In 2001, author Leif Enger took the world by a storm with his poignant national bestseller, Peace Like a River. Several years would pass until he followed it up with So Brave, Young, and Handsome, a Western featuring an underdog hero who isn't unlike Enger in his writing habits.
When postal worker Monte Becket published his first adventure novel, he never expected it to become a runaway hit. But it's been over four years since Martin Bligh released to great acclaim—and unless Monte can recreate that initial success, he’ll fade into eternal literary obscurity. Desperate to escape the label of "one-hit-wonder," he itches for an opportunity that will cure him of his writer’s block...But where’s a man in 1915 Minnesota to look for a burst of career-saving inspiration?
Towards the Cannon River, apparently. It's there that Monte first spots the white-haired Glendon Hall, who eventually invites him on his latest California-bound quest for redemption. Ironically, Glendon's desire to earn the forgiveness of his estranged wife forces Monte to leave his own, though Mrs. Becket isn't one to stand in his way. Thus, the two men set out for the Wild West with her permission—one of them hoping to fill the empty space in his heart; the other, a novel's worth of pages.
But as we soon learn, Glendon hasn’t been transparent about his history. More than just an aging boat builder, he’s a train robber who considers Butch Cassidy’s gang of unscrupulous outlaws his close associates. Naturally, such connections have placed Glendon on many a hit list—or at least, on the radar of an ex-Pinkerton detective named Charlie Siringo. When Siringo catches a whiff of Glendon and Monte's whereabouts in Kansas, he wastes no time in following their trail in the name of justice. And while the thought of imprisonment certainly isn’t a rosy one, there's a silver lining to the violent chaos in which Monte now finds himself: He's going to have plenty of material for his next book.
Leif Enger breathes life into the old American West as Steinbeck, Zane, and McMurtry have done before him—turning the landscape into a character that is as vivid and as fully-realized as the humans who populate it. Monte and Glendon's trek across this vanished world is an adventure story of the highest order—but So Brave, Young, and Handsome is also a deeply affecting tale about family, loyalty, identity, and fulfillment. Keep reading for an excerpt of the novel in which the budding friends agree to embark on the westward journey together.
What do you think of visions, Becket?” Glendon inquired one night. He’d come to dinner preoccupied, agreed to a few hands of whist at which Redstart was almost unbearably competitive, and stayed later than usual—Susannah had left the porch and gone off to bed, freeing Glendon, I saw now, to lower his voice and ask his unsettling question.
“Visions,” I said, my heart sinking.
“Dreams, apparitions. Do you reckon them credible?”
I did not tell him no. I did not say to him, Visions are a writer’s stock-in-trade but that cupboard is bare for me,
“I keep picturing my girl Blue, on a horse, on the other side of the river.” He brightened. “Maybe it’s just my grubby conscience.”
“What’s she doing on the horse?”
“Trotting to and fro. I seen her several times now. She’s got a muslin dress on and my black coat over it. Horse is a little Tobiano.”
“That’s precise, for a dream.”
“Seems like she’s looking for a place to ford. The horse won’t cross over. She rides knee-deep into the river and looks across at the barn.” He reached in his pocket for cigarette makings and rolled one on his knee, watching me wonder what to say next. Gently he said, “You think I am simple, Becket? Think I’ve got one wheel in the sand?” He scratched a light for his cigarette—his eyes were firefly green and nearly merry.
“You might,” I replied.
He laughed softly. “She’s still pretty. Got a rifle in a scabbard. I ain’t sure whether she’s come to forgive me or shoot me.”
“What do you mean to do, Glendon?”
He shrugged. “I’m nervous she’ll get that mare to swim across, next time. Blue always knew how to talk to a horse.”
We sat quiet while he smoked the tobacco down and stubbed it out on his boot heel. He said, “Monte, I didn’t ever ask her forgiveness. I was a stupid youngster, you understand. My reasons for leaving seemed good, but they weren’t. They were poor and selfish.”
My insides shrank. I sensed a bad ending on the way.
“I am shortly bound for Mexico,” he said.
“But she is remarried, you said.”
“I don’t aim to win her back. No—to try would be another wrong against her.”
“After so many years, does it matter if she forgives you?”
“It matters that I ask.”
Do you remember my forlorn mood when Glendon first rowed past in the fog, the time he didn’t stop to visit? It returned to me now, with a bitter flavor.
“Well, I’ll be sorry to see you go.” I tried not to sound petulant but certainly failed. “When will you leave?”
“Saturday. I’d go sooner but there is a boat to deliver.”
I didn’t reply. His mention of boats brought back to me the idea I’d begun to nurture, the notion of us as partners in trade. I saw it now for foolishness, for a nonsensical flight from all I could not do. Yet I hated to give it up.
He said, “You want to come along, Becket?”
“Come along to Mexico.”
My throat lumped straightaway. I was pleased, you see; of course I couldn’t go, but didn’t say so straight off.
He said, “I’d be glad of the company. You would be back in six weeks. I understand if you can’t do it, though—why, you’ve got Susannah to think of, and Redstart. I hate to leave them myself, and that’s a fact.” There was a little hiatus while both of us thought it out. He may have been having doubts, as he added, “Also, you got them thousand words a day to perform.”
Shame climbed my face. In my thoughts I drifted through what Susannah might say to this offer. Why is it our failures only show us more clearly the people we are failing? For I saw Redstart laughing at some sparkly fact added to his hoard of knowledge; I saw him on Chief, turning tight circles, raising dust from the grass.
I said, “I’d like to go, Glendon, but you’ve hit it exactly—my responsibility’s at home.”
He nodded, rose and slapped his legs awake, and picked his way to the river. He had more than a touch of night blindness, so it took him awhile to get there. Then I heard his footsteps on the dock, then for a while his oars thumping in the locks. Then quiet. Far off on the river a match flared briefly.
Susannah was still awake when I went in. It had to be done. I said, “Love, I’m going back to the post office. I’ve done my best. I can’t write a book anyone will want to read.”
She sat up in the darkened room. “Monte, you can. I’ve never doubted you.”
“I tried and can’t. I’ll talk to Howser tomorrow.”
“What about Mr. Dan?”
“Dead alas and his grave unmarked.”
She lit the lamp and we sat together on the bed. If anything is harder to watch than the face of the person you have deceived, please tell me what that is.
She said, “What about your thousand a day?”
“Not worth much, as it turns out.”
She was quiet.
“I didn’t know for a long time, but now I do.” I touched her shoulder, which did not give.
Her serenity was commendable, given I had spent five years telling her all would be well.
She said, “Let me be a minute, please.”
I left the room, left the house. It was a cool, strange, expectant night. The mosquitoes had withdrawn for a time and I went down and sat on the dock with my feet in the river. I didn’t think about much—didn’t think, for example, about my wife or the words we had just had, or about the future, or the desolate end of my short career. I thought about block planes, about wood peeling away until just right.
The door closed softly back at the house. Susannah’s robe swept with a sound like grass. She came to the dock and went to her knees behind me and clasped her hands around my chest.
“Don’t go back to the post office,” she said.
“I don’t know what else to do.”
“Go to Mexico with Glendon,” said this arresting woman I had married.
She had been listening through our open bedroom window.
“But why, love?”
“Because he dreamed of his wife,” she replied.
There we stayed in the breathless night. Love is a strange fact—it hopes all things, believes all things, endures all things. It makes no sense at all.
“Go to Mexico with Glendon.”
“I will be home in six weeks,” I said.
“You had better be.”
“You’re too good for me, Susannah.”
“Yes, I am.” She pulled away from me and became formidable. “I’ll expect letters. A man who can write a thousand words a day can spare his wife a hundred now and then.
The Old Desperate
We boarded the Great Northern in the desolate hours. Susannah and I didn’t go to bed at all but stacked trousers and shirts into a grip along with razor and books and folding money in a brass clip. At one o’clock we sat silent in the kitchen holding hands on the tabletop. Susannah didn’t want to show me her eyes but I saw them anyway. At last we rose and she rolled sandwiches into waxed paper while I woke Redstart. He kicked off sleep with lawless exuberance only to recall I was going away on a train and he was not. I felt him slump. None of us had heart or words.
Glendon met us at the depot. He’d ridden his durable sorrel to town the previous day and boarded her at the livery and himself at a hotel. For Susannah’s sake he wore a somber face but anyone could tell he was keen to leave—when the train heaved up he bounced on his toes as if he were nine. He gave Susannah’s hand an awkward shake, then grasped Redstart’s.
“Farewell, amigo. Is there anything I can bring you from Mexico?”
“A rattlesnake skin,” was Redstart’s instant reply. Glendon nodded and was gone into the sleepy train with my son gazing after him.
My own goodbye fizzled. I’d written a short and perhaps overly rueful verse on the back of a scalloped photograph. The picture was one Susannah loved, of the two of us laughing by the shore of Lake Superior. I imagined her reading my verse there on the platform, her eyes brimming; I conceived a send-off rich with absolution. As it turned out, though, the light was dreadful—she turned the card this way and that and couldn’t discern the words and gave up at last and poked it in her handbag. Why was I a slave to sentiment when it failed me so reliably? Meantime Redstart had disappeared somewhere. The train groaned forward; finally there was nothing to do but step aboard and fix Susannah there in her tawny linen coat and pumps. Bareheaded and pale she stood watching my face and didn’t wave or blow a kiss, though Redstart did pop up beside her with a jolly look and pantomime to me that he had laid pennies on the tracks, to be rolled out like dough at our departure.
Rocking south I found Glendon and sat beside him. The coach was half full of nodding passengers. At the rear a small group of young men sang in near whispers. They were practicing harmonies—en route to some gospel tent, I suppose, for their repertoire found the present world intolerable.
“Becket,” Glendon said softly.
“You’re generous to come along.”
“No. I’m glad to come.”
He shut his eyes and slept. The young men whispered their salvation songs. They worked until dawn on voicings and rhythms, rewarding themselves at last with a stealthy foray into ragtime. They tapped their knees and snickered, a hopeful sound that made me realize I’d told Glendon the truth—despite my unsatisfactory parting from Susannah, I was glad to be on that train. When first light showed pockets of fog I even imagined it was smoke instead, and ourselves charging pell-mell for danger—an unfussy childhood sensation I’d forgotten all about. It seems strange, looking back, that I ever believed I would soon be home again.
Want to keep reading? Download So Brave, Young, and Handsome today.
This post is sponsored by Open Road Media. Thank you for supporting our partners, who make it possible for Early Bird Books to continue publishing the book stories you love.
Featured photo: Cover of 'So Brave, Young, and Handsome' (2008 Atlantic Monthly Press edition)