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Book Review: The Revenant by Michael Punke

 

Set in the unforgiving world of early nineteenth century America, The Revenant tells the story of Hugh Glass. An expert tracker with the Rocky Mountain Fur Company, Glass is traipsing through unchartered territory up the Missouri on a seemingly ill-fated venture with his troop. Faced with brutal opposition from the hostile Arikara tribe and unsure of allies, even within their own ranks, the group must rely on stealth to survive. The beauty of the Rocky Mountains and the vast openness of their horizon brutally contrast with the unrelenting hardships they must endure. When Glass is savagely mauled by a grizzly bear, death seems certain but he clings to life; the two men charged with caring for him in his final days ultimately abandon him, stealing his weapons. This cruel betrayal spurs Glass to survival against all odds, driven by revenge.

Glass’ sheer grit and determination to survive is breathtaking. Alone and without any means of defence, he literally drags his broken body through the undergrowth of the American plains. As if any further hardships were necessary in this almost super-human endurance, a harsh winter ensues and Glass must also contend with the full force of nature. In flashbacks which explore the origins of the book’s characters, we see that Glass has always had a thirst for adventure, working at sea from a young age. The inclusion of Elizabeth, a love interest with an unfortunate fate, humanises Glass, giving his character another dimension; though he is gruff and single-minded, he is shown to have a heart and an unwavering moral code. As Glass ponders his abandonment by Fitzgerald and Bridger, the narrative’s allegorical tone compares his quest for survival to being on ‘the road to Jericho’. The first food that Glass feeds on is a snake, a common mythological symbol often associated with the fight between good and evil.

If Hugh Glass represents what is good and right, Fitzgerald is the antithesis. Fitzgerald is portrayed as surly and provocative, with a penchant for violence and a scar which cuts a ‘permanent sneer through his beard’. Though Glass’ background is far from charmed, Fitzgerald’s back-story is darker still. Prolific gambling and the murder of a prostitute have resulted in a selfish, nomadic lifestyle. He agrees to stay behind to tend Glass only for monetary gain. Such is the extent of Glass’ wounds that Fitzgerald and Bridger expect him to last just a few days; they agree to stay behind and then give him as decent a burial as possible. Bridger’s reasons are not entirely altruistic but he is certainly the more benevolent of the pair. Still viewed as a boy by his comrades, Bridger is keen to prove his worth and earn the respect of his peers. Left with Fitzgerald’s dominating presence as the rest of the troop resume their venture, Bridger is somewhat intimidated. Against Fitzgerald’s wishes, Bridger attempts to help Glass, but when faced with approaching Indians, Bridger panics and follows Fitzgerald into the woods.

The Revenant has famously been recently adapted into a big budget film, duly renewing interest in the novel. It is, in part, a historical novel, drawing on real accounts from the time. The life of Hugh Glass has been well-documented; Punke sticks to the main outline of his story while creatively expanding on certain details. For such a dramatic, awe-inspiring journey, perhaps the chosen ending is underwhelming. As a testament to human endurance, The Revenant tells a thrilling tale but as a revenge story, it lacks that final punch. However, it is undoubtedly worth a read for the glimpse into this unique period in history and Punke’s fantastically descriptive narrative.

 Written by Keri Wilson


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