The human cost of Westward expansion

A review of 'American Copper' by Shann Ray.

 

American Copper
Shann Ray
302 pages, softcover: $16.
Unbridled Books, November.

Sometimes, the best new books don’t seem that new after all. Perhaps a storyline, or the cadence of the language, or the cast of characters feels slightly familiar — not because it’s derivative, but because it’s a seamless part of a long and laudable tradition. Spokane-based writer Shann Ray’s first full-length novel, American Copper, is one such book.  Rather than diminish or be diminished by any of the similar voices that have come before — in particular Cormac McCarthy and A.B. Guthrie — Ray’s prose proves a deft and distinctive addition to the iconic literature of the American West.

At its heart, American Copper is a classic story of Westward expansion. Set in Montana at the turn of the 20th century, it contains all of the conventional dichotomies: Cowboys versus Indians, progress versus tradition, nature versus industry, man versus woman. Ray weaves together the lives of the three protagonists — the smart, beautiful daughter of a copper baron, a giant, lonesome bar-fighter, and a Cheyenne rodeo star — with a meandering sense of inevitability; like the deep current in a river, we can feel the story moving steadily along, but we can’t see far enough around the bends and eddies to guess where it will end.

Ray is a poet at heart and a professor of reconciliation and forgiveness studies by trade, and the influence of both is clearly apparent in this novel. He writes with grace, not just in his language but in his careful and perceptive handling of history, race, gender and culture as well. In many ways, this is the story of the West’s often unheard or overlooked voices. His prose is deliberate and measured, at times vaguely archaic. Each moment is distilled, lyrical and rich with insight: “(He) contemplated his will to live, where it came from and who shepherds the living and the dead. Winter set in like the teeth of a badger. His life seemed to walk away from him.”

In the hands of a less adept storyteller, this could just be another tale of horses and violence, ruthless industrialists and rodeos, wide-open spaces and lawless towns and damsels in distress. But Ray brings to his writing a sensibility and sensitivity that elevates the story just enough; it’s still a Western, yes, but it’s a Western with a brain.

Photo: Five Acre Geographic