Book Review: The Revenant by Michael Punke

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“Avenge not yourselves, but rather give place unto wrath: for it is written, vengeance is mine; I will repay, saith the Lord.” —Rom. 12:19

With all the attention paid to Leonardo DiCaprio and his first Oscar for his role in The Revenant, I thought I would read the novel the movie is based on. Per a previous blog I wrote, much has been made over the grueling process the movie’s filming was (eating raw bison liver, jumping in freezing water, etc.). And though fiction, the book is based on true events: Hugh Glass was a fur trapper, mauled by a bear, left for dead, and ultimately he embarked on a journey to find the men who abandoned him. Regardless, the novel The Revenant is an enjoyable read in the American frontier spirit…buoyed by historical facts and harrowing adventure.

I want to be clear that this is a review of the novel. Not a review of the movie, nor an appraisal of the novel’s historical accuracy. But to the latter, it is worth establishing the historical context which the author acknowledges between fact, likelihood, and invention. Hugh Glass did exist, as did other characters in the novel, like the men who are said to have abandoned him. John Fitzgerald is one, and little is known about him other than being a trapper for the Rocky Mountain Fur Company and later the U.S. Army at Fort Atkinson. However, the other, a young Jim Bridger, ultimately became a famous frontiersman and is credited with the discovery of the Great Salt Lake. But like men who become legends, their stories can evolve over time. And the fur trade era has a “murky mixture of history and legend”. For example, some historians dispute Bridger’s culpability. And the distance that Glass is said to have travelled has at times varied in its lengths.

“Glass liked a shorter gun because shorter meant lighter, and lighter meant easier to carry. For those rare moments when he might be mounted, a shorter gun was easier to maneuver from the back of a horse. Besides, the expertly crafted rifling of the Anstadt made it deadly accurate, even without the longer barrel. A hair trigger enhanced its accuracy, allowing discharge with the lightest touch. With a full charge of 200 grains of black powder, the Anstadt could throw a .53 caliber ball nearly 200 yards.”

This is a novel that may harken you back to your school reading days. It is at times part Jack London, even part Stephen Ambrose. Some of you that enjoy Larry McMurty or Louis L’Amour are likely to see a similarity in the adventure and struggles of the protagonist. The novel’s language is, for the most part, accessible; there are picturesque scenes of early 1800s described with an everyday feel. And while a work of fiction, it is realistic. You easily place yourself among the cattails, berries and marsh along the American frontier. You see yourself picking the right buffalo to hunt while learning about the process of making a bullboat. You feel the pain of crude medicine made from gum, gunpowder and other non-conventional ingredients. You learn what makes Glass’s Anstadt rifle have a Holy Grail-like meaning to him.

The rifle is an understated key element in the story. So, as established, Glass is attacked by a grizzly bear while with his group. Mauled, actually…in fact the narrator points out that one of the men “had never seen human carnage like this,” that “Glass was shredded from head to foot. His scalp lay dangling to one side…,the grizzly’s claws had cut three deep and distinct tracks, beginning at the shoulder and passing straight across his neck.” And I have not even described his throat wounds. Yet miraculously, Glass survives. And the dilemma ensues. What to do? You can not bury him while still alive, but you do not want to leave him. And for the remaining men, waiting around risks being discovered by the the feared Arikara Indians (more on them later), who would have possibly been aroused by the confrontation and gunfire.

“Sorry old Glass. You ain’t got much more use for any of this.”

So, the captain will compensate two volunteers stay behind until Glass dies. John Fitzgerald volunteers, not “for love”, but “for money, pure and simple” and even denying he will “mother him”. The other is a young, eager Jim Bridger, who actually attempts to heal Glass by giving him broth and tending to his wounds. But Fitzgerald asserts Glass “wants to die” and once persistent harassment fails, upon sight of several Indians, he persuades Bridger to flee. And by this point, Glass is conscious and aware of what is happening around him. It is a key moment that sets the the course for remainder of the events. It is easy to dismiss this novel as a “left to die/seek revenge” tale. But the men differ in what they feel should be done, despite what they do. And as Glass slowly recovers and begins his quest, you discover it is not being left to die that is the great offense, but the fact that they stole the supplies that could help Glass survive…including his beloved rifle.

From there, the long journey begins. And along the way, Glass endures predictable obstacles. Yet at times, the magnitude of his suffering is compounded by circumstance, which the novel spends time detailing. Glass is forced to eat bone marrow which only makes him sicker. He spends hours devising homemade traps only to be blinded by a captured skunk. At one point he fights off a pack of wolves for a carcass using a torch all while a storm–which had yet to happen during his journey–suddenly begins. All this, while dragging his wounded leg and maggot-infested back across the terrain.

Yet at times he finds help, not always by other trappers but also Indians, and here is where that conflict is present. Native American relations are well-documented during the 1800s. And while Indians are at times ruthlessly portrayed, especially during multiple violent attacks with the Arikara, other tribes are helpful. Some marvel at the almost spectre-like presence of Glass and some tend to his wounds. It is a peculiar motif in the novel, the relations of Indians to the trappers especially from a commercial relevance. In a way, the author shows the facets of the white man’s relations with Indians, letting the reader decide how to interpret. Regardless, Indians are ever-present in the novel, not only adding to the historical accuracy but at times also serving as an omnipresent risk…one that acts as foil to Glass’s drive for revenge.

“I have my own affairs to attend.”

 “Bit of a silly venture, isn’t it? For a man of your skills? Traipsing across Louisiana in the dead of winter. Chase down your betrayers in the spring, if you’re still inclined.”

And back to that. Yes, multiple times Glass points out what his goal is, even to the astonishment of those he meets along the way. In fact, another trapper comments in disbelief, pointing out that it would take months, and “even if [he makes] it past the Rees to the Mandan villages…that’s still three hundred miles…in the middle of winter.” While I do not want to give away the ending, as you can likely suspect Glass does find the two men that left him, in an almost Messianic appearance akin to Odysseus returning to reclaim his home. It is in these encounters that the reader learns about the deepest conviction of the man who was not only left for dead, but essentially robbed. And instead of disintegrating solely into some Hollywood-like fistfight, the reader learns about purpose, and especially justice.

When I finished the novel, one of the fun parts for me was continuing to learn about the history behind the story. The novel takes a few pages to talk about the fictional past lives of some of the characters, and there is an intrigue to knowing some of these men existed and there is some level of accuracy. Regardless, putting fact and fiction aside, The Revenant is a frontier tale that works as a captivating tale of adventure, survival, and even morality.

About the author, Michael Punke:

Michael Punke studied international affairs before becoming Deputy United States Trade Representative and U.S. Ambassador and Permanent Representative to the World Trade Organization. Growing up in Wyoming, he biked, fished, and even learned how to build his own rifles. After reading a little bit about Glass during a flight, he did additional research, even simulating trap building with his kids. After four years in the making, the novel was published in 2002. And if you are wondering how Punke feels about all this recent exposure, he actually can not talk about it due to his federal position!


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