The historical fiction novel “The Revenant” by Michael Punke was published in 2002, but gained prominence only recently as the book was re-published by ‘Picador’ and when a $100 million dollar movie went into production phase. The film, which is slated to release for Christmas holidays this year, is directed by Oscar winning film-maker Alejandro Gonzalez Innarittu with a strong cast including Leonardo DiCaprio and Tom Hardy. The engrossing trailer for “Revenant” (which says ‘partly based on Michael Punkje’s novel’) piqued my interest to read the source, and I must say that this one of the compelling historical portrait of American frontier.
The novel is set on the Year 1823, along the Missouri River. It was an important year in US history as the native Arikara tribe fought with the American military, which was marked as first conflict between US army and Western Native Americans. The war of 1823 is also said to have set the tone for future conflicts between the army and other native tribes like ‘Crow’ and ‘Blackfeet’. The 1820’s were the years, when the regiments of fur trappers working on Upper Missouri came up against band of hostile native tribes. The fur trade was one of the great economic ventures in North America (trade or sale of furs between Native tribes and European Settlers), which gradually sparked a lot of competition between French, British, Dutch, Spain and Russia.
By the end of 18th century, US government started to capitalize on the fur trade. The American fur trappers of those times charted uncharted lands and wilderness to launch new trading posts, deep into the native lands as their main aim was to outsmart their European counterparts in the fur trade. However, by the mid or late 19th century, a collapse in fur prices uprooted many of the American fur companies. The continuous conflicts with the US army and the plunge in fur trade stripped the Native Americans of any political or economic influence and from then on they were pushed to the fringes of American society.
“The Revenant” is the fictionalized account of Hugh Glass, an extraordinary frontiersman, working under William Ashley and Captain Andrew Henry of ‘Rocky Mountain Fur Company’. At the start of the novel, the fur trappers’ expedition is doomed as they are constantly on the lookout for hostile Arikara Indians and have already lost a lot of men in previous conflicts. The remaining 11 men of the company, under the command of Captain Henry, look forward to travel along the ‘Grand Missouri River’ to reach ‘Fort Union’ before the winter sets in (and to collect plews of beaver fur). Glass is the man who has all the qualities of a survivalist. He is a game hunter, a sharpshooter (he loves his ‘Anstadt’ rifle) and an exemplary woodsman.
On one fine day of expedition, while looking to hunt & search for a camping place, Glass comes across a two grizzly cubs, playfully running towards him. He soon sees the grizzly cubs’ enamoring & dangerous mom, which mauls Glass very badly, although he manages to kill the grizzly. The catastrophic wounds Glass gains are written with painstaking details, which would definitely make you shudder. Captain Henry & the men think Glass has only few days or hours, but he somehow stays alive. Since the wounded Glass slows their journey (as the threat of Arikara grows by each passing day), Henry asks for two volunteers to take care of Glass till his death and to give him a decent burial. Captain Henry also announces a reward of $70 for this job. The rude trouble-maker John Fitzgerald and young, awkward Jim Bridger opt to do right by Glass.
Both the men have their own selfish reasons to choose this task. Jim Bridger likes & respects Glass, but what he wants is to gain respect among his peers, especially when the threat of hostile tribes are on the rise. Fitzgerald likes the money and but more importantly he has set his eyes on Glass’ powerful ‘Anstadt’. When Glass holds onto his dear life for few more days, Fitzgerald grows restless and decides to take all of Glass’s possessions (rifle, knife flint and steel etc), leaving him to die on the wilderness. The unskillful Bridger hates himself for not having the guts to stay behind Glass or to fight Fitzgerald. What follows is an extraordinary & incredible survival journey of a man (he couldn’t even stand on his two legs), who sets off to retrieve his possessions and to seek revenge on his deserters.
Most of the characters in Michael Punke’s tale are real life persons, although the circumstances behind certain events and the characters’ nature are slightly fictionalized. Punke’s writing style is crisp and easy to read, although not lyrical. The author, who has previously written two non-fiction works on the American frontier, is also careful enough to not make his work too academic or didactic. The tale doesn’t turn into a worship of that era’s masculinity (although animal-lovers would certainly find this entire novel & its characters distasteful). Punke is careful in constructing the interactions or confrontations with Native tribes, and it mostly avoids the cliches or the trait of being apologetic.
The word ‘revenge’ in the tagline might be a bit mis-leading because it is too glamorous a word for work like “Revenant”. There are quite a lot historical books on Hugh Glass & the expeditions of fur trappers. Punke takes those historical (real) accounts of Glass and tries to approach the man’s quest in a most earth-bound manner. At the end of novel, you would feel that this isn’t a tale of revenge or survival; it’s just a man’s desire to recover one last precious thing in his life. Since this being based on real events, the ending might make a lot of people feel cheated. Those who expect some kind of unconventional literary devices or reflective characterizations would also be disappointed.
“The Revenant” (272 pages) is a remarkable tale about the perseverance of human spirit. I hope that Inarittu’s film adaptation impeccably advances the philosophical and emotional elements in the story.