A novel worth reading

The Homesman

by Glendon Swarthout

(Simon & Schuster, €9.99/£7.99)

Rather than taking notice of the shelves of ghastly novels about vampires and ghouls which the teenage reader is proffered, present-giving consideration might be given to a more ‘grown up’ novel. The very idea of the ‘teenage novel’ is really new. The first one in these islands was Fifteen by Beverly Cleary, an import from the US, which Puffin Books published back in 1963 as an experiment.

Since then the genre, which is in effect a marketing concept, has ballooned.

Young people should not have to read them. How much better it would be if young people moved seamlessly into the world of adult literature. Only in that way will some kind of maturity, even some kind of Christian maturity, be achieved.

The Homesman seems exactly the sort of novel they that they should read, not the escapist fantasy that distorts life, love and the real world.

This is the novel from which the most talked about holiday season film is adapted. Of Glendon Swarthout’s masterpiece of the Old West, Elmore Leonard remarked: “I tell friends what The Homesman is about and their eyes open wide and they can’t wait to read it. And that’s just the plot. Swarthout puts you there, in time and place. I love the way he writes.”

This takes the form of the classic tale of the trail, so familiar from books and films, but reverses it. Mary Bee Cuddy, a school teacher, “plain as an old tin pail”, of independent means, is the ‘homesman’ for her small community. She is the lady in charge of taking a party of women who have been broken by the west back to the east.

She is supported in this by a rough diamond character she picks up on the way. Beset by many troubles on the journey, their relationship changes and matures. Echoes here both of Wagon Master and The African Queen, but with a different emphasis. Some critics have even been talking about it as “a feminist Western”.