Thursday, May 10, 2012

Hard Country: A Novel of the Old West by Michael McGarrity (family saga Western)

"When I first put Kevin Kerney on the page as the protagonist in my crime novels, I was already imagining his family history back several generations or more.... As the series progressed and Kerney grew and developed, I knew I would someday have to tell his family’s story generation by generation. I never once entertained the notion of simply writing the back story of Kerney’s life.... That seemed too mundane."
—author Michael McGarrity in an interview with Bookgasm

Fans of author Michael McGarrity have been waiting a long time since his last book, Dead or Alive, published back in 2008. And now that Hard Country is out, we know why. This beast of an epic Western was intended to be a single novel and ballooned into a trilogy!

McGarrity is best known for his series of southwestern mysteries featuring law enforcement officer Kevin Kerney. The only one of these I had read before Hard Country was Hermit's Peak, which was excellent, both as a mystery and as a portrait of New Mexico.

That McGarrity has been nominated for awards by both Western and mystery communities says a great deal about his ability in combining the genres. Hard Country is a deliberate departure from that series, but it retains a tie by going back into Kevin Kerney's ancestral line and telling the story of the expansion of the American West, from after the Civil War through the end of World War I, through the eyes of some of those involved.

From the opening portrait of a young wife's frustration with frontier life, I was caught up in McGarrity's characters' world. John Kerney is in west Texas to build up his Double K ranch. But, when his wife dies in childbirth, and his brother and nephew are murdered, he leaves his ranch and son behind to find the killers. Later, when Kerney decides to reclaim his son, Hard Country really starts to show its stuff. McGarrity's prose is so skilled as to be invisible, the words simply unveiling the story like truly great writing should.

It is impossible to read Hard Country and not recall some of the often-cited Western classics like Larry McMurtry's Lonesome Dove and A.B. Guthrie's The Big Sky in its sheer scope. But the book it most reminded me of was Wallace Stegner's The Big Rock Candy Mountain, especially in its portrait of a father. At nearly 700 pages, the sweep of Hard Country is breathtaking, and yet its pages zip by like a desert wind and remains accessible to even the most reluctant reader. I'm already looking forward to the sequel.

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