The Open Road
by M.M. Holaday
[I am grateful to the author for sending me an advance reading copy of her novel, to be published at the beginning of April]
‘ “It’s so big out there, it’s like the ocean. The sky is huge and the land goes on forever. You’ve got to see it while it’s still there ….” ‘ [Win Avery in The Open Road]
After several years riding trail and as a pony express rider, Win Avery returns to his home town. His boyhood friend Jeb Dawson has lost his parents in a shoot-out and he has dropped out of medical school. Win persuades him to join him on a new adventure. Settlers are streaming west. The railroad is coming and Win wants Jeb to see the beauty and feel the romance of the open road before it all changes for the worse.
While travelling with a wagon train, the two men meet Meg Jameson, a young woman who is running from an abusive uncle and his hired thugs. Win and Jeb both fall in love with her but make a pact not to allow their feelings to spoil their friendship – whichever one Meg eventually chooses.
For a while, it isn’t clear that she will choose either. Meg’s ambition is to buy a piece of land with her inheritance and to run ranch with Gus, an old friend who has looked after her as she was growing up. Win and Jeb suspect they have a rival.
Travelling on together, they run into Gray Wolf, an Arapaho Indian who is fighting a seemingly unwinnable battle against the forces of progress, the legions of settlers, technology, corrupt white politicians and their military power. Gray Wolf doesn’t hate the white man but he wants his people to continue living in the traditional way of the tribe.
Threat of an Indian attack separates the friends for a while. Meg falls in with Carl Pitts, a gambler who convinces her she can make a living racing her pony Biscuit against all-comers. The arrangement doesn’t last long when it becomes evident that Carl wants more than some easy money. Meg deals with him in a most appropriate way!
Win especially finds himself in sympathy with the plight of the native Americans, how their land is being systematically taken away and how they are being herded into reservations where many are dying of hunger and of European diseases. He is prepared to break the law to see Gray Wolf and his people get a better deal. The question is, what are the likely consequences of his actions and their effect on the lives of the people he loves?
‘Gray Wolf looked old and tired. He closed his eyes, the way he often did when he tried to gather his thoughts. “We used to move with the seasons. We listened to our Mother Earth and followed her voice . . . . [now] we hear her voice but are no longer allowed to follow her wisdom.” ‘ [Gray Wolf in The Open Road]
Reunited with Win and Jeb, and with Gus, an ‘old-timer’ and no rival to the men, Meg chooses Jeb and they settle near the small community of Paradise . Above all, wanderlust is still in Win’s blood and he now sets out on a series of pioneering expeditions to chart the wilderness and open up new territory. For a time, we hear of him only through his letters back to Paradise. He meets Jeanette but loses her because of his obsession with Meg.
Meantime Jeb and Meg are growing a family and attracting unwelcome attention because of their friendship with the Indians. A confrontation looms that will lead to tragedy for settler and native alike.
‘Gray Wolf and Standing Horse began to chant the sacred song that connected creatures to their Creator . . . a bridge between this world and the next.’ [The Open Road]
The Western Genre
The Western as a literary genre, though it has its band of devotees, does not feature much in the lists of bestsellers. When it comes to library statistics, Westerns are well down the list of the most popular loans. Yet, once in a while, a novel is published that crosses the genre boundary into historical fiction, historical romance or even that exclusive brand, the literary novel – whatever that might mean.
Until a week or so ago, the last Western I’d read was Larry McMurtry’s Lonesome Dove, which managed to scoop the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction in 1986. Long gone were the cardboard cut-out heroes and villains of my childhood reading. The clean-cut cowboy, the vicious outlaw, the savage axe-wielding ‘Indian’, whilst not precisely based on a myth, certainly promoted a very one-sided and (dare I say) European-centred picture of the colonisation of North America. In the past few decades, we have learned the truth about the ‘West’, and it doesn’t always make pleasant reading.
The Open Road – Review
My reading of The Open Road was hampered by an inadequate knowledge of American history – and even of its geography! At times, I was impelled to check a date or a detail before reading on. However, this is the kind of story that makes you want turn the pages and finish. There is adventure, there are gunfights and romance, and a tear or two is shed. The book has some beautiful language, evoking a sense of longing for the wild beauty of the country. But it also has a disturbing feel, for example when discussing the plight of the natives, the ignoring of treaties, the slaughter of the buffalo, or the antics of the cavalry, a sort of conscience prick that says this is not the way it should have been. The novel has likeable characters too (plus a few not so likeable) and we want to know what happens to them.
The Open Road has many superficial similarities to McMurtry’s novel Lonesome Dove. It has the wide open prairies, the harsh winters, the marauding ‘Indians’, the uncertainties and the cheapness of life on the road and in the frontier towns. It has themes of friendship, honour and betrayal. (Both novels even feature a character called Gus!) However, at that point, the apparent connections break down. Holaday’s characters Win, Jeb and Meg are their own people. They carve out their own path and are not mock-up versions of McMurtry’s Call, Gus and Lorena.
Many times, the narrative also recalled to mind some of the best Western movies to come out of Hollywood (though I don’t usually read them, I have always gone to the cinema a lot): The Big Country – though that was really about class warfare, and Dances With Wolves – about the plight of the Indian, for example.
The chapters alternate in point of view between the three main characters and that formula maintains the pace and expectation. I would have liked several chapters from the point of view of Gray Wolf, bringing him more into the foreground of the plot.
My only other negative thought concerns the ending, not so much how the novel ends but when. Although the love triangle needs a resolution – and the author gives us one! – I can’t help feeling that the story needn’t have gone on beyond that point. The introduction of [spoiler] at the end is a nice touch but it could have been done soorer.
The Open Road is a first novel by this author and is a very enjoyable read. Real-life characters such as Wesley Powell, Crazy Horse and – of course – Custer, get a mention but they don’t intrude and the fiction is better without them (certainly the last two). M.M. Holaday clearly has a passion for her historical subject matter, and this comes through in her writing. But she has also given us a delightfully human story of struggle, setback and success in the best traditions of both the Western and the true historical novel.