Kate Thompson, the brash, no-nonsense heroine of Vengeance Road is out for, well––vengeance.
Erin Bowman, whose first YA western tramps a rough and treacherous path through the not-yet-state of Arizona, must first be commended for how realistically exhausting she writes the journey to be. Present-day Arizona is known to well exceed pleasantness in degrees Fahrenheit, and Bowman mentions sweat in uncomfortable places and sunburn just often enough for realism’s sake: generously.
Kate braves these unfortunate conditions because a gang of outlaws, the Rose Riders, broke into her father’s homestead and killed him for information pertaining to a gold mine, hidden in the Superstition Mountains, in the southern part of the territory. This lode tip-off is news indeed to Kate, who’s lived in the shadow of this hushed secret all her life. With no other connections, and a mother fourteen years in the grave, Kate sets out to kill her father’s killers, and maybe to group up with an ensemble of lovable misfits on the way.
Bowman’s work on the setting in probably Vengeance Road‘s most notable quality. More than the revenge plot, more than its themes, more than its characters, the chase it depicts is just about as brutal as you’d expect, careful attention paid in full to the environment and its potential to be unyielding, all action stopped in its tracks for dust storms, injuries, unforeseen troubles. It isn’t imaginative in terms of pure originality, many of the tropes in Western being what they are: present. It is imaginative, though, in the sense that it has a wide capacity to imagine hardships, offering the very real perils of a vast trek through uninterrupted land in frank, un-flowery terms, conveying an uncommon experience that is as much lull and exertion as it is dramatic and decisive scenes of action.
True to its heroine, even the action in Vengeance Road is no-frills, the prose style sparse and peppered with dialect. It is committed to this, potentially even to a fault. The style doesn’t hamper the important emotional moments––in fact, it bolsters them and helps them register as genuine, the figurative and heavy-with-feeling sentiments rendered rare, and thus all the more powerful. Its pitfall is firmly in the action’s territory, the main attraction for westerns and a dire place for the novel to be lacking. This makes it so that when there is a plot-intensive reprieve from the walking, resting, and tiresome navigation that marks most of Kate’s story, it doesn’t read like one. The intrigue, conflict, and outlaws, barring their role in setting the plot in motion, aren’t really what the book is concerned with. Its heaviest focus is character. Its strongest scenes take place at a campfire, any and all gunfights and ambushes banished from the page. Sometimes, though, Vengeance Road still acts like the spotlight is on the mines, and the gold, and the life-threatening confrontations, which leaves the third act––and its strongest assets in character development, relationships, and theme––neglected. Not horribly, not irretrievably, but enough.
This has to do with the novel’s real zenith is and what its zenith was intended to be. First there’s a deeply moving sequence involving a supporting character, Liluye, and her tribe, the Apache. Without giving too much away, Bowman uses this sequence to interrogate, and, further, criticize some of the prejudices in her characters. The issue is further enveloped in an ethical quandary, about aid and to whom it is given, about gold and the moral bankruptcy it causes, about vengeance and whether or not it is worth it. This chapter in particular is reflective, and even spiritual, in a sense––the once firmly apathetic Kate begins to contemplate faith in a moment of desperation. The strongest writing in Vengeance Road is centered here, and is re-awakened in moments of contemplation elsewhere. By contrast, the big final confrontation is almost flimsy, perfectly acceptable at a less centered juncture, but wanting in terms of a climax. Here, where the mystery is revealed, we’re not nearly as invested in the intrigue as the book assumes we are. A late-stage villain reveal with some ties to the protagonist lands without enough buildup and is resolved away. Bowman does do clever things on the lives of subverting the “riding out with a death wish” formula, so the resolution survives, but doesn’t quite flourish.
The Last Voyage of Poe Blythe, Ally Condie’s dystopian with some western undertones, takes a similar route with a revenge setup, using themes that critique where it’s directed, and how it fails to blame who’s really at fault: Vengeance Road, instead of criticizing power structures the way Poe Blythe does, takes a much more personal route. Whenever someone patronizingly tells Kate that revenge is unhealthy, she scoffs, and rather than sic plot and character on her in an effort to reform her ways in a didactic and condescending tone, the novel essentially lets her have what she wants––only reframing it to make her wants ultimately more merciful in the end than sadistic. Even if the suspense pales in comparison to dialogue, this last word manages to make an impact, and to surprise.
Vengeance Road would probably benefit if more of its energy had been shifted into the wells of character––especially if the tension and introspection Liluye brings into the ensemble had been written into the earlier parts of the story, and some of the ethical issues more consistently present––this whole book is enveloped in a time period of rapid American expansion at the disastrous expense of the people already living here, after all. It makes an effort to tweak the Western in response to the genre’s more grievous sins in the past (re: sensationalized and prejudiced depictions of Native culture, glorification of violence, &c), but the formula proves particularly difficult to shake off, even in perfectly benign conventions like plot structure. Still, it’s an admirable effort, peopled by interesting and conflicted characters. But the revived Western won’t be returning to the canon anytime soon.