Exit, pursued by a bear – a winter’s tale…

The Revenant by Michael Punke

revenantYou thought you were getting Shakey didn’t you? But those words so fit this novel which the much-lauded movie starring Leo was based on too!

I’ve not seen the film of The Revenant and don’t want to.  I’m not attracted to watching two and a half hours of Rocky Mountain winters full of gore, even if Leo gives the performance of a lifetime. The book, however, is a different animal, which I really enjoyed reading.

The novel is based on a true story. The protagonist, Hugh Glass existed, was mauled by a grizzly bear and left for dead while scouting for the Rocky Mountain Fur Company in 1823. Punke, a law grad, who currently serves as US Ambassador to the World Trade Organisation, wrote The Revenant some years ago – it was originally published in 2002, and has since written other non-fiction books about the ‘Wild West’.

It’s a simple story of revenge.  

The prologue gives us the moment at which the the man and boy who had been detailed to look after Hugh Glass while waiting for him to die from the wounds inflicted by a grizzly bear, decide to wait no longer and abandon him to his fate. Although the boy doesn’t want to leave him, the man steals his prized rifle and even his knife, leaving him with nothing but a blanket…

The wounded man stared at the gap in the trees where they had disappeared. His rage was complete, consuming him as fire envelops the needles of a pine. He wanted nothing in the world except to place his hands around their necks and choke the life from them.

Instinctively he started to yell out, forgetting again that his throat produced no words, only pain. He raised himself on his left elbow. He could bend his right arm slightly, but it would support no weight. The movement sent agonizing bolts through his neck and back. He felt the strain of his skin against the crude sutures. He looked down at his leg, where the bloody remnants of an old shirt were tightly wrapped. He could not flex his thigh to make the leg work.

Marshaling his strength, he rolled heavily to his stomach. He felt the snap of a suture breaking and the warm wetness of new blood on his back. The pain diluted to nothing against the tide of his rage.

Hugh Glass began to crawl.

Then we return to the beginning of the expedition led by Captain Henry up the Missouri river then heading westwards towards the Rocky Mountains hoping to set up a route for the fur-trapping which could make all of their fortunes. If they could only find animals to trap, evade the vicious Arikara who liked to scalp their victims, and survive to return before the worst of winter set in. Glass is seen as one of the solid and experienced men in the team and a good shot with his prized Anstadt rifle. Of the others in the team, Fitzgerald is always scrapping for a fight, and the young boy, Jim Bridger, is on his first trip; the rest of the team are a mix of seasoned men.

While scouting ahead and finding food for the group, Glass chances upon grizzly bear cubs and too late is attacked by the mother, who half scalps him and rips a big hole in his throat, digs her claws in and rakes his back. The main group carry the wounded man with them for a couple of days, but it severely hampers their speed up towards the trapping grounds. Glass will surely die, so Fitzgerald ‘volunteers’ to stay with him. Captain Henry assigns the boy Jim Bridger to stay too. They can catch up later.

As you’ll have realised by now, Glass survives, showing such reserves of strength and will, using all his knowledge to stay alive. He is also lucky – being discovered and treated by the friendly Pawnees.

Glass has just one aim though, he is blinded by revenge – all aimed against Fitzgerald who stole his precious Anstadt and left him to die. He’ll deal with the weak-willed boy too. As soon as he is able, the mutilated man sets off back on the trail of Henry’s men, going upriver with a French crew at first before another Arikawa attack, then he’s on his own.

Will he ever catch up with Fitzgerald? Will he exact his revenge? Will Glass survive the coming winter?

I couldn’t possibly tell you, but along the way we get to know Glass a lot better. We hear of his former life as a mariner – a captured hand working for the notorious pirate Jean Lafite; where he got his expensive rifle from and why it is invested as his talisman.  We also find out more about Fitzgerald, why he is such a nasty piece of work and sympathise with the decent, but unlucky Captain Henry.

Glass may be obsessed with seeking retribution and is far from being a loveable character, we have to admire him for his resilience, skill and sheer bloodymindedness.  The Revenant is unflinching in its descriptions of Glass’s pain and suffering that are, according to a friend who did see the film, difficult to watch, being so grim and gory.  On the page though, there is a real sense of adventure and pioneering spirit underneath his ordeal in the expedition itself, the little garrisons and forts set up along the way – staging posts for the unexplored (and unexploited), and the mixture of different Native American tribes with their differing outlooks on these men.

Punke’s style can be a little documentary-like, it’s quite matter of fact – maybe why he’s moved into non-fiction afterwards – but it does give the fiction he has built around the central true story that real-life edge. There is a little of the geekiness for his subject as in The Martian, but not a single line of humour! You can’t doubt Hugh Glass’s motivation and I was totally gripped by this frontier tale of revenge.  (9/10)

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Source: Own copy

Michael Punke, The Revenant (2002) – Borough Press 2015, hardback, 280 pages – Film tie-in paperback now out.

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