Desert yarn

This is my review of St. Agnes’ Stand by Thomas Eidson.

This is not a typical western, even if at first handsome, tough and wily loner, Nat Swanson seems like standard material for the hero of one. As he rides through the desert wastes of New Mexico en route for a new life in California, on the run from a trio bent on avenging the death of a man he has just killed for reasons not fully explained, Swanson comes across two wagons ambushed by Apaches. Haunted by the face of a woman he has glimpsed at a window, he is drawn into offering help, only to find himself trapped in the apparently impossible task of saving a nun convinced he has been sent by God and the companions he has not bargained for, including several vulnerable children.

""The intense heat and wind were playing with the air, making it warp and shimmer over the land." What sets this novel apart from most westerns is the author’s skill not only in capturing a sense of the striking landscape but also in entering into the characters’ minds on both sides, so that we are half-able to identify even with the dilemma of the cunning, brutal Apache leader. Both Swanson and the nun are brought at times to question their actions and beliefs. Most of all, Eidson has a gift for creating a sense of tension, which is evident from the first pages as Swanson looks out for the slightest sign that he is being followed.

In his desire to hold the reader, Eidson does not shy away from images of gratuitous brutality which linger too long in one’s memory, nor from indulging in far-fetched plot twists. Suffering from multiple wounds and exhaustion, how on earth does Swanson manage to scale cliffs and hit targets with his crossbow, let alone carry packs containing blankets and even the luxury of coffee? Yet despite feeling disturbed or irritated by all this, combined with unease over the negative portrayal of the Indians and the dollops of sentimentality which are combined too casually with all the violence, this book is a page turner.

The author describes himself as inspired by a strong oral tradition of spinning yarns, and this tale reminds me of Norse legends, in which there is a thread of morality and spirituality beneath the thud, blunder and exaggeration.

⭐⭐⭐⭐ 4 Stars

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