Candy Moulton: Reading the West 11-7-11
November 8, 2011
Willard Wyman won two Spur awards from Western Writers of America for his first novel, “High Country,” taking one because it was his first novel and another as best Novel of the West. In that book he introduced Ty Hardin, a young man who finds himself learning life lessons while working as a horse packer in the Montana and Sierra Nevada high country.
That book was drawn from Wyman’s own experiences. Now he unveils another solid novel in “Blue Heaven.” From the dramatic opening scene – a wreck of the train hauling Buffalo Bill Cody’s Wild West – to the poignant conclusion where two young men head off to war, Wyman delivers a solid cast of characters and compelling story.
And if you’ve read “High Country,” you will recognize most of them for “Blue Heaven” is a prequel. This novel is the story of Fenton Pardee, a young stock-handler who packed a string of surviving mules after the wreck of Cody’s train, and headed back into the West, ultimately meeting Tommy Yellowtail, a Flathead Indian who struggles with drinking, and the difficulty of dealing with the loss of his tribe’s culture at the hands of Black Robes and white men.
It takes little time upon their meeting for Pardee to recognize opportunity. He will take Yellowtail’s horses, turn them into trail mounts, obtain a string of mules from Eban Hardin and begin exploring the land of Montana’s Swan Valley and the region that would eventually become the Bob Marshall Wilderness. He would earn a living by sharing this country with visitors, taking them along rugged mountain trails to isolated camps.
While this is a story of one strong man, Fenton Pardee, it also is multi-faceted with other equally interesting people, including Cody Jo, the woman who left a life in more developed areas to the east to become a school teacher and who found her life’s center with Pardee and his mountains. And it is the story of Tommy Yellowtail who struggles in his relationship with the one woman who truly captures his soul.
Wyman, a former literature instructor and dean at Colby College and Stanford University, is Headmaster Emeritus of The Thacher School. He tells this story with skill and grace ending, as a good prequel will do, by introducing Ty Hardin, the character who is central in High Country.
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This is a story that delivers interesting, fully-realized characters and a description of a country where people still retreat to find solace and inspiration from the land.