The Revenant – Michael Punke

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The Revenant is the book that inspired the film, as it says on the cover of my version.  I take that as an interesting comment, not having seen the film.  It probably means there’s a rough but limited connection, though the story is very simple and straightforward tale of revenge and derring-do!

The Revenant tells the story of one Hugh Glass, a tracker working for the Rocky Mountain Fur Company in 1823.  He is in the headwaters of the Missouri river, in wild and undiscovered land, hunting for food, as his party moves northwards and autumn draws on.  He is attacked by a grizzly bear protecting its cubs, and brutally scarred and hurt.  He manages to fire off his single shot rifle as the bear attacks.  It dies, but not before leaving Glass’s life hanging by a thread.

As the company need to press on to their next destination, Glass is left in the hands of two fellow trappers, an older gambler called Fitzgerald, and a younger boy, new to the wilds and fresh from an apprenticeship in Fort Atkinson.  They are offered a reward of $70 for staying behind, and manage two days before leaving Glass to his fate, stealing his knife and gun as they abandon him to a painful death. But Glass is made of sterner stuff.  He crawls back to civilisation, and sets out to hunt them down and dispense justice.

The book is essentially the story of Glass’s life in the year following the attack,  and includes all kinds of adventures and exploits, from canoeing down rivers to crawling across the wide expanses of the prairies.  After the grizzly attack he can only crawl, but happens on a snake, inert as it is swallowing a mammal, and kills and eats it.  He is helped by some Indians and attacked by others.  He gets a job on a new expedition to search for furs in the west, meeting French trappers with loose morals, and fighting alongside them against even more Indians.  But this job is just a ploy to facilitate the vengeance Glass is seeking.

There are flashbacks too – Punke provides quite an interesting back story to Glass, though this is largely invented by the author, whilst the actual revenge narrative is supposedly based on a true story.  Nevertheless these sections do offer some insights into life at the time, and especially into the economic and social aspects of American history.

Punke does give the reader quite a real sense of what it was like to live in the wilds and anyone interested in survival skills would find plenty in this book to like.  There is good description, not all of it bloody, and a real sense of the beauty and power of nature.  There are some insights into the different Indian tribes encountered, though I’m not sure how reliable this information is.  The whole tenor of the book is realistic, though the backstory, in which Glass is first sailor, then pirate, then taken in by an Indian tribe and taught survival skills is a bit Just William for me.

All in all this is an adventure story and should be treated as such.  Punke takes little or no time to examine the moral implications of the events, such as the original abandonment of Glass, or his search for revenge.  It’s more The Spanish Tragedy than Hamlet, but enjoyable nevertheless.

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