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Publishers Weekly® Reviews
- Reviewed in: Publishers Weekly, page 104.
- Review Date: 2009-02-16
- Reviewer: Staff
In his seventh novel, Olmstead (Coal Black Horse) delivers another richly characterized, tightly woven story of nature, inevitability and the human condition. In 1916, the aging Napoleon Childs assembles a cavalry to search for the elusive bandit Pancho Villa in Mexico. The ragtag group includes Napoleon’s brother, Xenophon, and “America’s eager export of losers, deadbeats, cutthroats, dilettantes, and murderers.” Riding on horseback for months at a time, Napoleon finds himself and his men always just a few hours behind Villa, whose posse navigates the unforgiving terrain with ease. When a band of marauders descend upon the group, many of Napoleon’s men are brutally slaughtered and Napoleon himself is left beaten and emotionally broken. After the attack, Napoleon proclaims to his brother that the person he was died out there. But this revelation doesn’t last long, and soon Napoleon sets out on yet another date with destiny on the open plains with his followers. Reminiscent of Kent Haruf, Olmstead’s brilliantly expressive, condensed tale of resilience and dusty determination flows with the kind of literary cadence few writers have mastered. (May)
Searching for Pancho Villa
In this stark, intense work, Robert Olmstead, the award-winning author of six previous novels (most recently Coal Black Horse), has given us a harrowing landscape where survival is a daily struggle. To become complacent is to die.
The beginning of the novel is tense and foreboding, as we meet Napoleon Childs, a grizzled and jaded soldier more in tune with horses than with his fellow soldiers. It is 1916—the last days of the cavalry—and Childs is the veteran of many battles.
Childs and his men have set up headquarters in the desert of Mexico to search for Pancho Villa. It’s a mostly green crew of recruits, all there for different reasons. What happens to them and to him is horrific and stunning. Childs’ narration brings you into up-to-the-minute action, while still capturing the beauty of the landscape and the people he meets. For some inexplicable reason, Childs is not killed, but left as a witness to what has happened.
Through Childs’ descriptive eye, we see and experience everything around him, making Far Bright Star a riveting read. Childs tells us: “Soon all hell would break loose and this would be a no good place. The next actions would be motion undefined. Action requiring response. Action lurching off in directions beyond prediction. Knowing when to act yourself. And even then the odds unknown and changing so suddenly it would take a thousand patterns reconfiguring in an instant and an instant and an instant.”
Olmstead encourages us to consider what war is, why men go to war, and what is next for Childs. Was it all worth it? Would he trade it for something else? As Childs follows the far bright star home, we don’t get straight answers, but in the end we know him well enough that we can guess what he would do.
After all, this is one of the reasons we read books—to transport us somewhere in time or space, to enter into the thoughts or world of another. And Olmstead has certainly succeeded on that score. This is a book that will stay with you.
Linda White is a writer and publicist living in St. Paul, Minnesota.