So Wild a Dream
Forge / Tor
US Hardcover First
Publication Date: 09-16-2003
400 Pages; $24.95
Date Reviewed: 09-25-03
Reviewed by: Rick Kleffel © 2003
In a time when you can cross the country faster than some people can drive to work, the idea of the American Frontier seems almost inconceivable. Here in the 21st century, we feel even farther removed. The last frontier we attempted to bridge has thus far defeated our own expectations for ourselves. We thought we'd be living in space by now, and we thought we could do so pretty easily. That was the indication given by the earliest space flights, all successful. But recent events have made us justly more cautious. It's hard to imagine a time when death was common, and when exploration of the frontier was regarded with fear but nonetheless common as well. Win Blevins' 'So Wild A Dream' is a novel set in mid-America of the 1820's. Mid-America wasn't a repository of bland safety, but rather an authentic wild frontier. Exploration isn't safe in Blevins' novel; it's filled with danger, from hostile native Indians to treacherous comrades to hostile weather. Blevins makes the American frontier of the 1820's everything it was and one thing more -- accessible to the modern reader.
Sam is the youngest brother in the Morgan family. While his brother Owen has a head for business and is turning their family mill and storefront into the center of Morgantown, Pennsylvania, Sam is more interested in wandering about the wilderness. A chance meeting with an Indian inspires him to follow his "wild hair" and head west into trapping country. His journey takes him down the Missouri River, through territories filled with dangers familiar and new. He starts the journey as a callow, uneducated youth and finishes as a more experienced but still uneducated man.
Blevins' prose trends towards the lyrical. He loves the landscape that Sam explores and all the things that Sam sees. He's excellent at scene-setting, which is important in a novel that takes place in an environment largely unfamiliar to the reader, especially an adventure novel. That's where Blevins really manages to win over the reader; this is an unabashed adventure novel, and it plugs in to the lower-brain-stem, bypassing the cynicism so common today. Blevins' ability to describe both the country and the people of the 1820's enables him to connect on a personal level with the reader. He peppers his prose with the authentic, well-researched language of the time, and provides a glossary for the curious reader. Not that the glossary is necessary; Blevins is smart enough to ensure that everything he writes is understandable within the context of his story.
Blevins' story is nothing supremely new, but it is supremely enjoyable. He loves all his characters and he's able to bring in the readers' sympathies without getting saccharine. Particularly noteworthy is his ability to garner respect and admiration for not only the protagonists, but every character, no matter how ill-intentioned that character turns out to be. There's no character in this novel that the reader does not look forward to seeing. This makes the novel a lot of fun to read; there's always a sense of anticipation.
Blevins is also skilled at telling a story that has the appeal of children's adventures but is thoroughly adult in terms of language, content and complexity. Morgan meets up with prostitutes, dull-but-cunning killers, con-men and misfits of all types. One second we see the beauty of nature and the next second we experience the ugliness of raw violence. But it's never too ugly. Blevins is careful to tread the borders and not wallow on the wrong side of repulsive.
Interesting as well is Blevins' ability to convey the folkloric perspective of his characters. Sam and those around him believe in hexes, curses, and wards, while the native Americans have their own and very different sets of supernatural beliefs. All of these are carefully differentiated and used sparingly, naturally. There's a tinge of magic-realism to this novel, but it's not the point; it's part of the environment that Blevins is so carefully constructing.
Blevins' plot is straightforward adventure. Sam sets off and experiences riverboat life, life on the trail, life on the frontier and a harrowing man-in-the-wilderness walk to civilization. His pacing is excellent, balancing between lush descriptions, well-choreographed scenes of action and almost surreal experiences on the frontier. I found it to be something of a page-turner, with an extremely satisfying emotional backwash.
In these times of wild prose and over-the-top adventures, Blevins is actually taking a chance with his traditional adventure and straightforward presentation, but he pulls it off admirably. 'So Wild a Dream' is only the first of a projected six-volume series, but it's exciting and complete enough to satisfy the reader as a singleton, while creating a compelling foundation for what is surely to follow. I have to admit that I wasn't exactly drawn to this novel based on the subject. But the proof is in the reading, and even if you think that an adventure story set in the world of 1820's fur trapping isn't your thing, you'd be well advised to give this novel a try. It's definitely worth the risk to explore Blevins' fine novel; and much safer than walking home from the Rockies.