Monday, May 04, 2015

The Winter Family - Clifford Jackman


The Winter Family
Clifford Jackman
Doubleday Books
 
Western Noir/Historical Thriller
 
Just after the Civil War, the American West was still a wide-open, nearly lawless place.  It was an enormous area where a man could get lost, start over, reinvent himself, or evade the law, depending on his needs and desires.  Any time the forces of law begin to close in, the Winter Family simply moves west.  They came together during the Civil War.  Quentin Ross, the son of a good Chicago family, was a lieutenant for whom the fog of war was no obstacle; and the collateral damage and destruction visited on a helpless civilian population was never quite enough to satisfy him.
 
At that time, Augustus Winter was a mere private, serving under Ross.  Winter came to the war broken, and the war simply tempered him into a more dangerous weapon.  He would eventually come to lead the group and give the ‘family’ its name.  During their travels, men came and went from the group:  freed slaves, many with scores to settle; an alcoholic Indian called Bill Bread; a young, soulless gunslinger; various soldiers and civilians at loose ends.  The group moves from the war through the reconstruction period, working for whoever will pay them.  They re-group in Chicago to work as paid enforcers during the 1872 election.  From there, they move into the west, taking what they want, dodging the law, and still taking work from those desperate enough to hire them.
 
The story begins in Oklahoma at the height of the family’s rampage, and then circles back around to the time when the family began to coalesce.  Each section of the book details the family’s time in one area or another as they move through history and the country.  For men like this, the days of the war and the ‘peace’ that followed were golden times.  Anyone could do anything he wanted; there was simply not enough justice to go around at the time.  Little by little, the family and their actions get squeezed into a smaller and smaller arena as law and civilization inexorably threads its influence across the West.  In one sense, it’s a story of man’s primal nature, in the form of outlaws, attempting to fight back against the march of technology, in the very real forms of the railroad and the telegraph.  In another sense, it’s a Western from the point of view of the brutal and unsentimental black hats.
 
The author excels at conjuring a scene with just a sentence or two.  Where many authors need paragraphs to establish setting, here, the author open each section with a few powerfully descriptive sentences, instantly transporting the reader to the time and place.  Action sequences, and they are many and bloody, manage to convey violence and horror with a few words.  Of course, there are options other than violent, yet, somehow, when it comes, it seems almost fated. It’s nearly impossible to pin down a genre for this.  It’s very much a Western, but written with the cadence and bleakness of a noir.  Not a happy story, but one very much worth reading.  It’s the kind of book that stays with you long after you’ve closed the cover.     

Rating: 9
April 2015
ISBN# 978-0-385-53948-7 (hardcover)

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