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Match Play is a golf/suspense novel. Dust of Autumn is a bloody one set in upstate New York. Prairie View is set in South Dakota, with a final scene atop Rattlesnake Butte. Life in the Arbor is a children's book about Rollie Rabbit and his friends (on about a fourth grade level). The Black Widow involves an elaborate extortion scheme. Doggy-Dog World is my memoir. And ES3 is a description of my method for examining English sentence structure.
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My newest novel, Happy Valley, can be found here.

Thursday, December 18

The Homesman

A long time ago, just after I’d started teaching, I read Ole Rolvaag’s Giants in the Earth. I read it mainly because it was set in the eastern portion of my home state of South Dakota and because it was about that period in our history when settlers from Norway, Sweden, Russia, and Germany emigrated to the New World to claim homestead land. It’s the story of the harsh reality of life for those settlers, in this case, a family from Norway, Per Hansa and his wife. The opening describes a covered wagon moving slowly through a hip-deep sea of prairie grass, barren, treeless prairie, toward a future of living in a sod house with dirt floor and neighbors more than three miles away. It would prove to be so lonely for Per’s wife that she goes mad.

And now I’ve seen The Homesman, which also shows the harshness of life for settlers in the Nebraska Territory in 1855. Mary Bee Cudder (Hillary Swank), because none of the men in the settlement want the task, agrees to transport three women who have all gone crazy back to Iowa where they can find care and possible treatment. The women have gone mad from the territory’s harshness, from the loss of children, from the insensitivity of husbands. She’s given a specially built wagon for the trip, an enclosed box with barred windows and an entrance that can be bolted from the outside, more like a prison-transport than a wagon. The women will be tied to ring bolts inside the wagon, to prevent them from escaping or injuring each other. Before she picks up any of the women, she finds George Briggs (Tommy Lee Jones), a claim jumper who is sitting on his horse with hands tied behind him, a noose around his neck. He sees her and begs her to cut him down before the horse decides to walk away and leave him hanging. Before she cuts the rope, she makes him promise to help her take the women back. Thus begins their journey—through barren, treeless countryside, through wintry skies and frozen ground, past a party of Pawnee Indians who may or may not kill them for their horses and mules, past an Indian burial site where Briggs takes from one of the bodies a buffalo hide for warmth at night, past an open grave where a young girl has been buried, a grave that Mary Bee feels obligated to fix for the sake of the girl. Briggs goes on ahead with the wagon and the women, leaving Mary Bee with a horse for her to catch up with them. But she gets lost in the night and can’t find them, nearly starving or freezing to death before she stumbles onto their campfire. The story continues, with the audience left to wonder if the reprobate Briggs will change his spots and become a better person through his connection with Mary Bee Cudder. The first ninety minutes is as good as or even better than any Western I’ve ever seen, right up there with Lonesome Dove and The Unforgiven. The last thirty minutes are strangely anti-climactic and slightly silly, almost as though Tommy Lee Jones, the director, didn’t know when to quit while he was ahead. The first ninety minutes has great camera shots and amazing attention to details about frontier life a century and a half ago. The last thirty minutes shows us a romanticized village on the eastern side of the Missouri River, everything much too pretty to be real. Two things about this movie that will stay with me for a long time: Hillary Swank as the steel-strong woman she portrays, and Tommy Lee Jones’ craggy, weather-beaten face, with bags beneath his eyes as big as gunny sacks.
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