This is my review of The Revenant by Michael Punke.
I was impressed by the visceral and bleakly beautiful film “The Revenant”, the tale of a man’s survival against the odds in the American wilderness of the 1820s, having being abandoned by the two members of a fur-trapping team paid to care for him after he had been mauled by a grizzly bear. Curious to see how the somewhat ambiguous ending compared with that of the book on which the film is based, I discovered that the written medium gives scope for a much more detailed and complex, in some ways more realistic storyline, which does not need to be padded out with images of the dead Indian squaw who haunts the injured man Hugh Glass’s memory, nor with a murdered son to feed his revenge against the men who wronged him, nor any implausibly long battle with the bear, nor ploys like climbing inside the body of a dead animal, having removed the entrails, for cover. Instead, in addition to the predictable swashbuckling battles with Indians, wolves and the elements, there is also some strong character development, interwoven with details of the history of the period and descriptions of, how, for instance, men could construct “bullboats” out of buffalo hide, sewn together, stretched over frames of willow branches and caulked with grease to provide shallow-draft craft to punt down-river.
A number of characters really existed, including Glass who really survived a bear attack, Bridger who was one of those abandoning him but lived to become a revered pioneer, Ashley who was the ill-fated leader of the Rocky Mountain Fur Company to name only a few. Understandably mainly hostile to the European interlopers, the Indians, some alleged to be cannibals like the fierce Arikara tribe, were a continuous threat, sabotaging the trappers by stealing their horses when not firing arrows. The map of the famous explorer Clark, trained in cartography, “was the marvel of its day, surpassing in detail and accuracy anything produced before it” but when he at last got sight of a copy, Glass was most interested in details added recently which would help him to travel back to his team’s base at Fort Union, and he in turn was “peppered” with questions as to any information he could provide about lengths of rivers between forks and useful landmarks: in this haphazard, painstaking way, vital data was pieced together.
There are some striking descriptions of the landscape: the lone, twisted pine growing from a crack where a seed dropped by a sparrow lodged far above the pines, straight as arrows, used by the Indians to construct their teepees; “the aching presence…magnetic force” of the Rockies, “the snowy mountain peaks, virgin white against the frigid blue sky”
Just occasionally my interest flagged as Glass used his resilience and ingenuity to overcome yet another setback, only to be knocked back yet again by some piece of ill-luck, yet the novel works wells as both an adventure yarn and an insight into why and how the early pioneers risked their lives to develop the west of America.