The Revenant by Michael Punke (2002)

“A revenant is a visible ghost or animated corpse that was believed to return from the grave to terrorize the living”

The Revenant took me by absolute surprise. Originally checked out from the library by my husband, I picked it up on Saturday to casually flip through the first chapter and was immediately drawn into the story. Although it was unlike any book I have read in recent memory — and quite unlike books I usually seek out to read — I found it both gorgeously written and totally engrossing. Punke’s historical fiction novel is set in 1823 and focuses on the men fighting to press further westward into the frontier, exploring unmapped sections of the upper Midwest and hoping to make a fortune off the riches of the land. Considered a western, this book centers on a largely lawless time and place, but do not expect the Hollywood version of horse chases and cowboys squaring off at noon. Rather this story is richly grounded in fact, not fiction, and told with such precise language that you are transported to the wild forests and rivers of (modern day) Nebraska, Missouri, and South Dakota.

Punke’s style is reflective both of his work as a reporter — detailed, specific, descriptive but never tiresome — and also of his role as a history professor. Punke transforms the facts of the story from a historical footnote to a full fledged story. His words are so finely wrought and his plot so skillfully handled that it is as if Punke has brought a history textbook to life. While reading his passages we can see the herds of bison, hear the roar of the grizzly, and feel Glass’s pangs of hunger and the agony of his wounds. His style is undeniably masculine, as is his subject matter, but not in the abrupt, sparse prose of Hemingway or McCarthy. His details are so precise, his images so rich, and his characters so full-bodied that the story springs to life as vivid and visceral as if we are experiencing it ourselves.

Although much has been made about The Revenant being a revenge story, that is almost a secondary part of the book. At its heart it is a story about the lure the West and the wilderness has on men and the skills it takes to build a life in a most inhospitable place. “From the west Hugh felt a tantalizing lure of terra incognita, of freedom unmatched, of fresh beginnings,” not only could a man make his fortune there but he could also test his wits and strength in the most vital of ways — by learning to stay alive in a place that most definitely hoped to see him dead.  The men in the story can only survive because of the vast number of skills they employ. Their very lives depend on their ability to: hunt, shoot, track, trap, forage, skin, smoke, preserve, cook, sew, tend wounds, walk (as many as 30 miles per day), hike, row, climb, navigate, and hide from enemies. Almost more important, the characters must have the mental stamina to handle cold, fear, exhaustion, starvation, and pain all while outwitting wild animals and hostile local inhabitants. In the most real way, Punke is drawing a picture of the men who dragged the country west by sheer perseverance, pushing onward even in the face of certain death.

In the story we meet Hugh Glass and a company of trappers who have been employed to scout out the river systems northwest of St. Louis and bring back a fortune in the currency of animal pelts. The men are besieged by native Americans and bad luck from the outset, none more so than Hugh. Hugh is attacked by a grizzly, mortally wounded, and left for dead by his company. Only he refuses to die, he musters every ounce of cunning, strength and grit he possesses to recover and return to safety. His rage of being left is the fuel for his journey, he is intent upon finding the men who not only left him for dead, but who stole all of his possessions and weapons, leaving him no resources with which to survive. This was the ultimate act of murder to a man in the wild.

“Though no law was written, there was a crude rule of law, adherence to a covenant that transcended their selfish interests. It was biblical in its depth and its importance grew with each step into the wilderness. When the need arose, a man extended a helping hand to his friends, to partners, to strangers. In doing so, each knew that his own survival might one day depend upon the reaching grasp of another.”

In all, Revenant, is a stunning book that will thrill readers, even those — like me — who have never felt the call the wild. Through Punke incomparable prose, you will experience a time and place, though long gone, so clearly brought to life that feels as if it could have happened yesterday.

HughGlass-map

A map showing the territory covered by the characters in The Revenant, with important events highlighted.

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One thought on “The Revenant by Michael Punke (2002)

  1. My thirteen year old son picked this book up this weekend and read the entire book in four hours! He told me that he was “amazed how awesome” it was, like “social studies only interesting.” If you can get a teenager to admit anything you like is “awesome” it is a coup.

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