Fictional Wests: Two Recent Novels

The Sorrows of Young AlfonsoDoig, Ivan. Last Bus to Wisdom. New York: Riverhead Books, 2015. 453 pp. Cloth $24. New. ISBN 978-1-59463-202-0.

Anaya, Rudolfo. The Sorrows of Young Alfonso. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 2016. 224 pp. Cloth $24.95. New. ISBN 978-08061-5225-4.The Sorrows of Young Alfonso

These two recent novels by veteran western writers illustrate the diversity of western fiction appearing recently. Both are superb products by leading western authors.

Ivan Doig’s appealing western novel will be a bittersweet experience for fans of that writer. The son of an itinerant Montana sheepherder, grandson of a loving grandmother, and holder of a Ph.D. in American history, Doig launched a notable literary career in 1978 with his autobiographical volume, This House of Sky. All told, including this final work (the author died in 2015), Doig produced three works of nonfiction and a dozen novels. He was often rightly lauded as a leading western novelist.

The Last Bus to Wisdom overflows with Doig trademarks. It features two of his familiar narrative techniques: (1) a boy hero in a rollicking, coming-of-age story, and (2) page after page of word play, humor, and linguistic dexterity.

Doig employs a journey plot, from Montana to Wisconsin and back on a “dog bus” (Greyhound), on which to build his episodic story. Eleven-year-old Donal (without the “d”) Cameron, going on at least twenty, encounters and interacts with a vanity fair of unusual characters, contacts that Doig uses to create depth and variety to his story. Unable to connect with his dictatorial aunt in Wisconsin, The Kate Smith, the preteen hero escapes with her companion, Herman the German, and they stumble their way back west, including riding “on the last bus to Wisdom,” Montana.
Doig spices his novel with dozens of appealing scenes and events. The final chapters set in the hay country of Wisdom are particularly lively and intriguing in their depictions of the hay hoboes who work at a large ranch. Equally appealing are the other perceptive descriptions of Donal’s much-loved Gram, Aunt Kate, Herman the German, and dozens of other tourists and workers.

Clearly, his last novel is a fitting summing-up of Ivan Doig’s superb literary career. Sharply etched characters, lively word games, and memorable treatments of western scenes remain testaments to Doig’s immensely successful writing career.

Anaya’s book, The Sorrows of Young Alfonso, moves in much different directions. Those acquainted with Anaya’s earlier fiction, especially his classic Chicano novel, Bless Me, Ultima (1972), will recognize familiar characterizations, themes, and other emphases in this slim work. Much of the setting is the llano of southeastern New Mexico. The coming of age of a boy and young man is a central feature. Another curandera (woman healer), Agapita, plays a major role here as Ultima had in the earlier novel. And here are stresses on mythology, religious symbolism (particularly Catholic Christianity), and Chicano society and culture. And the budding sexuality of the narrator and other young men, their reflections on religion and secularity, and even owls and witches are much in evidence here.

But there are intriguing differences too. Is this a novel, an autobiography, or treatise on a life and ideas–or parts of all three? The plot consists of a nameless male narrator writing a series of letters to “K,” an unnamed woman. The storyteller is writing about Alfonso, a young Chicano growing up in rural New Mexico who eventually moves to Albuquerque and goes to the University of New Mexico. While the narrator is spinning out his ideas, many of which remind one of Anaya’s ideas, he is also revealing his own thoughts, which also are reminiscent of what Anaya has written previously. The backgrounds in rural New Mexico, the town of Santa Rosa, and the years in Albuquerque and at the University of New Mexico, even the name of Alfonso’s wife–Patricia–parallel the events of Rudolfo Anaya’s life.

Anaya repeatedly stresses the power of “story.” Stories are “everything”; they liberate us, setting “free all of life” (114). And once stories and mythology come together, we can “touch the soul.” In short, “Story is all we have” (126).

The letters the narrator writes (and a few are written by Alfonso) revolve around what happens to Alfonso from his baby years to his twenties. Early on the curandera Agapita tells him that life is a “world…full of sorrow.” That theme, as Alfonso experiences life-threating injuries, upsetting moves, and disappointments, plays out in letter after letter. Still, alongside those sorrows are also hard-wrought successes through diligence, encouragement (especially from his mother and Agapita), and perseverance. Not all is sorrow.

The Sorrows of Young Alfonso overflows with Chicano thoughts, New Mexico physical and cultural settlings, and an intriguing mix of religious, philosophical, and literary symbolism. These appealing elements will capture more than a few delighted readers.

— Richard W. Etulain

Other Western Novels To Consider

  • Erdrich, Louise. LaRose: A Novel. New York: Harper, 2016. 384 pp. Cloth $27.99. New. ISBN 978-0062277022.
    Erdrich pens another appealing story of Indians (Ojibwe) and non-Indians in a narrative of accidental death, justice, and retribution. Readers will likewise enjoy the author’s handing of mystical elements.
  • Davis, H. L. Honey in the Horn. 1935; reprinted, Corvallis: Oregon State University Press, 2015. 380 pp., Paper $19.95. New. ISBN 978-0-87071-768-0.
    Davis’s first of several novels won Harper and Pulitzer prizes. It was–and is–celebrated as a first-rate western regional novel.
  • Balch, Frederic Homer. The Bridge of the Gods: A Romance of Indian Oregon. 1890; reprinted, Pullman: Washington State University, 2016. 316 pp. Paper $19.95. New. ISBN 978-087422-343-9
    Balch’s romance was the first novel of the Pacific Northwest to treat extensively Native Americans. The author attempted to deal with both the ideas of a conservative Protestant missionary and with Native American lore and customs.
  • Gloss, Molly. The Jump-Off Creek. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1989. 186 pp. Cloth $10. As new.
    ISBN 978-0395510865. Signed.
    Gloss tells a moving, probing story of a pioneer woman proving her courage, stamina, and diligence on an eastern Oregon farm-ranch. A wonderfully evocative novel.
  • Gulick, Bill. The Hallelujah Train. New York: Doubleday, 1963. 192 pp. Cloth $15. Very Good. Signed, no dust jacket.
    Gulick’s rollicking novel about a whiskey-loaded wagon train coming west became a hit Western film, The Hallelujah Trail, starring Burt Lancester. A novel brimming with Gulick’s trademark humor.
  • Kirkpatrick, Jane. The Memory Weaver: A Novel. Grand Rapids, MI: Revell, 2015. 352 pp. Paper $10.00. ISBN 978-0800722326.
    Kirkpatrick combines her usual inviting mix of ingredients in this historical novel. She deals with a young mother, with lingering memories of the Whitman missionary disaster, now trying to make sense of that clinging past and her new present.
  • Momaday, N. Scott. The Ancient Child. New York: Doubleday, 1989, 2nd printing. 315 pp. Cloth $10. As New. ISBN 978-0385279727.
    Momaday’s novel focuses on two Native Americans searching for their identities. Indian myths and western legends (e.g. Billy the Kid) play important fictional roles.
  • Proulx, Annie. Barkskins. New York: Simon and Schuster, 2016. 736 pp. Cloth $15.00. As new. ISBN 978-0743288781.
    Pulitzer Prize and National Book Award winner Proulx has produced an epic novel tracing frontiers and forests across several countries. The book’s narrative power, intriguing characters, and panoramic settings will draw thousands of readers.
  • Silko, Leslie Marmon. Almanac of the Dead. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1991. 763 pp. Cloth $12.As new. ISBN 978-0671666088.
    This sprawling, complex, and prophetic novel by a Native American author deals with a coming disaster. It indicts politics and celebrates Indian mythology on a vast fictional canvas.

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In this issue: Fictional Wests: Two Recent Novels, Two Trails West, The Civil War In The American West, 10 Historical Overviews Of The American West and Lewis and Clark Books

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