This is an amazing book, one that, after you read the last sentence, you close it slowly and hug it to your chest. It’s a steady, quiet story with strong ties to the landscape. It’s often categorized as a Western, but it’s so much more than that.
Set in the 1850s on the border of the frontier, Thompson Grey is walking west from Indiana to start a new life. He is burdened with grief from a recent tragedy for which he blames himself. It’s unclear if he’s leaving his home because he has no where else to go and nothing to stay for, or if he’s trying to outrun his memories. Along the way he encounters a wagon train also traveling west to find new land. The leader is Captain Upperdine, who’s interested in establishing commerce and trade in new towns popping up in the west.
Crossing Purgatory captures the harshness of the land, the cruel unpredictability of farming, the near-starvation in the fierce winters. The characters are stoic and taciturn, and the prose is sparse. There is a storm of grasshoppers, unrelenting danger of natives and thieves, and drought. The characters are trying to scrape by, and at the same time trying to overcome their pasts while planning for the future. Eking out a living on the Purgatoire River is test of faith and character.
Crossing Purgatory reads like a melancholy Steinbeck or a more coherent Faulkner. If you like introspective novels with strong character development and superbly-crafted writing, I recommend it highly.