My late father was an avid reader of the Western novel. When a new one arrived at the local branch library, Ed Fisher would be the first one to read it. He was a fan of Zane Grey, if I recall correctly, but would read anything with a western theme. As for myself, I think the only western novel I read was Lonesome Dove. No doubt there have been other westerns worth reading, but when it comes to CanLit, the Canadian West was a different place than its American counterpart, and so westerns (as we know them) have never been a Canadian genre as such.
Now, BC author Ian Weir has written The Death and Life of Strother Purcell (2018, Goose Lane Editions) a sweeping epic that covers the North American continent east to west and north to south. It has all the components of a good read: good guys, bad guys, good girls, bad girls and everything in between. Feuds, vengeance, heroic acts and cowardly ones, sham preachers and lots of drinking are all here too. [perfectpullquote align=”right” bordertop=”false” cite=”Tom Skiffings” link=”” color=”#0E1F42″ class=”” size=””]”Three riders coming hard, this way. With fell intent. They’ll ask for lodging till the storm blows past. They’ll want stabling for their horses, and a hot meal for themselves and they’ll be cordial enough for a time. But then they’ll ask for whiskey, and when they drunk it they’ll ask for more – and that’s where it starts.”[/perfectpullquote]”It was a dark and stormy night.” So goes the famous opening line as Snoopy (the Charles Shulz character) attempts to write the Great American Novel. Well, for Professor Brookmire, it was a dark and stormy night in 2004 when he was contacted by Tilda Sturluson in regards to some papers she had come into possession of concerning the famed western lawman (and gunslinger), Strother Purcell. It the Professor that speaks to us in the book’s Prologue and throughout the text by means of footnotes. An exceptional work of creative fiction, Mr. Weir uses different voices from the compilation of papers to tell the story of Strother Purcell (and others, such as his half-brother Elijah) as if he was a genuine historical figure. It is all so seamless, and so engrossing that you’ll be quite ready to believe that Strother Purcell actually existed. (Just for authenticity, Mr. Weir includes a cameo appearance by Wyatt Earp and his common-law wife at the time, Josephine Sarah Marcus, who now live in San Francisco.)
The heart of the story involves the dogged pursuit of Elijah Dillashay, Strother’s half-brother across the North American continent, eventually ending up in British Columbia (where the book actually starts, but not where it ends). Elijah (or Lige, as he is commonly called) has committed wrongs as a young man and Strother feels it is his righteous duty to bring him to justice. As a Sheriff’s deputy, he tries to explain this to a woman friend, Maria Teresa Lestander:
“My brother is a fugitive,” Strother said. “He’s wanted by the Law. What sort of a lawman would I be—?
“A bad one. A bad lawman, derelict at best. But…what sort of a brother?”
“Brothers don’t come into it. The distinction is false.”
She searched his face in some bewilderment. Maria Teresa had no brother of her own—no family at all, besides the sheriff. She would have liked, very much, to have had a brother.
Strother drew a breath. He said. “You need to understand –.”
“What?” Maria Teresa demanded. “What is it that I need to understand?”
“The law.” He spoke doggedly. “There’s brothers, Miss Lestander, and then there’s law. It tells us where we stand—what’s right, what’s wrong. Without the law . . . It comes down to obligations. Obligations on either side—what’s rightly ours to take, and what we owe. If those accounts get lost, or confused. or disregarded—then God help us. We lose our way, and then the devil only knows . .”
Strother’s voice trailed away. He seemed to struggle for words. When he found them, his voice was unaccountably hoarse. “I lost my own way, once. I collected, maybe, more than what was owed. Well, I learned from that. I learned, never again. The law. What’s due, and what’s owed. If a man transgresses, then that man must stand trial, never mind whose brother he is.”
The themes of love, justice, retribution, family honour and forgiveness resonate throughout The Death and Life of Strother Purcell. It truly is a never-ending story, a mix of fact, legend, hearsay and first-hand accounts. Mr. Weir has skilfully managed to arrange these different accounts told by distinctly singular voices into a narrative that will entertain and fully engross the reader (male or female, for there are several strong female characters in Strother’s and Lige’s life).
To say I loved this book would be an understatement. I loved the writing, the various marginalized characters that each brother attracts, the geographical contexts, not to mention the well-imagined storyline that slips back and forth in time periods. Then it all culminates in an electrifying clash of old friends and enemies. It definitely goes on my 2019 longlist for “The Very Best!” Book Awards in the Fiction category. This book will not disappoint any reader.
[perfectpullquote align=”full” bordertop=”false” cite=”C.C. Humphreys” link=”” color=”#0E1F42″ class=”” size=””]”Weir takes every trope in the Western’s playbook — the one-eyed avenging lawman, the feckless brother, tarts both with and without hearts, gunslingers, gimps, and gamblers — and makes of them something new and utterly wonderful. This wildly entertaining and witty yarn made me gasp, hoot, and holler.”[/perfectpullquote]
The Life and Death of Strother Purcell by Ian Weir
Goose Lane Editions
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James M. Fisher is the owner and editor-in-chief of The Miramichi Reader. He began TMR in 2015, realizing that there was a genuine need for more book reviews of Canadian literature. It has since become Canada’s best-regarded source for the finest in new literary releases. James has been interviewed about TMR on CBC Radio and other media sites. James works as a Magnetic Resonance Imaging (MRI) Technologist and lives in Miramichi, New Brunswick with his wife Diane and their tabby cat Eddie.