Old Woman From a Distance despite their differences, was incredibly endearing. Though, as the reader, I knew the creatures he sought were long-since extinct, I couldn’t help but root for him to find what he was looking for. Similarly, his daughter, Bess, seemed enraptured with nature and had a sort of innocence about her. The girl was not naïve, and the realities of womanhood in the 1800s required her to mature quickly or at least hone her survival senses, but all the same I found myself hoping she wouldn’t be too downtrodden by the bleak world in which she found herself.
My only fault with this book is the directness of some of the foreshadowing. It became evidently clear (no spoilers here) what was going to transpire at the end of the book, and some of the chapters leading up to that point make it extremely obvious how the events would resolve. Ultimately, I don’t think the end was supposed to be a twist at all, but a bit more subtlety would have given it a slight edge of surprise to make it feel a bit more impactful.
“West” is a satisfying and succinct novel of early American life and exploration that is undoubtedly worth your time. It’s not always a pretty story – Bellman’s trek through the unknown is rough and brutal, as are Bess’s experiences as a girl in 19th Century America – but it’s a small epic in its own right.
“You had so many ways of deciding which way to live your life. It made his head spin to think of them. It hurt his heart to think he had decided the wrong way.
A thing seemed important until there was something more important.”