So Brave, Young, and Handsome

With his simple, elegant style, a generous dusting of artful platitudes, and deep exploration of human nature, Leif Enger is a bit of a throwback. His writing evokes two of my favorite authors–John Steinbeck and Wallace Stegner–as well as other novelists from even earlier times. His first book, Peace like a River, was an unusual tale of American adventure that looked closely at the power of faith and belief through the eyes of a memorable young narrator. It’s a book with religion at its core that addresses faith in a way that those who eschew organized religion can still appreciate.

Enger’s 2008 entry So Brave, Young, and Handsome, has a similar earnestness of tone, contains another great American journey, and continues the author’s exploration of the human condition. This time, however, he chooses a historical setting and an adult narrator. Monte Becket is a novelist in 1915 Minnesota. He has one successful adventure novel under his belt, but attempts at the next book have been unsuccessful. As the book opens, he’s about to return to an unremarkable life, and is at risk of losing the admiration of his wife and son.

That’s when he encounters Glendon Hale, a wily character with a hazy past. Soon, Becket is on the road with Glendon, and caught in the middle of a long-time rivalry between him and Charlie Siringo, a frightening prairie Javert who feeds off the energy of the myth he has created about himself. Along the way, they also pick up Hood Roberts, a young man with a desperate thirst for old-time adventure. As they careen through the wild rivers, dusty roads, clattering railroads, and wild west shows of the facing American West, Becket gets a firsthand look at the kind of adventure he’s only written about before.

I listened to this novel as an audiobook, where Dan Woren’s narration helps to emphasize Enger’s excellent ear for the formal patterns of historical speech. This lofty language fits superbly with the nature of Enger’s storytelling.

Book groups should enjoy pondering what this novel has to say about the creation of stories, about its consideration of right and wrong, and about the questions it asks about what it is to be brave. Enger is tapped into the best of the American ethos. I look forward to his further efforts.

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About the Author:

Neil Hollands is an Adult Services Librarian at Williamsburg Regional Library in Virginia, where he specializes in readers’ advisory and collection development. He is the author of Read On . . . Fantasy Fiction (2007) and Fellowship in a Ring: a Guide for Science Fiction and Fantasy Book Groups (2009).

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