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Michelle Newby is contributing editor at Lone Star Literary Life, reviewer for Foreword Reviews, freelance writer, member of the National Book Critics Circle, and blogger at www.TexasBookLover.com. Her reviews appear or are forthcoming in Pleiades Magazine, Rain Taxi, World Literature Today, South85 Journal, The Review Review, Concho River Review, Monkeybicycle, Mosaic Literary Magazine, Atticus Review, and The Collagist.
The Big Drift: A Novel
TCU Press, trade paper, 978-0-87565-570-3
192 pp., $22.95
Reviewed 3.8.2015 by Michelle Newby, Contributing Editor
The Big Drift by Patrick Dearen begins in the Middle Concho of west Texas during a blizzard in December 1884. Zeke Boles, a black cowhand and former slave, is running from a hangman’s noose when he stumbles across Will Brite, a white cowhand pinned under his horse and caught up in the barbed wire of a drift line. This unlikely pair, brought together by chance, learns that they have more in common than that which separates them and they must depend upon each other for their very lives as each seeks redemption for his part in the memories they are each trying to outrun.
Dearen has a talent for describing this rugged country and the behavior of herd animals. The stampede caused by the blizzard is vividly evoked: “Thundering and bawling, a great shadow that seemed composed of many smaller shadows rushed pell-mell…” Later in the spring when the cowboys of several ranches converge in the upper Chihuahuan desert to round up thousands of longhorns that have burst through the drift line, they discover the cattle “had planted their forefeet, and every bovine in their wake had plowed into the animal in front of it. Successive waves of beeves were falling in a swelling heap, forming a stair-stepping course of hide, hair, and horns for the beeves that charged after them.” Dearen’s plot is smartly imagined and masterfully paced, and the action sequences are truly suspenseful.
The author notes, “In writing about racial aspects of the 1880s, I have tried to balance historical accuracy with modern sensitivities.” He has largely succeeded in this and in an empathetic treatment of the lone female character in The Big Drift, a rarity in the Western genre. Dearen has created an eclectic cast of characters and even the minor parts are fully realized: black and white, city and frontier, educated and illiterate, rich and poor. There is a sprinkling of humor, usually when Arch, a buffalo skinner who frequently sounds like a professor, makes a pronouncement, “When a man’s romances have all been on a commercial basis…finding the ‘sweet Mary’ of his dreams will reduce him to a trembling puppy.”
How much penance is enough? Are there some sins for which you can never make amends? How exactly does the balance sheet tally? “Will lay pondering Zeke’s words for troubling seconds. ‘So we just playin’ our hands, that what we’re doin’? ‘Cause we went this a-way instead of that, can’t do nothing’ except ride right straight on to hell?’” I finished this tale with tears in my eyes. The Big Drift is not just another typical tale of the blood-soaked West. This novel is a satisfying and surprisingly smooth blend of traditional Old West, insightful modern psychology, thrilling action, a tortuous search for redemption, and the power of confession, forgiveness and what you had thought was the impossibility of salvation. Patrick Dearen is the author of more than twenty books, twelve of them novels. He is at the top of his powers in The Big Drift.
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