Monday, March 24, 2014

Crossing Purgatory

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.


  1. I have been thinking myself about how few new books I read - like you, unless they are by authors I already know. I do get recommendations from the library (an email newsletter), so maybe I'll start reading that more carefully. And I agree with you about the fun of visiting sites mentioned in books - or having visited them before, when you come across them.

  2. I really enjoy books about the settlers and pioneer life and how people fared. This one looks interesting, thanks for the post.

    I'm like you, looking to expand my reading a bit. Westerns, too, I used to read a few when I was younger, mostly if it involved pioneers - and the Indians weren't too badly drawn. I suppose that's my criteria, how are the aboriginal people presented in the westerns? before I read them.

    So far this year I've read 8 biographies of mountaineers! I'm most surprised by this, it's very unexpected, though I am enjoying the newness and the discovery and learning a lot about Mount Everest and K2 and the people who climb them. My new genre of reading, I think. It's kind of strange to read stories of adventure that are true.

    I'm curious to see how you find seeing the places and compare or 'see' what hte writer saw in creating his work, in Crossing Purgatory. I find that one of the fun things to do when seeking out where a writer lived, or walked, or wrote. I hope you enjoy your trip to the places in Crossing Purgatory.

  3. I don't read many new books either - and especially so far this year as I've been reading books from my to-be-read shelves and so all old books.

    I'm interested in this book because I loved watching 'Wagon Train' and 'Rawhide'on TV years ago and I think the only book I've read about the American West is Wallace Stegner's 'Angle of Repose', which I thought was brilliant.

    1. I loved Angle of Repose too.

      I loved Westerns when I was young and still do--books, TV, movies. I thought High Noon was brilliant, and The Big Country and Shane, and later Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid. I was devoted to Bonanza and Alias Smith & Jones and a short-lived series that took place in Colorado called Centennial and starring Brenda Vaccarro.

      I wonder if I would get many takers if I hosted a Westerns Reading Challenge next year.

    2. I hit enter too soon. The Brenda Vaccaro TV series was called "Sara." Of course, I had Mitchner's Centennial on the brain--that was also a wonderful mini-series!

  4. Great commentary on this book.

    I have not read many Westerns but there are clearly many good ones out there that are very worthy. This sounds like one of them.

    I also tend not to read a lot of new books. There is so much to read and so little to do it in!

  5. Sounds like a winner and how great that it had such a personal connection.