“All I can say, Julie, is that they feel very real to me. All I can say is that the only thing in the world I want to do now, is to go out there, into the west, and find them.”
“Them” are prehistoric wooly mammoths and the man obsessed with finding them is Cyrus Bellman. So begins “West,” by Carys Davies, a slender book packed with vivid scenery and memorable characters.
It’s the early 1800s and Bellman, a widowed mule-breeder from England, reads about large bones found in the mud of Kentucky. Recalling “The old President’s Expedition with Captain Lewis and Captain Clark,” he is convinced these beasts still roam the vast and largely unexplored west. He talks his sister Julie into staying in his house to take care of his 10-year-old daughter Bess. With his brand new stovepipe hat, he leaves on a two-year journey, promising Bess he will write to her every day. Along the way, Bellman pays to have a young Indian called Old Woman From A Distance help him navigate the unfamiliar territories and barter with other Native Americans he may encounter during his travels.
Bess is left under the strict eye of her aunt and away from the protection of her father at a critical time in her development. She fills her days tracing her father’s route, imagining where he is and waiting patiently for his promised (and doomed) letters. Bess becomes introspective and introverted as the townspeople mock Bellman and his foolish quest. But Bess’ faith in her father never wavers even as she grows to understand he may never come back.
Bellman enlisted his neighbor, Elmer Jackson, to keep an eye on his sister and daughter while he was away. As more time goes by and Bellman fails to return, Jackson starts thinking about taking over the homestead and making one of the women as his wife. He quickly sets his sights on Bess as the younger and more vibrant of the two.
The strength of “West” lies in the lyrical sentences and spot-on descriptions of life in the early-1800s. I immediately fell into Bess and Julie’s life on their rural Pennsylvanian farm. They scratch out a living that isn’t poor or destitute – just normal. Then I would be traveling with Cyrus and Old Woman From A Distance across the Mississippi into the undiscovered west, suffering the perils of all early explores while simultaneously delighting in the new things they encounter. The dreamlike quality of Davies writing made me understand how a reckless endeavor could be romanticized. Some things sound better than the reality and she conveys that brilliantly. She is also great at turning a sentence. Bellman gets caught in a rainstorm and his “big squelchy coat was heavy as a body.” It’s as if Davies carefully selected each word for maximum impact and imagery.
“You had so many ways of deciding which way to live your life. It made his head spin to think of them. It hurt his heart to think that he had decided on the wrong way.”
Just when Bellman decides to make his way back East, Elmer Jackson decides to make his move on Bess. The ending gives us two heroes – one accidental and the other intentional – and a whole lot of hope in what could be seen as a hopeless situation.
“West” is an epic read that you could probably finish in a night. But you won’t, because it’s too good to rush through. Savor each page as if you were Cy Bellman surveying the land in front of him:
“He marveled at the beauty of his surroundings; the pale gray ribbon of the river; the dark trees; in the distance the bright spread of cloth of the prairie, undulating and soft; the bruised blue silk of the sky.”
Lynn Alexander is a recently published author and long-time book, food, cat and college football lover (Go Green!). Her career journey started in upstate New York, writing and recording commercials for radio. She moved to Venice, Florida to manage a restaurant which led her to Naples and Marco in 2002, where she currently books weddings and events for a local resort. Alexander is a Leadership Marco 2015 alum which fed her passion for history and learning. A butterfly at parties but a loner at heart, she loves nothing more than baking yummy desserts then retreating to a quiet corner to read.