The only thing I like more than reading a novel that takes place in the Old West is when that novel takes place in Nebraska. While no novel will compare with Willa Cather’s amazing My Antonia, I always enjoy reading about what my home state was like in the 1800s.
I so often have no recollection of how I come across certain books, and The Homesman, by Glendon Swarthout is no exception. I’m on lots of book email sites and there’s always good ol’ Amazon and/or Goodreads to make suggestions. Often the suggestions are eerily on target. This recommendation certainly was.
The driving character in The Homesman is Mary Bee Cuddy and she is a fictional character I won’t soon forget. Cuddy is a strong woman, unmarried, who single-handedly runs one of the most successful homesteads in the never-named small Nebraska community of Swarthout’s imagination.
An unbearable winter in this part of the pioneer west has left three hard-working women literally out of their minds. Their husbands are unable and unwilling to care for them. The area’s kind minister knows that the only thing to do is to get them back to the family they left back east to come to the untamed Nebraska territory with their husbands to find prosperity. He has a connection in Iowa who will make sure these women are reconnected with family. Unfortunately, he is unable to convince any of the husbands to accompany these women east to Iowa.
Mary Bee Cuddy offers to be the one to make sure these women are safely returned to their families. Despite the minister’s concern, he realizes no one else is stepping up and something must be done.
Circumstances bring Cuddy together with a scoundrel calling himself George Briggs. Cuddy saves his life in exchange for his promise to help her in her difficult journey.
Their journey is the crux of the story.
Swarthout’s two main characters are complex and remarkable. The story is heart-warming in parts and terribly, terribly sad in other parts. Cuddy and Briggs grudgingly become admirers of one another. And always, always in the background of the story are the three insane women. It’s a fascinating storyline.
The ending isn’t necessarily what I would have chosen, but on the other hand, the ending is what makes the novel believable and compellingly readable.
The book has been made into a movie starring Tommy Lee Jones and Hilary Swank, which I promptly watched on Netflix. While the movie follows the book fairly reliably, Swarthout’s descriptions of the unimaginable winter and unthinkable circumstances which led to the women’s insanity was much more detailed and therefore more understandable.
I enjoyed The Homesman very much.