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Far Bright Starby Robert Olmstead
Synopses & Reviews
The year is 1916. The enemy Pancho Villa, is elusive. The terrain is unforgiving, the intense heat and dust both relentless and overpowering. Through the mountains and across the long dry stretches of Mexico, Napoleon Childs, an aging cavalryman, leads an expedition of inexperienced horse soldiers on seemingly fruitless searches.
Napoleon has weathered the storms of battle with a toughness that has become like a second skin, with the Rattler, a horse who's as flinty and seasoned as he. But this time, Napoleon can't control one of his young soldiers who has a penchant for reckless, dramatic actions--and who singlehandedly, in his desire to prove himself, makes a move that is the beginning of the end. Before long, Napoleon's patrol is at the mercy of an enemy who is intent not only on killing Napoleon's men but on something much bigger: avenging a brutal act.
Robert Olmstead describes the experience of battle so viscerally that the reader feels the fear, the danger, and the dread. With the precision of a master, he tells the harrowing and transfixing story of the last of these intrepid warriors.
"In his seventh novel, Olmstead (Coal Black Horse) delivers another richly characterized, tightly woven story of nature, inevitability and the human condition. In 1916, the aging Napoleon Childs assembles a cavalry to search for the elusive bandit Pancho Villa in Mexico. The ragtag group includes Napoleon's brother, Xenophon, and 'America's eager export of losers, deadbeats, cutthroats, dilettantes, and murderers.' Riding on horseback for months at a time, Napoleon finds himself and his men always just a few hours behind Villa, whose posse navigates the unforgiving terrain with ease. When a band of marauders descend upon the group, many of Napoleon's men are brutally slaughtered and Napoleon himself is left beaten and emotionally broken. After the attack, Napoleon proclaims to his brother that the person he was died out there. But this revelation doesn't last long, and soon Napoleon sets out on yet another date with destiny on the open plains with his followers. Reminiscent of Kent Haruf, Olmstead's brilliantly expressive, condensed tale of resilience and dusty determination flows with the kind of literary cadence few writers have mastered." Publishers Weekly (Starred Review) (Copyright Reed Business Information, Inc.)
It is 1916, and an expedition of American soldiers has been dispatched to Mexico in search of Pancho Villa. They are a sorry lot — "freebooters, felons, Christians, drifters, patriots ... surgeons, mechanics, assassins," writes Robert Olmstead at the opening of this intense, short novel. "They claimed to be marksmen and veterans of battles no one ever heard of. ... They (are) the future dead." ... Washington Post Book Review (read the entire Washington Post review) The soldiers have their own reasons for being in Mexico. The expedition is "a stage for so many men to play out their ambitions and imaginations," observes their leader, a laconic veteran named Napoleon. (Don't be so quick to laugh at his name; his brother is Xenophon.) Only one other soldier, called Extra Billy, is seasoned. The others are greenhorns, men Napoleon wouldn't choose for battle, men like Preston, who is educated but arrogant and wants to add a human being to his list of animal kills. They are the luck of the draw for Napoleon, who must lead them into the harsh Mexican desert, into a land hardened by the sun, into an ambush that most of them will not survive. Napoleon and Extra Billy see the signs that something isn't right, but preparing the men for battle, Napoleon doesn't tell them they are second-raters. "I wouldn't have no other company for it, not for all the tea in China," he reassures them as they are about to be overwhelmed by an enemy he doesn't recognize. The foes who trap them are not Villa's people, but who are they? A ragtag band of guerrillas? Sly villagers who mix with the expedition in camp and then stalk the Americans in the desert? Whoever they are, they slaughter almost all the ambushed troopers. Napoleon is stripped naked and left to die in the searing rays of the sun. His tongue swollen, his feet shredded by rocks and cactuses, he struggles to survive with only his hat and a gun. "I must live ... I still think I can and I still think there is a reason to," he tells himself. "I'd rather not go just yet," he says to the stranger who appears in a hallucination. In his crazed state, he ponders the viciousness of the attack, making no sense of it beyond the wickedness of men. He remembers past battles from the Indian wars to the Philippines and a career as a warrior. He recalls his boyhood and wonders whether it all has been worthwhile. Nonetheless, "for all the horror of this world it was still his own and he was not done and he'd not give himself over," Olmstead tells us. So Napoleon stumbles on, not knowing reality from delusion, not sure if he is alive or dead. "Far Bright Star" makes the reader bleed with the characters and sweat with the intensity of the sun. The unexplained evil and the cheapness of life are offset by the humanity and dignity of both Napoleon and Xenophon. There is a bond between these two men, set in boyhood. And of course, there is a bond between Napoleon and his horse. After all, Olmstead is the author of that moving tribute to equine loyalty, "Coal Black Horse." In this, his seventh book, Olmstead writes with a gritty style as sparse as the landscape itself: "It's surely gonna be hot today," says one of the soldiers to another. "Don't talk about it." "It's gonna be hot enough to put hell out of business." "What'd I say?" And Olmstead's humor is as dry as the sunbaked land, too. Early in the book, Napoleon rescues an old man suffering from sun, starvation and an infected finger that has to be cut off. Before the crude surgery, the soldier shares a can of tuna fish with the old coot, who asks, "Do you have any coconut pie?" Such moments of levity grace a dark story filled with harshness and brutality. As good as that story is, however, it's Olmstead's knife-edge paring of words that makes "Far Bright Star" such a fine work of fiction. Reviewed by Sandra Dallas, whose most recent novel is 'Prayers for Sale', Washington Post Book World (Copyright 2006 Washington Post Book World Service/Washington Post Writers Group)
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"Brutal, tender and magnificent." Kirkus Reviews
"The spare, often poetic prose conveys the raw violence, brutality, and quixotic actions of people at war." Booklist
"Verbal precision and historical accuracy combine with a poetic distillation of a tragic event presented in solidly captivating reading experience that haunts the mind long after the final page is turned. Dallas Morning News
"In this, his seventh book, Olmstead writes with a gritty style as sparse as the landscape itself....And Olmstead's humor is as dry as the sunbaked land, too. Washington Post
The year is 1916. The enemy, Pancho Villa, is elusive. Terrain is unforgiving. Through the mountains and across the long dry stretches of Mexico, Napoleon Childs, an aging cavalryman, leads an expedition of inexperienced horse soldiers on seemingly fruitless searches. Though he is seasoned at such missions, things go terribly wrong, and his patrol is suddenly at the mercy of an enemy intent on their destruction. After witnessing the demise of his troops, Napoleon is left by his captors to die in the desert.
Through him we enter the conflicted mind of a warrior as he tries to survive against all odds, as he seeks to make sense of a lifetime of senseless wars and to reckon with the reasons a man would choose a life on the battlefield. Olmstead, an award-winning writer, has created a tightly wound novel that is as moving as it is terrifying.
About the Author
Robert Olmstead is the author of six previous books. Coal Black Horse was the winner of the Heartland Prize for Fiction and the Ohioana Award, was a #1 Book Sense Pick, and was a Borders Original Voices pick. Olmstead is the recipient of a Guggenheim fellowship and an NEA grant, and he is a professor at Ohio Wesleyan University.
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