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The Revenant by Michael Punke

Writing.ie | Historical Fiction

By Justine McGrath at http://www.thebookclubcafe.com

‘Avenge not yourselves, but rather give place unto wrath: for it is written, Vengeance is mine; I will repay, saith the Lord.’ Rom.12:19

This quote at the beginning of ‘The Revenant’ is the paradox all humans face when wronged. In certain situations, it seems impossible not to seek and desire revenge, despite what both spiritual and religious beliefs may set out to teach. The main character in this novel had more desire and reason than most for revenge.

Although I am sure he is delighted by all the attention his book is now receiving, I would imagine it must grate a bit with Michael Punke, whose book was originally published in 2002, to only be receiving the recognition it always deserved, some 13 years later, due to a film release starring Leonardo Di Caprio. However, it is great to see this novel now receiving all the plaudits it deserves.

Based on true events Punke’s novel is an incredible tale of one man’s desire for revenge, after being left for dead following an attack by a grizzly bear. What a premise for a story! What makes it all the more incredible is that the main character Hugh Glass did exist, and was indeed attacked by a grizzly bear and survived.

What lengths would you go to when left for dead by those who are meant to be those caring for you? Left in the toughest terrain in the world, at risk of death from any number of native tribes and hunters. Not only that, but abandoning you with no hope of survival by stealing your gun and all your belongings.

This is a story of true survival. Survival against the most extreme odds. Survival at any cost, motivated by the deepest desire for revenge on those who have so wronged you.

The setting is the harsh land of the plains and rivers surrounded by the Missouri and the Rockies. The year is 1823, and for the traders of the Rocky Mountain Fur company, life doesn’t get any harsher. The novel begins with Captain Henry who, due to a series of unfortunate incidents, feels himself cursed, and so it appears to be. He is in charge of the trappers of the Rocky Mountain Fur company for his boss, businessman William Ashley. During his previous expedition he lost many men to an attack by the ‘Blackfeet’ one of the many hostile groups of indigenous tribes in the area. They were also attacked by The Arikara, a violent tribe who have no love whatsoever for the white man and who kill upon sight.

The story is told from multiple points of view. The viewpoint changes according to whichever character is telling the story. This adds a richness and an interest to the story, and it also removes the possibility of an unreliable narrator. It lends a realism and an added interest to the narrative.

The author has very astutely provided a very clear map at the beginning of the book, which is useful for reference purposes, as several of the characters navigate the harsh landscape in this area.

This group of trappers face the harshest conditions possible. They face attack from any number of tribes. They face hunger – if they don’t hunt and kill, they don’t eat. Every day they must hunt and find food. Sometimes they must survive on jerky for several days or even weeks, until they manage to make a kill. On top of all that they must traverse the harshest possible terrain of fast flowing rivers, rocky and uninhabitable ground, and constant risk from predators; the Sioux Indians and the Arikara.

Hugh Glass is a heroic character. He is taken into the confidence of Captain Henry. He helps the other trackers and is the one individual in the group who has the most knowledge and is the best tracker.
The attack by the grizzly bear is described in gory detail:
‘She bit into the back of his neck and lifted him off the ground, shaking him so hard that Glass wondered if his spine might snap. He felt the crunch of her teeth striking the bone of his shoulder blade. Claws raked repeatedly through the flesh of his back and scalp. He screamed in agony. She dropped him then sank her teeth deep into his thigh.’
Left for dead, he is found by his troupe. They try to help him and carry him for three days. When it becomes clear they can go no further, two men are left to care for him, Fitzgerald and Bridger. Fitzgerald steals his beloved Anstadt gun and his other belongings and he and Bridger flee.

The story follows the most extraordinary journey of Glass’s quest for survival. Like the fast flowing river, he is thrown into a situation over which he has no control.
Glass’s gun is practically a character in its own right. Such is Glass’s love for his Anstadt gun, there are many descriptions of it and his love for it is clear. He sees it as an object of extreme beauty. It is his protection and his main means of survival. A lyrical description is given:
‘The Anstadt caught the light and held it, the silver fittings gleaming like mirrors in the sun.’

As Glass dreams of revenge, both Bridger and Fitzgerald’s stories are told as they face their own demons.

Punke has amassed a huge amount of knowledge, both about the region, the time period and it is an awe-inspiring, jaw dropping tale of adventure.
Michael Punke has done more than write just an adventure, he has written a novel with wholly realistic complex and fascinating characters, and the lengths to which humans will go when their very survival is threatened.
A brilliant, fast-paced, stylish and unique novel. I highly recommend it.

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