I recently read The Homesman by Glendon Swarthout. It was written in 1988. I was not familiarThe Homesman won two awards in that category. It has been made into a movie starring Tommy Lee Jones as the homesman. I am looking forward to seeing it.
The Homesman takes place in Nebraska in the 1850’s. I found the story very interesting. It is primarily about the women pioneers and how difficult life was. For many women (and probably men) the hard life shattered both their mental and physical health. The families were unable to care for the women, and so a homesman would be found to escort the women back East to their families there or to institutions where they would be cared for.
In the book, four of the wives living in the area had gone mad, and something needed to be done for them. However, none of the men in the area would step up to take the women back East, so a spinster, Mary Bee Cuddy, volunteered to take them back to Iowa where there were people who would then take the women on to their final destination. As Mary Bee was making preparations for the journey (which would take four or five weeks in a covered wagon), she came upon a man hanging from a tree, a noose around his neck, still sitting on his horse (the point being when the horse took off, the man would be killed). It turned out that the man, George Briggs, had jumped claim to another man’s land while the man was gone, and the neighbors found him and rather than outright killing him, put him on his horse with a noose around his neck, thus avoiding killing him themselves. Mary Bee, knowing that she could not handle the four mad women by herself, agreed to save Mr. Briggs if he would do whatever she asked. He consented and, in that way, she got a companion to travel with her.
The journey was full of hardships, including Indian attacks, and bad weather. And, of course, two very different people traveling very close together.
I was surprised by how taken I was with this story. The stories of the four mad women were fascinating. The story ended up much differently than expected. One of my book groups read this and the other members did not like the ending. I kind of did like it…it was quite unexpected and it contrasted strength and resilience.
The very most interesting part for me was reading the Afterword of the book. The Afterword was written by Glendon Swarthout’s son and he described how the book was based on research and actual stories of the pioneer women. Fascinating.