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David Anthony Durham: Gabriel’s Story

Gabriel Lynch is a teenage boy who, at the beginning of the story, had been living in Baltimore. His mother, Eliza, a former slave, had married an undertaker from Baltimore after she had been freed at the end of the Civil War. Her husband had been good to her but she did not really love him. They had two sons – Gabriel and Ben. However, when her husband died, she managed to get in touch with the man she really loved, Solomon Johns. They had been separated when she had been taken to Baltimore by her owner but now Solomon has moved out to Kansas and wants to start a life there, with his own property and with his new family. The novel starts as Eliza, Ben and Gabriel arrive in Kansas and find things there are much rougher than they had hoped for. Solomon’s vague promises have not been fulfilled, because of the difficulties he faces, including locusts and, of course, racism. However, the family settles down to work and work they do. The work is difficult as they have poor equipment and sod-busting is very hard work. Gabriel does his bit but he is clearly resentful. When things go wrong – a vicious storm causes a lot of damage – he is even more bitter. He misses his father and the easier life of Baltimore. His father had proposed that he become a doctor and this now seems very unlikely. He meets James, another African-American boy of his age, who is an orphan and has to work for a local white man, who is a hard taskmaster. Gabriel and James become friends and when the chance to leave town is offered they both take it.

Along with the story of Gabriel, we have also been following the story of Marshall Hogg, a charismatic white man, who is also a criminal, including stealing horses and murder. He is always accompanied by Caleb, a taciturn African-American. When Marshall and Caleb comes to town (having driven their animals through the Johns’ property), Gabriel and James are taken by Hogg and the chance of adventure and head off with them. Unfortunately, they do not know what they have let themselves in for. Hogg and his sidekicks, Dallas and Rollins, are cruel, vicious and selfish men. Hogg, however, sees in Gabriel a man like himself – independent, brave and reckless. As a result, he offers him protection and a certain degree of trust. However, as the crime spree of the gang continues and becomes more vicious, Gabriel and, in particular, James feel less and less part of the gang but are unable to get away. Dunlop, a Scotsman, who had joined up earlier and was not averse to a bit of horse stealing, also starts to feel less and less part of the gang. An unpleasant showdown seems inevitable.

The Western has traditionally been the preserve of white men, from Zane Grey to Cormac McCarthy. Minorities tend to get short shrift. Native Americans, as in this book, are either treated as hostile or as pitiful. African-Americans have traditionally been seen as slaves or sharecroppers and of minimal importance. Mexicans, of course, are seen as useful but unimportant sidekicks or as treacherous. They get something of a different treatment here. Therefore, to have a Western where the main characters and, indeed, heroes are African-American is a worthwhile addition to the genre. It is helped that Durham tells an excellent story and does not make the African-Americans out to be saints. He does not ignore racism. Gabriel and Solomon are both victims of it. However, he does not make a big thing about it and, generally, it is seen as an annoying part of everyday life and one which any African-American, then as now, is likely to have to deal with. Most importantly, he tells a first-class story whose overall outcome may not be surprising but how it gets there has its twists and turns. Durham followed this book up with another about US history before turning to epic fantasy. It is to be hoped that he will turn back to this genre.

Publishing history

First published 2001 by Doubleday