Monday, March 24, 2014
One of my reading resolutions for 2014 was to read more new books. Not only do I tend to read a lot of classics, but I generally don't read recently published books unless they are by a favorite author. However, I'm trying to mix it up a bit this year, and so have become a devoted scanner of BookPage, which I pick up at my library.
In a recent issue, I found a blurb promoting Crossing Purgatory, by Gary Schanbacher, a fellow Coloradoan, and was intrigued by the story and encouraged by Schanbacher's credentials--his short story collection, Migration Patterns, received a PEN/Hemingway Honorable Mention for “distinguished first works of fiction,” and won the Colorado Book Award, the High Plains First Book Award, and the Eric Hoffer General Fiction Award.
I love westerns and books about Colorado and good writing, and Crossing Purgatory is all three. Set in the late 1850s, it tells the story of Thompson Gray, a farmer from Ohio who loses his wife and sons to illness and loses his will and way in the aftermath of their deaths, for which he blames himself. He walks away from his farm and hooks up with a wagon train following the Santa Fe Trail. He befriends a family that also encounter tragedy enroute to a new life on the frontier, and ends up living and working in a tiny community not far from Bent's Fort, out on what are now the eastern Colorado plains.
I haven't been down to Bent's Fort since my college-going kids were in elementary school, and I've been thinking about visiting there again this spring so now I really want to go. It's fun and enriching to actually visit the places I read about, and Schanbacher did an outstanding job of capturing the rough beauty of the prairie in his prose.
I really enjoyed the story and metaphor of Crossing Purgatory--the Purgatoire River is one of the tributaries of the Arkansas River, and I imagine was the inspiration for the story, in which Thompson Gray must do penance for allowing his family to perish in his absence before he can resume living again. Luckily, Schanbacher didn't handle his metaphor with a heavy hand and so it provided food for thought as I read the book.
I really enjoyed Crossing Purgatory, and would actually like to read a sequel to it. I haven't read that the author has one in the works but Thompson Gray was still a young man when the book ended and between the Colorado goldrush, which he touched on a bit, and the Civil War and the tragedy of the Sand Creek Massacre, which took place in 1864 and less than 100 miles away, there is plenty of material to draw upon.