A fine window into the Old West of the 1840's before the heyday of gamblers and gunfighters, cattlemen and railroads and sheriffs at high noon in burgeoning cow towns, this book reminds us of an earlier era, when mountain men from the first decades of the nineteenth century mingled with traders, entrepeneurs and plainsmen to explore the wild country then populated by isolated nomadic tribes of Indians, many of whom had yet to see white men. In this era, the musket and muzzle loading rifle and single shot pistol were still dominant and the Colt revolver (introduced in the mid-1830's) was just making its debut. Unlike the revolver we're familiar with today, it didn't shoot bullets or load quickly but depended on a three step process for each cylinder, involving loading the powder, lead ball and percussion cap separately for each, jamming the "bullet" down into the seat of each cylinder with a small ramrod, just as the rifles of that era were loaded. That's why men of that day carried more than one gun (who wanted to have to stop and reload in the heat of battle?) and were normally skilled in a lot more ways of fighting than just drawing and shooting a pistol.
It is this era that author Michael Blakely brings to life with his story of Jean-Guy, a young exile from a quality French school fleeing his native land after an unfortunate incident at home. Arriving in America at the port of New Orleans, the youthful Frenchman renames himself, Honore Dumant (later renamed Honore Greenwood and then "Plenty Man") and heads west to the place where his dreams have summoned him. There is an abundance of mysticism here and we're repeatedly informed by our narrator that he is a genius with a remarkable facility for languages, mathematics and a deeply sophisticated education, all of which young Honore hides through much of the book so he can blend in with the men he encounters. Honore also suffers from a condition which makes him unusually active during times of the full moon and highly susceptible to binge sleeps when the moon is new, presenting him with certain challenges and advantages in the Old West he finds beyond the Mississippi as well as a gateway into the mysticism of the Indian shaman.
Also an accomplished classical violinist, he plays fiddle for those he finds and delights them all while seeking out and eventually winning a place among the wild Comanche who rule the plains and who other men fear. Honore manages to win the respect and friendship of most of the mountain and plains men he comes across, falling in with the trading company of Bent and St. Vrain which runs a series of forts across the prairie and deserts of what was then still Mexico (though not for long as the Mexican War is soon fought during the events of this book, bringing New Mexico, Arizona, Colorado and California into the American orbit and changing forever the tone and texture of the Old West of Honore's day).
If there are weaknesses here, and there are, they are to be found in the self-conscious narration (provided by a 99 year old Honore living alone at the remains of an old fort in 1927 somewhere in the Texas panhandle) which consistently flips into a second person mode, addressing the reader as if he or she were there, listening to the old man talk. The old man is verbose, as old men sometimes are, but seemingly too articulate for the kind of tale he has to tell. And he knows too much of the goings on around him, even when placed in the era he is describing, producing an artificial sense of history instead of a more natural one. Honore seems to know everything and everyone as we're treated to a veritable who's who of frontier rogues and legends from the Bent brothers to Kit Carson and Jim Bridger. At times it's as though Blakely had a list of famous names he wanted to cover and so has his narrator simply call off the people he sees as his interlocutors in the tale respond with a bit of historical background for each. It's a little hard to stomach because it shows Blakely here wearing his research on his sleeve.
On the other hand, the research is strong and we do get a vivid sense of the era and the land itself right down to Honore's stint as an adobe brick maker and builder of forts. Honore's encounter with Indians, especially the Comanche, does feel honest and well portrayed though the Indians tend to be a little stereotypical. Nevertheless the cultural information rings true. I got a little tired of Honore's self-descriptions of himself as a genius, but it did serve to enable him to plausibly know things an ordinary person in his position would not have been expected to. On the other hand, he seems remarkably naive and obtuse at times when his brilliance would have been expected to serve him better.
All in all though, this was an enjoyable if not totally absorbing tale, given that so much of it consists of a string of incidents wherein Honore moves back and forth around the Great Plains, the Southwest and the Sierras seeking out, trading with and hunting down various Indians and tribes. There is, at times, a lack of a strong central narrative engine impelling the story forward. On the other hand, Honore's final encounter with the Apache (who have become his blood enemies) and the brutal, nefarious whiskey dealer, Snakehead Jackson, is exciting and fast moving if not entirely credible. But the end of the tale, as we slide back to 1927, is sort of a letdown. Yet, overall, the book was an enjoyable window into a now largely forgotten past, one that is too often overlooked even by the mythmakers of the Old West.
The King of Vinland's Saga