Although he started out as a cowboy and still occasionally visits the village of Pine, 30-year-old Milt Dale prefers the solitary life of a hunter. Roaming the White Mountains of Arizona accompanied only by his semi-tame cougar, Dale’s woodsmanship is sufficient to supply him with everything he needs. One day, taking refuge from a storm in an abandoned hut, he accidentally overhears Snake Anson and his gang meeting with a local landowner. Beasley hires Anson to kidnap his rival Al Auchincloss’s young niece who is headed west to help her dying uncle run the ranch. Beasley figures that if she disappears his way will be clear to take over Auchincloss’s ranch. After trying unsuccessfully to warn Auchincloss, Dale surprises himself by deciding to pre-empt Anson by catching Helen Raynor before she boards the stagecoach at Magdalena. “He who had little to do with the strife of men, and nothing to do with anger, felt his blood grow hot at the cowardly trap laid for an innocent girl.”
Laugh if you want, but I love a good western. In a recent review in the London Review of Books Joshua Cohen writes that “genre literature was until recently the lowest of the low” and contrasts it with the use of metaphysics in literature. He describes how “they represent two opposing drives: the desire to be taken seriously and the desire to be popular,” yet have interacted and influenced each other. The qualities that make a good western, or any other genre book, are the same ones that—for me—make a good book: a flawed hero with a strong moral sense, complex characters with whom to interact, an evocative setting, a hefty and intricate plot, and a satisfying ending that pulls it all together without being predictable or sentimental.
The Man of the Forest succeeds on all counts. Gale’s decision to intervene calls into question the life he’s chosen, and he has to re-evaluate his decision to ignore any responsibility to be a contributing member of society and remain aloof from “civilisation”. As they try to adapt to life in the west, Helen and her sister go through changes that set them apart from the usual fainting-maiden/hooker-with-a-heart-of-gold stereotypes. Characters such as the four Mormon brothers who are Gale’s friends and other cowboys experience equally unexpected changes. Even Anson and Beasley surprised me with their depth.
And of course the setting is magnificent and eloquently described. “He crossed the wide, grassy plain and struck another gradual descent where aspens and pines crowded a shallow ravine and warm, sun-lighted glades bordered along a sparkling brook. Here he heard a turkey gobble, and that was a signal for him to change his course and make a crouching, silent detour around a clump of aspens.” Grey describes the wild turkeys running like ostriches which, having seen a few, seems like a perfect description to me.
This is a larger story than Gale’s inner conflict or the danger to Helen and Auchincloss. It’s the story that the television series Deadwood explores so brilliantly: how an isolated group of people agrees on social norms and develops structures, including law enforcement, to support them. The book wears its significance lightly. It’s simply a good read.