Friday, October 29, 2010

The Wandering Hill by Larry McMurtry

This is Book 2 of McMurtry’s Berrybender Narratives, the first of which was Sin Killer, which I listened to as an audiobook back in 2006. I liked Sin Killer, mostly because I saw it as a kind of homage to Cooper and his Leatherstocking Tales, seeing more than a little Natty Bumppo in the character of Jim Snow, the Sin Killer.

And there are pieces of that same storyline in The Wandering Hill. Near the beginning, after Jim slaps his wife Tasmin for cursing, we learn more about Jim’s upbringing, and why he is so rigid against sin of any kind.

Jim didn’t answer. He wished Tasmin could just be silent, and not always be spilling words out of her mouth at such a rate. Lengthy talk just made it harder for him [to] hold the simple articles of faith in his mind, the faith that Preacher Cockerell had beaten into him at an early age. Preacher Cockerell never hesitated: he took the horsehide whip to his own wife and children as readily as he took it to Jim. Sin was to be driven out and violence was the way to drive it. Sin was also constant; violence had to be constant too. Preacher Cockerell whipped in the morning, whipped in the noontide, whipped at night; when members of his congregation sent their unruly young to him, he whipped them too. Jim grew up fearing the whip but not doubting the justice. Before the morning meal and the evening, Preacher Cockerell read from the Holy Book, terrible passages about punishment, sin, hell, Lot’s wife, the whore of Babylon, wars and floods and banishment, all the punishments that man deserved because of his sinful nature. Preacher Cockerell even whipped himself, for he had fallen into adultery with the wife of Deacon Sylvester. For such a sin even the whippings had not been enough, so Jehovah sent the lightning bolt that fried Preacher Cockerell and turned him black; the same lightning bolt threw Maundey Cockerell and Jim Snow aside as if they were chaff from the grain. For three days Jim lay unmoving; he seemed to float in red water, though there was no water where he was. Even the Kaw was low that year. Maundey Cockerell lived, but her mind died, destroyed by the heavenly flash. From that time on Jim had felt it was his duty to punish sin, whenever he met it in the violent men of the West, red or white; the Indians feared him because of the ferocity of his attacks. He was particularly feared by the medicine men, because it was the heresy of their spells and potions that angered him most.

Which I was initially intrigued by because, as clichéd as the background may seem to be, it certainly provided a contrasting moral construct than the one Natty pursued in books like The Pathfinder. For the Sin Killer, evidently, moral action is driven by blind dogma and violence, not by any heightened understanding of the natural world and the forces that shape it. Upon reading this, I was excited to see how this moral guidance would play itself out, as Jim Snow and Tasmin Berrybender seemed destined to enact some kind of epic clash between moral understandings of the world they decided to co-inhabit as man and wife.

And then, even more interesting, was the character of Pomp Charbonneau (the historical infant that Sacagawea had birthed and carried with her on the famous expedition of Lewis and Clark, now grown into a young man and fictionalized for this series), who McMurtry seems ready to set in opposition to the hard and judgmental morality of the Sin Killer.

Though glad, of course, that Hugh Glass was alive, Pomp felt no inclination to join in the party. Tasmin, in her annoyance, had stated an awkward truth about him: he was not often lustful, and he had rarely been able to join in the spirit of any group celebration. The English girl stated clearly what he himself had never quite articulated: he stood apart, not hostile or critical of the lusts or greeds of others; his gaze contained no stiff judgments, as her husband the Sin Killer’s fierce look was apt to do. Pomp would have liked to love a woman, feel a brother to a man, and yet he never had—or at least, he hadn’t since the death of Sacagawea, his mother; and that had occurred when he was only a boy.

But neither of these promises is kept—at least not in this volume of Berrybender Narratives. Pomp Charbonneau and even Jim Snow are more like minor characters in the story that follows, spending most of their time away from the story’s main character, Tasmin. There’s a hint of a coming conflict at the very end of the novel, when Pomp is injured in a climactic Indian attack, and has to have an arrowhead removed via frontier surgery before he floats off toward death.

Pomp, drifting in deep and starless darkness, heard Tasmin speak softly in his ear, saying she was here, she was here; but he couldn’t answer. The easeful darkness held him in its lazy power; he floated downward, deeper and deeper into it, as the soaked leaf sinks slowly to the bottom of a pool, to a place deeper than light. Helpless as the leaf he sank and sank, until, instead of Tasmin’s voice, he heard, “Jean Baptiste…Jean Baptiste!” Then the darkness gave way to the soft light of dream, and there was Sacagawea, his mother, sitting quietly in a field of waving grass, as she had so many times in his dreams. Though her dark eyes welcomed him, the look on her face was grave.

As always in his dreams of Sacagawea, Pomp wanted to rush to her, to be taken in her arms, as he had been as a child; but he could not move. The rules of the dream were severe—old sadness, old frustration pricked him, even though dreams of his mother were the best dreams of all.

As usual, when she visited him in dreams, Sacagawea began to talk in low tones of things that had happened long ago.

“When we were on our way back from the great ocean I took you up to the top of those white cliffs that rise by the Missouri,” she said. “I wanted you to see the great herds, grazing far from the world of men; but you were a young boy then, not even weaned, and I held your hand so you wouldn’t step off the edge of life and go too soon to the Sky House, where we all have to go someday. Now that old Ute’s arrow has brought you to the edge of life again, but the woman who whispers to you wants to pull you back, as I pulled you back when you were young.”

Sacagawea was looking directly at him—Pomp wanted to ask her questions, and yet, as always in his dreams of his mother, he was gripped by a terrible muteness; he could ask no question, make no plea, though he knew that at any time the dream might fade and his mother be lost to him until he visited her in dreams again. With the fear that his dream was ending came a sadness so deep that Pomp did not want to wake up to life, and yet that was just what his mother was urging him to do—she wanted him to listen to Tasmin.

“I did not wean you until you had seen four summers,” Sacagawea told him. “My milk was always strong—I filled you with it so that you could live long and enjoy the world of men, the world I showed you when we stood together on the white cliffs. Obey the woman who whispers—it is not time for you to come to the Sky House yet…”

Then, with sad swiftness, his mother faded; where her face had been was Tasmin’s face, leaning close to his. Pomp tried to smile, but couldn’t, not yet. Even so, Tasmin’s eyes shone with tears of relief.

“There…it’s out—and he’s not bleeding much,” Father Geoffrin said. “I think our good Pomp can live now—if he wants to.”

Tasmin had been watching Pomp’s face closely. Her heart leapt when he opened his eyes.

“I’ll see that he wants to!” she said, overjoyed that her friend had lived.

Father Geoffrin—priest, surgeon, and cynic—raised an eyebrow.

“I expect you will, madame,” he said. “I expect you will.”

That’s how the book ends. The juxtaposition between Pomp’s mother and Tasmin is, of course, symbolic, but the Father Geoffrin’s allusion at the very end is fairly direct. It’s too bad that I’ll have to wait until Book 3 to see this confrontation of moral attitudes.

So if not that moral confict, what does The Wandering Hill focus on? Well, the wandering hill, for one.

“I guess I’ll stay with you,” he said, a little awkwardly—but Pomp seemed not to mind the awkwardness. He was staring at a small, conical hill about half a mile away. The hill was mostly bare, but had a gnarled tree—cedar, probably—on top, a single tree with a dusting of snow.

Pomp looked troubled.

“That hill looks familiar,” he said—“but it ought to be farther south. There’s a hill just like that down by Manuel Lisa’s old fort, where my mother is buried.”

Jim looked at the tree—it seemed to him that he had seen a hill remarkably similar to this one—hadn’t it been near the South Platte?

“Maybe it’s the wandering hill—they say you usually find it where there’s been killings,” Pomp said.

Jim had heard of the wandering hill several times—it was a heathenish legend that many tribes seemed to believe. The hill was said to be inhabited with short, fierce devils with large heads, who killed travelers with deadly arrows made of grass blades, which they could shoot great distances.

“If that’s the hill with the devils in it they’d have a hard time finding grass blades to shoot at us, with all this snow,” Jim said.

Pomp was still staring at the strange, bare little hill.

“My mother believed in the wandering hill,” he said. “She claimed to have seen it way off over the mountains somewhere—near the Snake River, I think.”

“Well, I thought I saw it once myself—on the South Platte,” Jim admitted. “What do you think?”

Pomp shook his head.

“I don’t know,” he said. “I just don’t remember that particular hill being here the last time I came this way.”

If the novel hadn’t been named after it, this little section on the wandering hill may have gone unnoticed. But the title makes it stand out, and you begin to wonder what role the Indian legend is going to play in the narrative that follows.

The answer, surprisingly, is very little—until the very end, when the hill makes another appearance, convincing an Indian warrior that the English party traveling near it possesses some unknown kind of magic that is keeping the devils inside their hill. Magic of such power, he reasons, must be fought, and great honor would be bestowed on the warrior who could wrest it away from the English—and that prompts the attack in which Pomp is wounded.

In between these two events, there is nary a mention of the hill, making me wonder how relevant it really is to the story line.

There was only one other symbolic theme I stumbled across. It comes when the painter in the Berrybender party—George Catlin—is convinced to paint a nude portrait of Tasmin and another woman in the group, both exceedingly pregnant.

George Catlin scarcely noticed the incident, so absorbed was he in planning the composition; though idly suggested by Tasmin, it had now quite taken hold of his imagination. Motherhood, if delicately yet boldly executed, might be the canvas that would make his name. Perhaps it should be hung in some great building in Washington—the Capitol, perhaps. The more he thought about it, the more excited he became. The allegorical dimension should not, in his view, be ignored. Were not these two Englishwomen, after all, giving birth to Americans—and, by extension, to the new America itself? Would not they represent the newer, grander America even then being born in the West?

McMurtry is also an artist not likely to ignore the allegorical dimension of his work, and this passage and a few that follow is proof of it. The Berrybenders in the West are indeed an allegory of the new America being born, forged both out of the rugged frontier and overmastered by the self-assumed sophistication of English and, more broadly, European cultures. At one point Tasmin herself wonders which life would be best for her newborn son:

What did she want for Monty: the English life with its order and pattern, or the frontier life with its vast beauty and frequent danger?

Sadly, it’s a choice that the reader also has to make, as I don’t think that McMurtry has blended these ideas as well as he might’ve in his fiction. I’ll read the next volume in the series, but I won’t rush it to the top of my pile.


  1. What I'd really like to know is whether the Wandering Hill legend came from actual Native legends or if it is something entirely of fiction. I've searched around and not found much. I was also a little annoyed at the way they killed Pomp off being that he was an actual historical figure and we know how and where he actually died.

  2. I don't know about the truth behind the Wandering Hill legend, Wander. I poked around a little on Google, but couldn't find anything but references to McMurtry's book. Maybe you should email him?

    Also, did Pomp die at the end of The Wandering Hill? I thought he survived. Are you giving me a spoiler from Book 3?