The Morning River, by W. Michael Gear: A Review

by Charles Curley
[email protected]

Special to L. Neil Smith’s The Libertarian Enterprise

Pilgrim, I reckon ye’ve never lived till ye hears bear teeth a-sliding along yer skull.
— Travis Hartman

This is a review of a novel originally published in 1996, and its sequel, originally published a year later. So why review them now? Because Wolfpack Publishing is about to re-issue them. Instead of the original duology, the re-issue will be in four volumes, in Kindle and paperback, as the Saga of the Mountain Sage.

The Mountain Sage in the new title of the series isn’t a reference to the common shrub of the inter-mountain west (where much of the action takes place), but an ironic reference to the protagonist, Richard Hamilton. The novel starts with Hamilton, Harvard philosophy student, and his father, Phillip Hamilton. His father is a wealthy Boston merchant, whose crass capitalism is putting Richard through college so that the son can teach philosophy. The two don’t exactly see eye to eye about the value of a degree in philosophy.

Hamilton has been loaded up by his Harvard professors with thoughts of Hegel, Rousseau, and other European philosophers — none of whom had ever been west of Cape Finisterre. Which means that, culturally, Hamilton hadn’t been much west of Cape Finisterre, either. Helping to make this point are the chapter heading quotes from some of these philosophers.

Soon enough Hamilton is sent west with $30,000 (in 1825 dollars) to deliver to a business partner for the fur trade, and the adventure begins, for both Hamilton and the reader. We follow Hamilton west from Pittsburgh on an Ohio River steamboat to Saint Louis, and various adventures along the way. In those adventures Hamilton comes to the attention of François, a less than savory frontier character. François and a minion kidnap Hamilton and steal the $30,000. In a fit of what passes for mercy in François, they force Hamilton to sign an indenture, and sell the indenture and Hamilton to Davey Green, who is about to set off up the Missouri River to trade with those Noble Savages Hamilton’s been reading about in Rousseau.

Meanwhile, Heals Like a Willow is a young Shoshoni woman who find herself widowed and traveling alone back to her tribe. On the way, she is kidnapped and raped by Packrat, a Pawnee. He takes her east to give Willow as a slave to his father. (Tell me again about those Noble Savages, Jacques. Well, you get my drift.)

You can read this series on several levels. As I’ve already made clear, the disparity between Western philosophy and what really goes on in the world is a constant theme, brought home not least by Hamilton’s own growth. Libertarians especially should appreciate some of the lessons that lead to that growth.

This is a western, but not the usual cowboys and Indians, or cattle ranching setting. Instead, we are in 1825, with the fur trade that extended from St. Louis west and up river as far as Montana and Wyoming, following in the footsteps of Manuel Lisa, one of the pioneers of the fur trade.

Gear’s attention to detail shows up in, well, the details. White men will usually indicate something by pointing to it. The Shoshoni indicate by a more subtle slight nod and look in the direction of the thing being indicated. White men start skinning a buffalo by slitting open the belly and go from there. But buffalo usually die by kneeling, then stay upright. The Shoshoni start processing a buffalo by slitting along the spine. This immediately gives them a clean place to put the meat and organs as they process the buffalo. (And if that discussion turns your stomach, pilgrim, you may not want to read the book; there’s more of it.)

To write accurately about processing a buffalo, it helps if you’ve actually processed a buffalo.

Gear and his wife Kathleen O’Neal Gear (a published novelist inn her own right) have lived in Wyoming for many years. Some of the action of the books takes place in or near the hot springs of Thermopolis, where the Gears ran award-winning buffalo on their ranch for many years. Indeed Thermopolis and the hot springs show up in other Gear novels, such as This Scorched Earth, the Wyoming Chronicles (reviewed for TLE), and People of the Fire.

The detail is also borne of research. Both Gears are anthropologists and archaeologists by trade, and have published professional articles and multiple novels about American Indian culture. And how many novels come with three pages of bibliography?

The book is also an opportunity for the author to comment on philosophical issues. What is freedom? Is one any freer out on the prairie far from civilization? The conversations between Hamilton and some of the other characters — not least the Indian Hypatia, Heals Like a Willow — are fascinating. Libertarians are used to these sorts of discussions. Here’s a refreshing take.

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