Mountain Man, by Vardis Fisher

If you've followed this blog, you know that I read a lot of books each year. I also subscribe to the London Review of Books, read other reviews online, and am a member of “Goodreads”: When my son moved to Canada, he introduced me to a slew of wonderful authors who were unknown here in the U.S., several of whom I now count among my top ten favorite authors. Since then, I've made an effort to learn about books by writers from a variety of countries, nearly always in translation unfortunately, but still widening my experience. I've also attended Toronto's International Festival of Authors several times.

All this is to say that I've at least heard of a lot of authors. Still, my friend whom we'll call DAP managed to stump me when he said that his favorite author was Vardis Fisher. That's not a name easily forgotten! I'd never heard of him. So of course I consulted my wonderful local library and selected this book.

Mountain Man is Fisher's most famous book. It's the basis for the film, Jeremiah Johnson starring Robert Redford, a film I've never seen (my film knowledge is much more limited than my knowledge of books!).

Named Samson for his huge size, Sam Minard left his family back in New York state for a brief trip to see the still-unsettled west and fell in love with the mountains and the independent life he found there. Strong and self-reliant, he knows where in the wilderness he's likely to find his friends, the other mountain men who sell furs to purchase the few necessaries, like coffee and tobacco, that they cannot provide for themselves.

Reveling in his freedom and the beauty of his world, Sam responds with the music he learned from his father: “He had learned that playing Bach and Mozart arias [on his mouth organ] when in enemy country was not only good for his loneliness; the music filled skulking Indians with awe.” Many of the descriptions throughout the book use musical terms, as he hears symphonies in the stars and opera in the storms.

Sam is about to add two commitments to his currently loose ties with the other mountain men, one accidentally and one on purpose. He comes across a woman, Kate Bowden, who in a blinding rage has just killed the four Blackfeet who killed her three children. Her husband has been carried off by the rest of the band, and now she has dropped to her knees beside her children and lost all sense of anything outside of them.

Sam buries the children and builds her a little house, though she still seems completely unaware of him and the food he puts in front of her. He has to move on, but spreads the word among his friends and they look in on her when they are near.

He has to get on because he is ready for a wife and knows who he wants, the daughter of a Crow chief. This part of the story alone is worth reading the book for, the negotiations with her father, the way he and the young woman get to know each other without a common language, the way he reacts to this tumultuous change in his life.

I loved this book. The characters fascinated me, especially Kate and the trajectory of her life, but also Sam. The descriptions of a west that no longer exists enthralled me. And I loved all the stories about the other mountain men that they told each other, many of them lies or exaggerations, but true for all that. At one point he imagines what the others are up to at that moment: “in what deep impenetrable thicket tall skinny Bill Williams had hidden from the red warriors, his high squeaky voice silenced for the night; by what fire with its cedar and coffee aroma Wind River Bill was spinning his yarns and saying, ‘I love the wimmins, I shorely do'; in what Spanish village short blond Kit Carson was dancing the soup dance with black-eyed senoritas; what tall tales Jim Bridger was telling to bug-eyed greenhorns from a wagon train that stopped this day at his post to get horses shod and tires set . . .” Scattered throughout Sam's story are these tales of men who relished the independence of life in the mountains.

I'm grateful to my friend, DAP, for recommending this author. What books have your friends recommended that you've liked?

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