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Wilderness by Roger Zelazny

Wilderness (1994)

by Roger Zelazny, Gerald Hausman (Author)

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My reaction to reading this novel in 1994. Spoilers follow.

This is only the fourth Western I’ve ever read, and I picked it up solely because Zelazny co-wrote it. Zelazny’s influence on the book is quite evident. (I can’t speak for Hausman – listed as an Indian expert – since I know only what the book has for bio material on him.) There are long poetical passages in this book that reminded me of Zelazny’s “The Dream Master”. There is also a nice poem at the novel’s end which shows Zelazny’s straight poetry skills as opposed to the poetical prose in the story. (Zelazny abandoned a career in poetry for the more lucrative business of prose.).

While I expected a straight tale of the incredible exploits of Western legends John Colter (who, nearly naked, eluded capture by Blackfoot warriors in a 150 mile chase in 1808) and Hugh Glass (after being mauled by a bear and left for dead by his friends – who also stripped him of all his gear – he crawled a 100 miles to safety in 1823) with lots of authentic historic lore being supplied by Hausman. Instead there are long passages of poetic depictions of Colter’s and Glass’ altered states of consciousness as they struggle to survive. This makes sense. The extremes of mental and physical privations they endured very well might have given them visions, feverish and otherwise. (I would be curious if Colter or Glass ever dictated (Colter couldn’t write) or wrote down an account of their journeys.) Colter often sees himself as a hawk soaring over the Earth. Glass imagines that the grizzly that attacked him has imbued him with its strength and dogged determination. He also spends a great deal of time contemplating revenge against Jamie, a young boy he adopted and who left him behind to die. (It was a nice revelation to learn that Jamie turns out to be a young Jim Bridger.) I was also surprised to learn how much help Colter received from a young Blackfoot boy who seems to regard hims as a spirit that the tribe should not mess with. Glass also meets up with the Sioux who help him as an old friend. I was also interested to learn of Glass’ former life as a sailor and unwilling – he was forced into it after being captured – life as a pirate with Jean Lafitte.

Towards the end of the novel, the novel gets mystical with Glass seeing a younger version of himself through Colter’s eyes. (This has been foreshadowed by streams of altered consciousness belonging to Colter in one chapter merging with Glass’ mind in the following chapter.) The authors, at this point, tie together what could very well have been two stand alone novellas about Colter and Glass individually. Each gets an alternating chapter, and I was surprised how quickly the authors get right to putting Colter and Glass into their respective trials. Glass and Colter meet each other in St. Louis in 1812. Glass, on his crawl, remembers that a special air hung about Colter, almost a shamanistic presence, and Colter, in their meeting, sees something special in Glass and says “you’ll outcrawl the likes of me”. (I liked how Zelazny and Hausman restrict their details of Glass’ and Colter’s past to flashbacks.) Zelazny and Hausman make the “wilderness” of the title a magical place that, at times in their struggles, seems to Glass and Colter to be another world (Glass is reminded of the ocean of his past), a world sometimes of spiritual dimension (especially to Colter) and a world seemingly haunted by death.

At novel’s end, Glass feels the wilderness as a lethal spectre at his back rushing to claim Jamie before he can exact his revenge. It is this feeling of the wilderness haunted by death that prompts Glass not to kill Jamie – that and he forgives Jamie for understandably living him to die. Not what I expected and a bit too poetically vague at times, I still enjoyed this book. ( )
  RandyStafford | Apr 30, 2013 |
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Author nameRoleType of authorWork?Status
Roger Zelaznyprimary authorall editionsconfirmed
Hausman, GeraldAuthormain authorall editionsconfirmed
Wright, DavidCover artistsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
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Alternating between 2 remarkable survival stories, this is a tribute to those who triumphed over the American wilderness in the early nineteenth century.

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