19 March 2014

A Western-Minded Easterner

The Road to Reckoning by Robert Lautner (pp 240, Harper Collins 2014)

This review contains spoilers. As the book is superb, I recommend you do not read my review unless the summary in the following paragraph really sounds like it is not your thing.*

The Road to Reckoning by Robert Lautner follows a young boy through Eastern USA early in the nineteenth century. That boy, Tom Walker, is written with remarkable characterisation. He sets off on a journey with his father to sell the latest Colt gun. Their purposes are simple: escape from New York’s economic and health problems; and get rich at the same time. Tom becomes stranded. He must try to recruit a travelling Texan Ranger, the only man capable of helping Tom return home.

1. Conflict and Characterisation

Tom’s biggest flaw--cowardice driven by loneliness and fear--manifests as a direct result of having his greatest needs met. Tom requires adult supervision across a wild country of valleys and bandits. He secures that supervision in Henry Stands but under circumstances that cause the boy to betray that man.

The conflict, therefore, never wanes; the pace remains constant because there is always a fear that Tom Walker might lose something precious, whether internal and part of his identity or external and fundamental to his survival. When evil men do not stand in Tom’s way, his dependance on Henry Stands is the exact trait that threatens to drive the solitary man away.

The characters behave as early-nineteenth century Americans are expected to: they push at new frontiers in patriotic tradition. Rather than exploring to satisfy the cartographer's repertoire, the characters adventure into commerce, its products, and its remunerations. Thus Lautner manufactures an original idea and simultaneously refuses to be defined by inhibitory conventions; Lautner evolves, through Tom and Henry, his own definitions of frontier-breaking.

The main characters have clear arcs. While hesitant to accept changes at times, ultimately, everyone in the novel leaves the pages a different person than when they entered the narrative. To develop these changes in his characters, Lautner antagonises each with internal and external attacks--self-doubt, murderous brigands, greed, introversion, and bias driven by financial reward.

Almost every character has the chance to interact with every other character in varying degrees. The relationships so constructed render every character fuller than they otherwise would be: each relationship builds personality uniquely by focussing on different aspects of each character's personality: violence for courage; camaraderie for compassion; company for friendship.

2. Historical Perspective

The Road to Reckoning transcends the book’s chronology: Tom and Henry are presented as having existed, clearly, before the story begins; and presented as continuing to live after it ends. Lautner thereby posits the characters onto a timeline that seems to coincide with reality's. That is, Lautner offers an holistic glimpse of American history rather than limits the conceit to mere exposition. Lautner invents characters who saw it through their own eyes and went on to live lives entrenched in America’s real past. The characters do not only jump off the page, but creep up and threaten to appear in history books, family trees, and ancestral anecdotes.

3. Some Thoughts on Plot

The novel has a clear plot but Lautner never lets it override the characters. This is good because the decision ensures the characters are made to choose precisely how they will fit into--or outside--that plot.

When characters are forced to choose their own role, the repercussions matter: it is interesting to watch how characters deal with mistakes they are responsible for because they are thereafter invested in how their own decisions play out, which makes it easier and more palatable for readers to become similarly invested. When plots are allowed to make or demand all the choices, readers might begin to question why they should care when the characters, after all, do not. Lautner avoids this problem masterfully.

The book satisfies. Lautner uses the beginning pages to introduce just enough details to engineer urgency and empathy, while teasing with concrete--rather than ambiguous--allusions about the future, to balance the story with mystery. This description may indicate that Lautner is confused with genre. That inference is a false depiction: Lautner's novel is almost certainly historic and Western. I use 'mystery' to describe the literary device used to propel readers into every next page, whereby a writer hints at later revelations.

Lautner devises a narrative arc that allows for intermittent conclusions. Therefore, however cathartic the final pages are, readers are not left frustrated until them; other plot goals are resolved throughout so readers may keep their emotional responses stable. Other books withhold all cathartic resolution till the end by creating a story with only one important aim. Although there is an overriding goal in The Road to Reckoning, the secondary protagonist (Henry) has his own desires that are weaved into the first protagonist’s (Tom). This facilitates lesser conclusions before the final one, which makes the story pleasurable and relieving. Considering The Road to Reckoning is Lautner's debut novel, with the skill displayed in it, readers can expect great things from his future penmanship.

4. Conclusion

The Road to Reckoning is well worth reading. Lautner writes a brilliant story with characters who inspire empathy through their sheer personality. Lautner surely created all these fine attributes with careful respect for the craft. His talent shows on every page.

Lautner’s messages are simple: cowards seek the easiest paths to fortune; financial gain encourages bias; and courage supports attempts to triumph.

* I received my copy for free as a review copy.

Created: 14 March 2014. Version 1.0.

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