by Durham, David Anthony
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
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