With his first novel, Gabriel's Story
, David Anthony Durham delivers a fresh take on the American frontier. The settlers aren't white men but emancipated slaves, whose journey into the promised land is driven by the harsh memory of captivity. Unlike the wagon-train pioneers we're used to reading about, Durham's characters are refugees of Reconstruction. Yet they're seduced by the same promises as their white counterparts--promises that anyone can be a landowner, that this land is your land, that it's only a matter of staking your claim.
The protagonist, 15-year-old Gabriel Lynch, wonders why his widowed mother falls for this propaganda. He sulks on the long train ride from New York to Kansas, pining for the humble brownstone apartment they're leaving behind. He dreads their arrival on the prairie and their rendezvous with his new stepfather, Solomon, a man the boy distrusts as virtually all teenage boys distrust their smiling, imperious stepfathers. Upon arriving at Solomon's sod house, Gabriel's contempt only increases: "It was a single room. The walls pushed into and cramped the space, making it feel much smaller on the inside than the shadow had indicated from the outside. It was smoky and moist and earthen all at once, with a smell unpleasant enough to contort Gabriel's face."
The patience required to cultivate the hard, unforgiving prairie isn't something Gabriel possesses, and soon he runs away--joining a gang of mostly white cowboys headed for Texas. Like the heroes in most Wild West novels, Gabriel seeks adventure. What he finds is racism, violence, and eventually murder. Compelling, suspenseful, and meticulously written, Gabriel's Story is an exploration of the idea of the frontier and the meaning of ownership, filtered through the narrator's cynical, over-the-hill teenage perspective. And Gabriel himself, who seems old beyond his years, is a memorable protagonist: a grouchy lost boy, impatient for his life to unfold. --Ellen Williams
From Publishers Weekly
The old West, both beautiful and brutal, is the setting of Durham's magnificently realized debut novel, a classic coming-of-age story of an African-American boy. Shortly after the Civil War, 15-year-old Gabriel Lynch, his mother and younger brother head out from Baltimore to meet Gabriel's new stepfather in Kansas, where the family hopes to make a fresh start as farmers. But Gabriel finds homesteading to be backbreaking and depressing and is soon lured away by cruel, charismatic Marshall Hogg, who's leading a group of cowboys down into Texas. It seems a dream come true for Gabriel, but then the nightmare begins. While bloated with whiskey, Marshall accidentally murders a man, precipitating a flight from the law that degenerates into a grotesque spree of burglary, rape, kidnapping and murder. Gabriel desperately wants to escape, but is prevented by Marshall's threats and the menacing presence of Caleb, a mute and shadowy figure. When Gabriel finally manages to free himself, the evil that he unwillingly witnessed follows him back homeAand threatens the people he loves most. Durham is a born storyteller: each step of Gabriel's descent into hell proceeds from the natural logic of the narrative itself, which manages to be inevitable even as it's totally surprising. Equally impressive is Durham's gift for describing the awful beauty of the American West: "The April sky was not a thing of air and gas," writes Durham. "Rather it lay like a solid ceiling of slate, pressing the living down into the prairie." The tale's racial dimension is subtly and intelligently developed, and though some readers may be turned off by the violence Gabriel witnesses, all will be impressed by Durham's maturity, skill and lovingly crafted prose. Agent, Sloan Harris. (Jan. 16) Forecast: Durham's view of 1800s history through the eyes of a hopeful African-American boy adds a new dimension to the perennially appealing theme of the lure of the West. Doubleday seems ready to get behind this novel with focused promotion, including an author tour; readers may take notice.
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