Man Against the Elements, Alone on the Prairie

Hugo Glass survives a brutal attack to pursue those who left him to die in this retelling, based on true events during the frontier winter of 1823-1824.

The Revenant: A Novel of Revenge

Publisher: Picador
Length: 272 pages
Author: Michael Punke
Price: $26.00
Format: Hardcover
Publication date: 2015-01

Attacked by a grizzly, soon after left to die as his fellow trappers flee an attack by natives, forced to crawl and scoot along to escape capture, Hugh Glass' epic story of survival led him through the winter of 1823-1824 across much of the Great Plains. He forced himself to cross 200 miles of frozen frontier to the nearest fort. There, he recovered enough to continue his pursuit of the two men who had abandoned him and who had stolen his knife and his rifle.

Michael Punke's The Revenant: A Novel of Revenge dramatizes true events. They lend themselves to a vivid storyline. This reissue, after the novel's release in 2002, presages this autumn's film adaptation now being shot in Alberta, starring Leonardo DiCaprio, directed by Alejandro González Iñárritu.

Punke, a Wyoming-raised and Montana-based law professor when he published this, is now an ambassador to the World Trade Organization. Having written two histories of the West, he uses harsh and vast settings well. He adapts the frontier enterprise of the Rocky Mountain Fur Company, as he notes in an afterword, to highlight the plot potential in trapper-tracker Glass' tale. The opening scenes, as Glass fends off the bear, encourage vivid imagery. Slashed across his back, his leg and arm battered, his throat punctured, Glass' scalp is nearly torn away. "The skin was so loose that it was almost like placing a fallen hat on a bald man."

However, the author prefers an unadorned style. Such descriptions as just quoted are rare. Instead, the stolid personality of dogged Glass dominates this book. Punke prefers a spare quality, fitting the torment and loneliness of Glass. Having previously survived press-ganging by pirate Jean Lafitte and then an escape into Texas where Glass was taken in for a year by the Pawnee, he hunkers down, bent on survival. Wounded and unable to walk, he still skins a rattler, fends off wolves to grab his share of a freshly killed lamb, and improvises a trap for mice, which he will roast and eat. This predicament energizes his desperation after he is left to fend for himself, hiding from the Arikara, in pain and alone on the prairie as the cold season closes in. Punke integrates his research on survival skills, and this material matches the rugged backdrop.

As the subtitle emphasizes, Glass seeks revenge. "He vowed to survive, if for no other reason than to visit vengeance on the men who betrayed him." But Glass, in Punke's portrayal, seems more eager to outlast the frigid conditions than to mull over his fate. Reduced to rags, pitted against the weather, Glass keeps our interest more by his cunning than his character. He lacks an ability, in Punke's understated mood, to explore what may lurk inside. So, the reader finds interest more in how to make a fire in a blizzard, why Glass helps an old, blind Arikara woman left by herself in an ravaged village, or what happens when two Shoshone boys out for a hunt stumble upon Glass later in his trek.

Glass is not given to elaboration. On meeting the voyageurs who will ferry him to a fort for healing, he sums up his back story in full. "Big grizzly attacked me on the Grand. Captain Henry left John Fitzgerald and Jim Bridger behind to bury me when I died. They robbed me instead. I aim to recover what's mine and to see justice done." That is it. His listeners, ready for a long night's yarn, are baffled.

So might we be. But seen mainly through Glass' eyes, little of the landscape registers, save what signals threat, nourishment, movement, ease, or endurance. "The colder weather settled into Glass' wounds the way a storm creeps up a mountain valley." That phrase seems more Punke's in its occasional embellishment than it does one emanating from terse Glass. However, later in his journey, as he sees peaks rising beyond Yellowstone River, "there was a sense of sacrament that flowed from the mountains like a font, an immortality that made his quotidian pains seem inconsequential".

Near the conclusion, Glass ponders the vistas he will soon turn away from as he loops back from his vantage point of the Rockies. "He searched for Orion, dominant on the eastern horizon, Orion the hunter, his vengeful sword poised to strike." Punke integrates this symbol into the last chapters of his novel, and the situation Glass finds himself in as he pursues revenge lingers, as if in biblical lessons.

This review itself remains rather evasive, to avoid spoilers. The implicit tension of watching Glass as he forces himself back to health and pushes himself along in nearly unbelievable situations, will leave an indelible impression. Despite Punke's tendency to shy away from some of the questions one may ask about Glass' inner self, the author conveys in this story's best moments a relentless energy that infuses this primal saga.





90 Years on 'Olivia' Remains a Classic of Lesbian Literature

It's good that we have our happy LGBTQ stories today, but it's also important to appreciate and understand the daunting depths of feeling that a love repressed can produce. In Dorothy Strachey's case, it produced the masterful Olivia.


Indie Rocker Alpha Cat Presents 'Live at Vox Pop' (album stream)

A raw live set from Brooklyn in the summer of 2005 found Alpha Cat returning to the stage after personal tumult. Sales benefit organizations seeking to end discrimination toward those seeking help with mental health issues.

Love in the Time of Coronavirus

A Lesson from the Avengers for Our Time of COVID-19

Whereas the heroes in Avengers: Endgame stew for five years, our grief has barely taken us to the after-credit sequence. Someone page Captain Marvel, please.


Between the Grooves of Nirvana's 'Nevermind'

Our writers undertake a track-by-track analysis of the most celebrated album of the 1990s: Nirvana's Nevermind. From the surprise hit that brought grunge to the masses, to the hidden cacophonous noise-fest that may not even be on your copy of the record, it's all here.


Deeper Graves Arrives via 'Open Roads' (album stream)

Chrome Waves, ex-Nachtmystium man Jeff Wilson offers up solo debut, Open Roads, featuring dark and remarkable sounds in tune with Sisters of Mercy and Bauhaus.

Featured: Top of Home Page

The 50 Best Albums of 2020 So Far

Even in the coronavirus-shortened record release schedule of 2020, the year has offered a mountainous feast of sublime music. The 50 best albums of 2020 so far are an eclectic and increasingly "woke" bunch.


First Tragedy, Then Farce, Then What?

Riffing off Marx's riff on Hegel on history, art historian and critic Hal Foster contemplates political culture and cultural politics in the age of Donald Trump in What Comes After Farce?


HAIM Create Their Best Album with 'Women in Music Pt. III'

On Women in Music Pt. III, HAIM are done pretending and ready to be themselves. By learning to embrace the power in their weakest points, the group have created their best work to date.


Amnesia Scanner's 'Tearless' Aesthetically Maps the Failing Anthropocene

Amnesia Scanner's Tearless aesthetically maps the failing Anthropocene through its globally connected features and experimental mesh of deconstructed club, reggaeton, and metalcore.


How Lasting Is the Legacy of the Live 8 Charity Concert?

A voyage to the bottom of a T-shirt drawer prompts a look back at a major event in the history of celebrity charity concerts, 2005's Live 8, Philadelphia.


Jessie Ware Embraces Her Club Culture Roots on Rapturous 'What's Your Pleasure?'

British diva Jessie Ware cooks up a glittery collection of hedonistic disco tracks and delivers one of the year's best records with What's Your Pleasure.


Paul Weller Dazzles with the Psychedelic and Soulful 'On Sunset'

Paul Weller's On Sunset continues his recent streak of experimental yet tuneful masterworks. More than 40 years into his musical career, Weller sounds as fresh and inspired as ever.

Collapse Expand Reviews

Collapse Expand Features
PM Picks
Collapse Expand Pm Picks

© 1999-2020 All rights reserved.
PopMatters is wholly independent, women-owned and operated.