Never Before Seen in the West


by Téa Obreht
Random House, 374 pp., $27.00
Drawing of Téa Obreht by Joanna Neborsky
Téa Obreht; drawing by Joanna Neborsky

A reviewer should know better than to give away the ending of a book, but what about the beginning? In Téa Obreht’s Western-themed novel, Inland, the beginning appears to be a monologue delivered from one comrade-in-adventures to another—and in a sense, it is. The person who is speaking and his pal have just been in a scrape with some riders at a fording place. “True to form—blind though you are, and with that shot still irretrievable in your thigh—you made to stand and meet them,” the speaker says. Soon we learn that the speaker is an outlaw of Balkan and Muslim origins (a first in Westerns, I believe) called Lurie Mattie, a name he acquired in Arkansas. Not until about a quarter of the way through the book do we know for certain that the person Lurie is speaking to is not a person but a camel. At this point, you may find yourself thinking back and wondering, Do camels have thighs?

The camel’s name is Burke, which Lurie came up with because of a cry he often makes, “a fearsome, gargling buuuurk.” He is a year old at the beginning of their partnership, in 1856, and almost forty at the end, when Lurie, his faithful cameleer throughout, is still in the saddle and still talking. (To say more about that would give away too much of the end, not to mention the beginning.)

Inland combines two stories. For the adventures of camel and rider, Obreht evidently took a spark from the real-life Camel Corps that served with the army in the American Southwest before the Civil War. The book’s other plot has to do with a struggle between two Arizona frontier towns over which will be the county seat, and the machinations of a ruthless cattle baron who wants to crush the small landowners and run them off. County-seat battles and cattle-baron-versus-homesteader wars are, of course, faithful perennials in the Western genre. The cameleer’s tale is told from his point of view, addressed to a “you” who is always the camel. An indefatigable lawman is pursuing Lurie for a murder he committed in Arkansas, so he is on the run through most of the book in a picaresque flight that covers a wide swath of the West.

The story about the county seat and the cattle baron is told through the perspective of Nora Lark, a tough frontier woman, the mother of three sons and wife of Emmett Lark, owner-editor of The Amargo Sentinel (Amargo is the underdog of the two towns). Some of her dialogue is interior, addressed to Evelyn, her daughter who died in infancy but who has remained a living presence. Only Nora hears and sees her; post-mortem, Evelyn has grown into a sensible young woman who provides her mother with companionship…

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