“The Homesman opens in the 1850s, when early pioneers are doing anything they can to survive dreadful conditions. Women especially struggle with broken hearts and minds as they face bitter hardships: One nineteen-year-old mother loses her three children to diphtheria in three days; another woman left alone for two nights is forced to shoot wolves to protect herself.
The situation calls for a “homesman”—a person charged with taking these women, driven mad by the conditions of rural life, to asylums in the East. It falls to Mary Bee Cuddy, an ex-teacher and spinster. Brave as she is, Mary Bee knows she can’t make it alone, so she takes along her only available companion: the lowlife and untrustworthy George Briggs.” (goodreads.com)
I actually finished this book, and then wanted to start reading it again. With only 338 pages filled with text in one of those large fonts that make books look longer than they really are, the whole experience was over too quickly. I’d only paid $10 for it, and in the early stages of reading I thought even $10 was asking too much, as I found it really difficult to get into and quite frankly, I didn’t like it that much. I think it was the writing that was initially the problem. But as I read I got into the swing of the writing it became difficult to pull myself away, and I nearly read through my train stop one afternoon.
What I liked most about The Homesman, is that the novel overall centred on a sensitive subject, but was written about delicately and honestly, but Swarthout didn’t shy away from showing the lives of many women in the American West in all it’s brutal glory. I was totally into that – writing isn’t always about making the reader happy. It’s more about showing the reader what they might not necessarily want to see, and maybe teach them something in the process.
About ¾ of the way through I got really angry with the book. So angry I considered throwing it into the path of an oncoming train (no lie, there really was a train coming). It was anger mixed in with frustration and a little bit of heartbreak. Swarthout went and did what I don’t think many other writers would have done (sorry for the vagueness – I don’t want to give away spoilers). I have all the respect for a writer who isn’t afraid to wave off any sentimental attachment that readers may develop towards certain characters. Real life isn’t all happy and fluff anyway.
Sure the book made me angry and made me shake my head in disbelief as I read the last few chapters. But it was raw, tough, honest, and ridiculously well written. It doesn’t surprise me the it has been adapted for the big screen, and I can’t think of two actors better suited to play the roles of Mary Bee Cuddy and George Briggs, than Hilary Swank and Tommy Lee Jones (you can check the trailer out here). I haven’t watched the film but I definitely will soon. In the meantime, I’ll think about the book a bit more and maybe set aside some time to read it again. In the end it was definitely worth my $10!
WHO SHOULD READ IT – If you have an interest in American history I can highly recommend this book, particularly as it shows life in the American West in a completely different light. Those who have read Charles Portis’ True Grit and enjoyed it, should definitely give this a go.
WHO YOU’LL LOVE – Mary Bee Cuddy is probably right up there with my favourite female characters. I found her completely admirable in every sense.
FAVOURITE QUOTE – The following is from a scene in which Mary Bee is a complete boss:
‘“Love ‘er! After what she’s done t’me? I give ‘er no cause t’go crazy!”
“You gave her another baby.”
“The Lord’s will!”
Now her anger blazed, and Mary Bee Cuddy felt the heat of it in her heart. “It wasn’t the Lord bedded her!” she cried. Her look after that was like a cut of the reins. “Vester,” she said, “you are a damned poor specimen of a man.” And she nudged Dorothy with a knee and rode off.’