The nation we call the United States of America looms so large in the collective imagination that it sometimes feels as if it must always have been there in its current form, immutable, spanning the continent from sea to shining sea; it’s easy to forget that during much of the 19th century it was still a political entity very much in flux. At the end of the War of Independence in 1783, the United States only occupied about a third of the area it does now. The Louisiana Purchase of 1803 brought this up to about two thirds, but it wasn’t until the 1846 treaty with the United Kingdom which secured Idaho, Oregon and Washington State that it finally stretched all the way from the Atlantic to the Pacific, and it wasn’t until the Mexican Cession of 1848 that it came to incorporate what are now the states of California, Nevada, Utah and Arizona, and assumed something approximating its current shape.
So when 35-year-old widower Cy Bellman, the hero of Carys Davies’ new novel, sets off from his farm in Pennsylvania in 1815 and starts heading west, planning to travel in that direction for a thousand miles or more to explore the Missouri River and the “large, vacant places beyond,” he is venturing into territory which may nominally have been part of the United States for just over a decade, but which in reality is about as familiar to the average east-coast farmer as the surface of the moon.
And it’s this lack of familiarity with the American interior that allows Davies to get away with her unlikely-but-inspired central conceit: the reason Bellman wants to travel west is because he has read in a newspaper that enormous animal bones have been found in a swamp in Kentucky. He believes there might be more giant creatures just like them “alive and perambulating out there in the unknown” and he has made up his mind that he will be the first person to find them. The nature of his obsession – his serene, almost religious conviction – is captured in a scene in which he breaks the news to his sister, Julie.
“Quietly, almost reverently, and with a kind of childlike wonderment, he said, ‘If they are out there, Julie, then I will be the one to return with news of their existence. Wouldn’t that be a great thing?’”
To say that Julie Bellman isn’t entirely enthusiastic about her brother’s proposed dinosaur hunt would be putting it mildly, not least because he intends to leave her to look after his ten-year-old daughter, Bess. On the day he rides off on his horse, Julie calls him a fool and tells Bess to forget about him, but Bess thinks he looks “grand and purposeful and brave... intelligent and romantic and adventurous... She did not ever doubt that she would see him again.”
Although it is never explicitly stated, there is something of Don Quixote about Bellman – the same mixture of ridiculousness and nobility, neatly emblematised in the somewhat impractical stovepipe hat he buys for his adventure – and before long he finds his Sancho Panza, a Shawnee boy called Old Woman from a Distance who he hires as a guide, and who, in spite of his unpromising name, eventually turns out to be a whole lot more than a comedy sidekick. Indeed, as West progresses it becomes less about Bellman and his quest and more about the next generation: Bess, left to defend herself from the unwanted attentions of small-minded, small-town men during her father’s absence, and Old Woman at a Distance, who is struggling to reconcile his rage about past injustices at the hands of white men with his sense that they might perhaps be his ticket to a brighter future all the same.
West has been described as myth-like, and there’s certainly a sense in which it operates as a framework for considering age-old themes, yet its characters never feel less than fully human, the world they inhabit never less than fully imagined, and for its final third it’s a real page-turner, too. A magnificent achievement.
West, by Carys Davies, Granta, 149pp, £12.99