18 August 2015

The Revenant, by Michael Punke

Posted by Callan Bentley

On the recommendation of my friend Troy Holland, rev I just finished reading Michael Punke’s novel about Hugh Glass. The book has been optioned as a film, and because it stars Leonardo diCaprio, it will doubtless be a hit. What got Troy’s attention, though, is the director: Alejandro González Iñárritu, the guy who gave us Babel, Birdman, and Amores Perros, all of which were masterful films.

So what’s a ‘revenant?’ Wikipedia’s got it: “A revenant is a visible ghost or animated corpse that was believed to return from the grave to terrorize the living. The word “revenant” is derived from the Latin word, reveniens, “returning” (see also the related French verb “revenir”, meaning “to come back”).”

In this case, Hugh Glass is the revenant, but as an analogy. Glass, a real person, was mauled by a grizzly bear while in the employ of the Rocky Mountain Fur Company in 1823. Two men were assigned to watch over him while the main body of the party went upriver, and to bury Glass when he inevitably died. Except they didn’t – they abandoned him. Glass didn’t die. Deprived of almost every resource, he vowed to survive and visit vengeance upon the two men, one of whom was Jim Bridger (namesake of my beloved Bridger Range near Bozeman, Montana).

His odyssey is insane – the difficulties that Glass overcame, expertly described (in lightly fictionalized form) by Punke, are astonishing. Rattlesnakes, starvation, blizzards, Arikara warriors, and even federal bureaucracy all conspire to put an end to Glass’s quest for revenge. But he keeps working at it, keeps coming up with clever ways around problems, like a frontier MacGyver (though a bloodthirsty one).

The book is a great way to revisit the post-Lewis-&-Clark, pre-civlization days of the Rocky Mountain west. Punke’s narration brings to life many of the daily routines, risks, and perspectives of ‘the white man” entering a land he saw as savage. Native Americans will probably not be thrilled with the rendering of the Arikara as savages, however. They fought tenaciously to keep white pioneers from invading their homeland, but The Revenant depicts that all from the pointy end of the arrow – little sympathy is conveyed, which I think is an accurate choice, in depicting the events of the novel from Glass’s perspective. There are a few token “good Indians” in the story, but none of them have their backstories explored, as a half dozen of the non-Glass white charaters do. Instead, the more dominant treatment for the Native Americans is straight up “cowboys and Indians” (good guys and bad guys). So that’s that.

Overall, it was a compelling adventure story – although I’ll warn you that the ending didn’t really satisfy me as much as I had hoped. I’m looking forward to the movie. Here’s the trailer: