Monday, July 24, 2017

Wind River by James Reasoner and L.J. Washburn

Where the railroad ends, trouble begins
When I travel to Wyoming I like to read a Wyoming novel. This year I decided to give James Reasoner and L.J. Washburn’s 1994 book Wind River a try. The story takes place in the fictional town of Wind River, which is confusingly described as being about 80 miles west of Laramie. That would put it more likely on the North Platte than the Wind River and closer to the Snowy Range than the Wind River Range, though the novel often mentions the latter as being visible from the town.

Anyway, when the story opens, the young town of Wind River has just become the western terminus of the Union Pacific Railroad. Railroad construction has brought some undesirable characters with it, from rough-and-tumble track workers to shiftless drifters or “hardcases” with seemingly no other purpose than to cause trouble. Violent clashes between these two groups have drawn attention to the need for law and order in the town. With work on the tracks recently completed, the citizens of Wind River gather to celebrate the arrival of the first locomotive. A fistfight breaks out among the crowd, and one of the town’s eminent founders is killed by a stray gunshot. Present at the incident is Cole Tyler, who has been hunting buffalo in the region, providing meat for the railroad workers. When the trouble goes down at the train station, he demonstrates a level head, a quick draw, and a commanding presence that demands respect. Tyler is invited to serve as the town’s first marshal, and he reluctantly accepts. He soon finds himself not only keeping the peace in this frontier town, but also working to solve a murder.

I’m not a habitual reader of westerns but I am an avid fan of western films. Wind River reads as if it were written with hopes of a movie adaptation. Each scene and character is familiar, like those you’ve seen in countless westerns on the silver screen, yet Reasoner and Washburn skillfully manipulate the players in this drama to keep the story from being bogged down in western clichés. The introduction of each new character is intriguing, as each has their own personal mysteries that keep the reader engaged. Since this is a town western rather than a range western, you not only get cowboys and cattle rustlers but an entire ensemble cast of characters including the doctor, the newspaper editor, the blacksmith, and the woman who runs the local cafe. This opens up a lot of narrative possibilities and provides a broader picture of western life than a simple good vs. evil shoot-’em-up, though it’s still a romanticized depiction of the West.

As the book goes on, Wind River becomes less like a movie and more like a TV series, along the lines of Gunsmoke or Doctor Quinn, Medicine Woman. As the mystery reaches its resolution and the bad guys are revealed, the story lines become more predictable, and the action starts to feel safe. It becomes apparent that this will be the first novel in a Wind River series, and once the reader figures that out then it’s obvious that none of the important characters will die, since they all have to return for the next installment. As the stakes become lower, the novel becomes less exciting, and one can expect the ending to be wrapped up with a neat little bow.

Still, Wind River is better than a lot of western literature I’ve read. Like the TV series mentioned above, it’s easy to get involved with these characters. Though I generally prefer my western tales darker and grittier, I might pick up the next Wind River book the next time I go to Wyoming.
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