Wednesday, April 22, 2015

The Winter Family -- Clifford Jackman

The Winter family isn't really a family, though in a way you could say they're all related by blood, of which there is a copious quantity in this novel.  The family is instead a band of outlaws.  They first come together at the end of the Civil War as a group assigned to go out ahead of Sherman on his march through Georgia.  Augustus Winter isn't their leader at this point.  That title belongs to a Union lieutenant named Quinten Ross, who's a psycho killer, Jan Müller, the Empire brothers, who are stupid and vicious, and Augustus Winter, who turns out to be the most terrifying of them all.  Along the way they pick up Lukas Shakespeare and a slave named Fred Johnson.  

After the war they separate and engage in various depredations, reuniting in Chicago, where Ross' brother needs some help with rigging an election.  The scenes in a slaughterhouse are rivaled in their brutality by the saloon fights and battles leading up to the election.  Leaving Chicago, the gang separates again and gets back together at various points, including in Oklahoma and Arizona where they engage in bounty hunting and scalping Indians.  Winter frightens even the members of his family.  "It is often observed that murderers do not look like murderers. No one said that of Augustus Winter."  His very appearance on the scene causes men to wet their pants.  (I do wish that Jackman had avoided saying at one point, "Winter is coming."  Since that's been used as the tagline of a well-known TV series, it seems a little out of place, although it has something of the same significance.)

Some readers might be reminded of the work of Cormac McCarthy, specifically of Blood Meridian, but I kept thinking about Flannery O'Connor's Misfit from "A Good Man Is Hard to Find," who says, " . . . it's nothing for you to do but enjoy the few minutes you got left the best way you can – by killing somebody or burning down his house or doing some other meanness to him. No pleasure but meanness, . . ." Pretty much everybody in this novel has that attitude, except for Winter, who never seems to find pleasure even in the killing.

The scary thing about the novel is that as Winter and the family move westward, they aren't so much the last of the frontier but the harbingers of the civilization that's replacing them.  The Winter Family is a gripping story that's full of blood, terror, and violence.  "Enjoyment" might not be the right word for what I felt, but the book is a great read.

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