Tuesday, April 19, 2011
Review: Well Traveled
Well Traveled by Margaret Mills
My rating: 5 of 5 stars
We first meet Gideon Makepeace when he’s getting ready to leave Livingston, Montana where he had taken up a summer job training horses. Gideon is bound for San Francisco to reunite with his folks who are members of a big traveling “Wild West” show. Enter halfbreed Lakota Jedediah Buffalo Bird, currently a fatally injured man who is bullied by a band of white Livingstonians who don’t want his kind in their town. Without hesitating, Gideon steps in to save the Indian, takes him to the doctor’s and finally helps him find shelter in a friendly brothel. With selfless care, Gideon nurses Jed back to health, using up the money that had been designed to pay his and his horse’s fare and of course, missing his train.
Even while caring for Jed, Gideon feels very attracted to the good-looking man. He thinks that nothing can come of it, of course – for one he can’t take advantage of a sick and possibly dying man, and then it’s unlikely that the Indian would share Gideon’s leaning towards men. But while talking to Jed during the man’s lucid moments Gideon discovers that the Indian appeals to him in more that just one way, and he realizes that they might get along well as traveling companions, if nothing else. Thus Gideon more or less coaxes Jed into guiding him overland to San Francisco after he has recovered – and Jed agrees readily enough, even though he mocks Gideon by calling him soft and pampered.
Their journey begins, and soon Gideon finds out that he is, indeed, soft and pampered compared to Jed. His admiration grows, and so does the attraction. It doesn’t take too long until their relationship turns sexual, after all, as Jed admits and acts on his own attraction to Gideon; and the dreaded long journey soon turns into the best time Gideon’s ever had. Still, even though Jed seems to develop feelings for Gideon, he takes an effort in keeping the young white man on arm’s length, because he obviously thinks their different races can never meet eye to eye.
Being friends with the Indians that travel with the show makes Gideon a lot more understanding about Jed than his contemporaries usually are, and since Gideon is a traveler himself, he can even relate to many of Jed’s reservations. On the other hand, listening to Jed, watching him and generally being with him changes Gideon’s point of view about many things. He’s openminded enough to allow those changes and in no way above adopting some of Jed’s opinions and manners.
Practically from the first moment of his life, Jed has seen his people mistreated by white men, and has experienced his share of mistreatment first-hand. Taken from his people at a young age and forced into a “civilized” education by Catholic nuns, Jed harbors deeply ingrained distrust and prejudices against whites. Since the entire story is told from Gideons third – person POV, we get Jed only through Gideon’s eyes, but even so, we watch him change too as he spends time with the often naive and rash young white man, opening first his body, then his heart to Gideon.
The characterizations were incredibly good. Gideon was every little bit the twenty – year old happy- go -lucky selfish adolescent, often trampling on Jed’s and other people’s feelings out of sheer ignorance. Just as often, though, he showed consideration and understanding far above his years, which hinted at the innate goodness of his heart and also cast a very positive light at his upbringing. In fact, even though we don’t meet Gideon’s family in person, they are mentioned often enough to become alive, and they grew on me, too.
I was even more impressed by the way Jed was drawn, a powerful, three – dimensional and fully fleshed character even though he doesn’t speak much and we don’t get into his head. He had so many layers. At first traditionally brought up as a Lakota, he internalized his people’s ways and clung to them through the time he was forced to spend in the boarding school. He is older, better – educated and more experienced than Gideon (and even Gideon thinks him the smarter one) , but he is also wary out of habit and used to expect the worst from white men in general. In a way, Jed was the more close-minded of the two, and I could only admire the author duo for resisting the urge to make Jed a “noble savage” or a larger-than-life saint in disguise, giving him depth, flaws and humanity instead.
Jed’s deeply ingrained misgivings are what keep him from truely committing to Gideon, even though he has come to love the young white man, to a point where leaving him almost tears Jed apart. And this is what Gideon has over Jed: Gideon has the kind of faith it takes to stand by his man, unconditionally and at any cost. Maybe, just maybe, Jed loves Gideon enough to learn trusting him completely, heart, body and soul.
This book breathed authenticity in every little detail, down to every word and gesture, down to the way Gideon and Jed talk, dress, eat and have sex. Every now and then, the authors’ moralizing forefinger peeked up just the tiniest little bit, as the journey brings them through wild and untamed land in contrast to small, rural towns, mining sites and big cities on the verge of industrialization. It never turns to preaching, though, it just colors Gideon’s experience; in fact, the growing awareness for the destruction of the land was part of Gideon’s growth process.
I know I’ve complained about the use of the word Indian in another book recently; curiously, this didn’t bother me here. For one, Gideon saying it or even using the term “Injun” fit both the time and Gideon’s character – he IS thoughtless at times, although willing to overcome his ignorance. For another, Jed used the various referrals to himself and his people in a very subtle way, calling himself Lakota when he felt comfortable with Gideon, and Sioux or Indian when he wanted to create distance. It’s another part of Gideon’s character development that he became aware of those subtleties, among Jed’s many other little peculiarities the more attention he paid to Jed, the more he fell in love with him – and I loved the way I, as the reader, was included in this slow progress through Gideon’s eyes.
This was a beautiful, thought – provoking, heartfelt story. As I said above, I recommend it wholeheartedly.
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