An epic tale of revenge on the frontier
As you probably know, The Revenant, this astonishing survival tale was recently made into a movie with Leonardo DiCaprio in the role of Hugh Glass, one of the last mountain men. Glass was attacked by a grizzly bear while scouting for the Rocky Mountain Fur Company in the fall of 1823; witnesses later testified to the fact that Glass was horribly mauled with near-fatal wounds and was abandoned by his companions, including two men who had dug a grave and had agreed to tend him until he died. Against all odds, Glass did not die and lived to launch an epic quest for revenge.
Drawing from a variety of sources, including the biographies of Glass and Jim Bridger (one of the men who abandoned Glass), Michael Punke has created a riveting tale that blends terror and mesmerizing descriptions of scenery. When necessary, the author “elaborates,” much in the manner of traditional storytellers, creating fictional characters and events. However, the basic framework of this tale is based on a true story. Glass suffered grievous wounds, including near-scalping, a throat wound that rendered him nearly speechless, five deep trenches in his back and a bite on one leg that left him unable to walk.
At the time of his encounter with a grizzly and her cub, Glass was a member of a scouting expedition under Capt. Andrew Henry, who was on his way to meet members of the Rocky Mountain Fur Company and establish a lucrative business contract. Impatient to keep his rendezvous, Henry offers to pay two men $70 each if they would stay with Glass until he expired. It was understood that and after giving him a proper burial, they can divide his possessions which included a hunting knife and a valuable Arnstadt rifle.
The two men who volunteered to stay were markedly different. John Fitzgerald, a middle-aged trapper with a prominent hook-shaped scar on his face, was fond of drinking and gambling. He was short-tempered and given to self-serving motives. Jim Bridger was 20 years old and already gifted as a trapper and hunter. In later years, he would become famous for his knowledge of Yellowstone and his skill at map-making.
Why did he abandon Glass? According to later accounts, there were mitigating circumstances: an approaching band of hostile Arikara moving a short distance from the camp suggested that they would arrive in the camp soon. Then, there was the urging of an angry and impatient Fitzgerald. They left Glass by his open grave, unable to walk and 300 miles from a fort.
Much of the bitterness that fed Glass’ obsession with revenge was due to the loss of his possessions, which were his only means of defending himself. Their loss reduced him to living on what he could catch with his hands: mice, grubs, the tainted marrow of a rotting buffalo, and in one memorable instances, the raw flesh of a rattlesnake which he kills and eats with relish. Through a series of encounters that required Glass’ ingenuity and courage, he survives and his strength grew. By the time he is found by friendly Sioux, he is able to walk, and after a Sioux medicine-man purges him of the maggots that infest his mangled back, he is ready to return to the river and his search for revenge.
The second half of this novel contains some remarkable descriptive details as Glass joins a second expedition. It is here that Punke “elaborates and decorates” with zest. In the company of a remarkable band of colorful French traders (two brothers who sing constantly) on yet another expedition to acquire untold wealth in the fur-trading market, Glass watches another doomed venture fall apart. The weather becomes an enemy as rivers freeze and Glass finds himself struggling through devastating storms until he is delivered into a fort that has its own problems having just destroyed their cannon in a drunken New Year’s party.
Ah, but here is a familiar face. It is Jim Bridger, one of the men who abandoned Glass and marched away to keep a rendezvous that never materialized. Also, here is Captain Henry, the man who marched away. Glass immediately attacks Bridger, but realizes that the bewildered youth was also the man who tended his wounds for two days. Glass relents, although he is far from appeased, concluding that Fitzgerald is the true villain. Eventually, he joins yet another expedition down the Powder River. Once more, Glass loses his companions (including the singing brothers) to an Arikara attack and ends up at Fort Atkinson where John Fitzgerald is now an enlisted private.
The final encounter is anti-climatic, to say the least. The officer in command of Fort Atkinson convenes a formal court trial and the angry and frustrated Glass renders the trial meaningless by seizing a rifle and shooting Fitzgerald. The result is a wound in the accused man’s shoulder.
Suddenly, the great revenge tale is over and everyone, including Glass and Fitzgerald, depart to pursue separate destinies. Glass, however, does have his prized rifle and knife.
In view of the fact that Michael Punke calls this book “a novel of revenge,” the reader may feel ... well, somewhat disappointed. The rage that Glass harbored demands a better, bloodier resolution. I am reminded of another mountain man, Jerimiah Johnson (1824 -1900), who was depicted by another handsome actor, Robert Redford, in 1972. Jerimiah, who was also known as “liver-eating Johnson” or “Crow Killer,” came home from a hunting expedition to find the slaughtered remains of his wife and unborn child. Johnson set forth on a murderous journey to take revenge on the Crow and for a decade he slaughtered his enemies and feasted on their livers (Johnson claimed to have killed over 300 Crows). In one instance, he cut a dead Crow’s arm off (sometimes a leg), using it as a crutch as he struggled through a snowstorm to a safe refuge. When starvation threatened him, Johnson ate the frozen arm/leg. He survived and bragged about his exploits for years. Now, there is a tale of revenge that leaves you with a sense of mission accomplished.