Savage Country
From the writer of the bestselling Coal Black Horse, who has consistently created riveting fiction about pivotal moments in history, comes another spellbinding novel covering one of the most infamous hunts in the American West. In September 1873, Elizabeth Coughlin, a widow bankrupted by her husband’s folly and death, embarks on a buffalo hunt with her estranged and mysterious brother-in-law Michael. With no money, no family, no job or security, she hopes to salvage something of her former life and the lives of the hired men and women who depend on her. The buffalo hunt that her husband had planned, she now realizes, was his last hope for saving the land. Elizabeth and Michael plunge south across the aptly named Deadline demarcating Indian Territory from their home state of Kansas. Nothing could have prepared them for the dangers: rattlesnakes, rabies, wildfire, lightning strikes, blue northers, flash floods, threats to life in so many ways. They’re on borrowed time: the Comanche are in winter quarters, and the cruel work is unraveling their souls. They must get back alive. This is a gripping, historically accurate account of that infamous hunt, which decimated the bison population to near extinction, and the story of a moment in our history in which mass destruction of an animal population was seen as the only route to economic solvency. And it is also a thrilling, readable tale of how that hunt changed Michael and Elizabeth forever.

Savage Country Details

TitleSavage Country
Author
LanguageEnglish
ReleaseSep 26th, 2017
PublisherAlgonquin Books
ISBN-139781616204129
Rating
GenreHistorical, Historical Fiction, Fiction, Westerns, Literary Fiction

Savage Country Review

  • Diane S ☔
    January 1, 1970
    Kansas, 1844, Elizabeth finds herself without monetary means after the death of her husband. she learns that he had hinged everything on a buffalo hunt, a hunt he hoped would provide him with the necessary funds the clear his debts. His estranged brother Michael, makes an appearance and Elizabeth begs him to take on this hunt, and to take her with him.The last buffalo hunt, two powerful characters, gorgeous writing, outstanding imagery of nature, but a very brutal time. The title is apropos, a t Kansas, 1844, Elizabeth finds herself without monetary means after the death of her husband. she learns that he had hinged everything on a buffalo hunt, a hunt he hoped would provide him with the necessary funds the clear his debts. His estranged brother Michael, makes an appearance and Elizabeth begs him to take on this hunt, and to take her with him.The last buffalo hunt, two powerful characters, gorgeous writing, outstanding imagery of nature, but a very brutal time. The title is apropos, a time when survival was less than certain. Where many things could kill you, snake bites, the betrayal of other men willing to take what you have, by whatever means necessary, the changing, harsh weather, and Indians. I loved how he portrayed Elizabeth, a deep inner strength, but kind when needed, decisive in her thinking, and willing to inhabit and endure these harsh conditions, alongside her workers.The buffalo hunt that basically wiped out the herd, is historical fact. Have to admit at cringing at the very graphic descriptions of the slaughter, skinning and cutting of these noble animals. Yet, it was survival, during a time when one had to make their own way, their own money and living by whatever means they could. Thought this novel was very well done, as well as providing an insight of a particular harsh period of time.ARC from Netgalley.
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  • Fran
    January 1, 1970
    In 1873, Kansas had many boom towns that were now bust. Bankrupt families sold their possessions for pennies on the dollar and took locomotives out of town with plans for a fresh start. Construction sites were abandoned, streets were littered, residents lived in miserable shacks, tents and dugouts. This is what Michael Coughlin encountered when he came to town.Michael arrived at Meadowlark, home of brother David, and was greeted by David's widow, Elizabeth. Upon David's death, Mr. Whitechurch of In 1873, Kansas had many boom towns that were now bust. Bankrupt families sold their possessions for pennies on the dollar and took locomotives out of town with plans for a fresh start. Construction sites were abandoned, streets were littered, residents lived in miserable shacks, tents and dugouts. This is what Michael Coughlin encountered when he came to town.Michael arrived at Meadowlark, home of brother David, and was greeted by David's widow, Elizabeth. Upon David's death, Mr. Whitechurch of the Land Office badgered her to settle her debt driving off her cattle as partial payment. Full payment was next to impossible in these difficult times. Michael decided to go to Whitechurch and pay off the loan. Not so easy. Whitechurch had jacked up the price of the settlement and posted two gunmen inside his office. Michael informed Whitechurch that as a sharpshooter, he had killed "better men than you". A deal made, Michael left with the signed documents. Whitechurch and his hired goons were not about to let this transaction rest.Michael Coughlin had circled the globe. His job had been to shoot large mammals, preserving and collecting their skins for private collections. Zoos around the world paid top dollar to add captured wild animals to their menageries. Elizabeth explained David's plan to Michael, a way to cancel his debts. By going south to hunt buffalo, he hoped to make a financial killing. Elizabeth was determined to hunt buffalo in David's stead using his maps and journals for guidance and enlisting Michael at the helm as sharpshooter, scout and adviser. Buffalo hunting required a complement of men. Sharpshooters were needed to kill buffalo, butchers and skinners to prepare meat and carefully remove buffalo hides readying them for sale. Some men employed were vagrants, no better than murderers, drunks or horse thieves. The work force was fluid, men would come and go.Buffalo hunting was punishing. The land and weather conditions were unforgiving: torrential rain, droughts, prairie fires or heavy snow blanketing the land. Venturing into Comanche territory along with the possibility of Whitechurch following their movements for revenge created the need for posting night watches to secure the stock and camp grounds. Initially, Elizabeth relied heavily upon Michael to run the operation. She slowly came into her own. The men and women employees living back home at Meadowlark depended on her. She was determined that the buffalo hunt be successful while the savage country brutally exacted its cost." Savage Country" by Robert Olmstead was a stark historical rendering of one of the last post Civil War buffalo hunts. The untamed wilderness did not provide the journey Elizabeth expected but she was unwavering. She would play the hand she was dealt. Robert Olmstead has written a gritty, totally engrossing tome of the Old West. Unputdownable!Thank you Algonquin Books and Net Galley for the opportunity to read and review "Savage Country".
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  • Michael
    January 1, 1970
    This book was so good that I devoured it in a couple of sittings. It fulfills a hunger I have for some kind of wisdom or parable about how the West was won for the American Dream, but lost for Manifest Destiny. How to resolve the American frontier and its untamed wonders as the doorway to imagination, adventure, and personal challenge in the wilds of nature with the genocide and the rape of the earth that resulted. This novel is a magnificent attempt to fill in this gap, achieving lyrical wonder This book was so good that I devoured it in a couple of sittings. It fulfills a hunger I have for some kind of wisdom or parable about how the West was won for the American Dream, but lost for Manifest Destiny. How to resolve the American frontier and its untamed wonders as the doorway to imagination, adventure, and personal challenge in the wilds of nature with the genocide and the rape of the earth that resulted. This novel is a magnificent attempt to fill in this gap, achieving lyrical wonders with biblical and mythical overtones. I’d put it on the same mental shelf that spans McMurtry’s “Lonesome Dove” and McCarthy’s “Blood Meridian.”The lead quote from Deuteronomy sets the stage:See now that I, even I am he, and there is no god with me, I kill and make alive, I wound and I heal, neither is there any can deliver out of my hand.The initial setting is western Kansas eight years after the Civil War. Michael Coughlin has just arrived in town to settle the affairs of his older brother David, who has recently died, leaving his wife Elizabeth and a farm on the verge of bankruptcy. What he encounters for a community felt like a vision of hell: Some distance from town he was met with the smell of raw sewage and creosote, the stink of lye and kerosene oil, the carrion of dead and slaughtered animals unfit for human consumption. The year was 1873 and all about was the evidence of boom and bust, shattered dreams, foolish ambition, depredation, shame, greed, and cruelty. Notes were being called in for pennies on the dollar. Money was scarce and whole families were pauperized.For weeks countless swarms of locusts, brown-black and brickyellow, darkened the air like ash from a conflagration, their jaws biting all things for what could be eaten.Michael pays off his brother’s loans and informs his wife in the laconic way of most heroes of the West . She turns out to be a tough cookie, the kind that doesn’t like to being beholden to anyone. Her resilience feels admirable: “Grief seemed as if something she could not afford”. To save her farm on her own account, she proposes to hire him to help manage a buffalo hunt in the Comanche part of Indian Territory, where the last great herd roams. There is a good market for hides and meat when delivered to markets by wagon, river, and railroad. Michael has some months before he is due to meet up with his partners in an enterprise of collecting the hides and live specimens of wild birds and animals for zoos, museums, and private collectors back East and in Europe. It’s hard to say no to the last family member he has left. To his argument about the dangers she would face, she convinces him that her experience as a nurse during the Civil War is proof enough of her capabilities.Thus, we begin a tale of characters with nobility and decent hearts, innocent in many ways, yet engaged in the near extinction of the buffalo, which stands out as the epitome of blind greed and a great collective crime of humanity. Elizabeth indeed exhibits great skills in marshalling the human and material resources necessary for the six-month foray they plan. Along the way, we look for glimmers of growth in the conscience of Elizabeth and Michael over the evil they are participating in. The dangers they encounter and the human deaths that result from their enterprise are part of that awakening.Quite a motley collection of people join their hunting enterprise, which will have to be self-sufficient in the wilderness. Among the various people hired as skinners and butchers are Southern rednecks who eventually approach a near mutiny over her hiring a group of freed slaves for the work required. Her ban on alcohol soon has to be rescinded to keep the rowdy elements satisfied. A young boy running away from an abusive father is effectively adopted by Elizabeth. A minister friend of Elizabeth’s, originally from an aristocratic Massachusetts family, joins the entourage because of his interest in seeing the savage residents of the West, Indian and otherwise, civilized by religion. His other interest is capitalizing on his experiences through lurid stories and novels that he finds to sell well. Plus, he is romantically interested in Elizabeth. The minister is a complex character, but one with an ugly hollowness inside:All his life he’d been torn between the sacred word and the secular world. There was an emptiness he desperately needed to fill. It was a need to feel something never felt before, to say something never said before.Michael barely tolerates the minister:He despised such as the reverend doctor, their worlds of righteousness and reward, punishment and damnation.…As with all religious men, he was a man of many ideas but only one conclusion. …“Hardship is God’s gift for self-improvement.”“Then you must be improved by the many snakes,” Michael said.Yet he begins to recognize parallels with the motives of the man he works for in his business collecting animals and hide, one Mr. Salt:…just as the reverend doctor was in the pursuit of souls, men such as Mr. Salt were in pursuit of all the phenomena of nature. They would possess the flora and fauna of the earth, its machines and art, its mineral, water, fire, and air. They would own the rising and setting sun, the moon and the planets, the shining stars and the meteors, the seasons and the change of season, the clouds, the wind, the rain and snow. They would possess the created and the uncreated. They would own history.“Like Noah,” the reverend doctor said.The potential for romance between Michael and Elizabeth slowly arises as we witness his protectiveness for her and her admiration for his style:“You should never leave camp alone, even for a stroll.”“Please do not underestimate me,” she said.She’d watched him closely these first days on the road and was learning how strange and capable he was. He had a capacity for silence and was rarely surprised by what he came upon. When tired, he coiled down in sleep and Sabi [his dog] snuggled egglike into his body, and at any time he was liable to get up, day or night, and have coffee and smoke. Whereas David had been capable of disappearing inside himself for days at a time, Michael always seemed to be alert, present, and expectant, and unlike his brother, he seemed to require just enough for himself, the horse, and the dogs.During the long journey to the Canadian River valley in Indian Territory and implementation of a systematic slaughter and processing of buffalo, death comes knocking on the door for a significant number of their party. Most are acts of God, like the horse kick to the head that nailed Elizabeth’s husband. Think of the hazards of prairie fires, lightning, snakebite, falling off a horse, downing in a flood or crossing a river, blizzards, deadly diseases like malaria. The horror of a man infected by rabies and having to be put down like a mad dog was particularly disturbing. Olmstead is not exactly trying to educate us away from the notion that personal violence was the prime hazard to life on the frontier. Yes, he downplays cutthroat drifters and gunslingers as part of the saga. And except for a few bands of Comanche and Kiowa, the Indians have all been subdued by this time in history. Yet there was still significant space in this story for murder and mayhem, especially in the final sections. For example, the hostilities among members of the hunting crew has its outcomes. And the threat of a Comanche raid is bought home by an encounter with the bodies of a recent slaughter of a pioneer family in transit. It’s striking how much the characters, many of them participants in the bloodiest war of the century, take the incident in stride just as they do for natural disasters. Another small incident with a Comanche elder dying from gunshot and his white wife involves a disturbing form of cultural violence when the crew from the hunting party strip his body of all his possessions and clothes for souvenirs. The wife, apparently kidnapped long ago, surprises them by choosing to escape for a return to the tribe rather than return to white society (as with Quanah Parker’s mother Cynthia Ann Parker). In a sense the book’s theme is more about cultural and ecological violence than physical violence. Michael is more compromised in that regard, than Elizabeth especially with his involvement in the African ivory trade, which depended heavily on slavery for transporting the goods. We get some mitigating reasons for a nihilism behind Michael’s history owing to certain personal tragedies. And we see a thawing of his heart, as when he courageously saves several people in a severe blizzard. Still, despite his obvious heroism, it’s a big challenge for the reader to forgive him for his past and as the chief shooter for the buffalo hunt. To really grok the historical forces that led him and other otherwise decent people to do what they did. Time and again, the U.S. failed to stop white man’s incursions into Indian lands for resources like land for settlement and gold in the Black Hills and elsewhere (and some historians argue they couldn’t have stopped). Now we get a human face to the competition for a buffalo harvest, replete with a widow trying to save her farm. That gives this a tragedy a poignant element in addition to the mythical, biblical, or elegiac elements associated with the inexorable end to wilderness and decimation of native forms of society and ecologies.A dream by Michael while being laid low with malaria under the care of Elizabeth raises our hopes for changing his ways:With the next fit he went under again. The buffalo were coming in countless numbers from a country under the ground. They poured from the cavelike opening and swarmed the land and he recognized them as the buffalo he’d killed and they were alive and in his dream he was the one who was dead and lost on the plain. Venomous reptiles coiled among the rocks, panicking the horse he rode, and paralyzed, he was falling to ground in their midst. He was bitten again and again and each bite was a pinch and a shock of lightening-like electricity. He could see the stream of poison entering the channels of his veins. Their smell was the sulfur of a fiery hell. There were children and the snakes were coiled around their arms or legs and striking with their fangs, and wherever they struck, the children turned black.Olmstead hooked me good with this outstanding “Coal Black Horse”, a coming-of-age tale of a boy caught up in the Civil War. He really masters putting personal lives, their development, and quest for meaning on the stage of historical turning points, all with a marvelous lyricism. I now want to catch up with the two books between that one and the current one, novels that follows descendants from the first book in their involvement with the Mexican War and the Korean War in the other.This book was provided by the publisher for review through the Netgalley program.
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  • Melissa Crytzer Fry
    January 1, 1970
    ** 3.75 stars, rounded up **This is a raw, gritty story about the buffalo hunting of the late 1800s that drew the species to near extinction. Told in spare, exacting prose that still manages to paint incredible, vivid imagery of the dangers and depravations of life on the plains and of the times, this book touches the reader’s senses. To me, this novel is a look back at the behaviors of man and the long-lasting consequences of greed and excess – even though the book did not highlight that theme ** 3.75 stars, rounded up **This is a raw, gritty story about the buffalo hunting of the late 1800s that drew the species to near extinction. Told in spare, exacting prose that still manages to paint incredible, vivid imagery of the dangers and depravations of life on the plains and of the times, this book touches the reader’s senses. To me, this novel is a look back at the behaviors of man and the long-lasting consequences of greed and excess – even though the book did not highlight that theme in any overt manner. That is what stopped this from being a 5-star read for me, personally – the lack of moral stance taken, and perhaps I also wanted the characters to feel a much greater sense of remorse than they did. But the mentality of the characters was largely ‘back to business as usual’ in the slaughter of animals for monetary gain, in the collecting of animals as trophies and for zoos, and the belief that the earth and its resources are limitless and there for man’s taking, etc.That slow-trickle of remorse by the characters made the ending less rewarding for me, though I am certain the author portrayed Elizabeth and Michael – and the others – true to the beliefs and attitudes of their times. And maybe that was the point: to simply show us the single-mindedness of man’s thoughts in his quest for riches.I personally would love to have seen a historical note at the end of the book about the buffalo hunting that decimated the population from 25-30 million in the 1700s down to less than 100 by the 1880s. Perhaps the final version will include this information (I received an advance reader copy from the publisher through the Goodreads First Reads program – thank you!). Though the more I think about it, the more I believe the author wasn’t aiming to write eco-fiction. Perhaps he simply wanted to write an engaging story of the western plains, highlighting the struggles of man and his own ambitions. And in this, he succeeded abundantly well.Bottom line: If you want to be immersed in a foreboding and simultaneously lush setting and hope to experience heart-stopping danger amid a gentle love story, this book is definitely worth the read. If you enjoy strong female characters and even the juxtaposition of “the hunt” with man’s tenderness toward horses and dogs, this might be the book for you. Coming in at only 293 pages, it’s a fast read. But be warned that some of the slaughter scenes may be difficult. There is a Wikimedia photo from the 1870s of a pile of American bison skulls waiting to be ground for fertilizer -- to give a sense of the savage slaughter that took a food source away from Native Americans and nearly wiped out the species. Wow.
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  • Robert Brinkmeyer
    January 1, 1970
    The title of this powerful novel that follows a buffalo hunt in post-Civil War Kansas pretty much says it all: the American West was a land of brutal savagery. While the violence of the Indian wars lurks everywhere in the novel, Olmstead's true subject is the savagery of the white settlers to each other and to the environment. While the national myth portrays the progress of civilization from east to west, Olmstead suggests (following Cormac McCarthy, particularly in Blood Meridian) that the ide The title of this powerful novel that follows a buffalo hunt in post-Civil War Kansas pretty much says it all: the American West was a land of brutal savagery. While the violence of the Indian wars lurks everywhere in the novel, Olmstead's true subject is the savagery of the white settlers to each other and to the environment. While the national myth portrays the progress of civilization from east to west, Olmstead suggests (following Cormac McCarthy, particularly in Blood Meridian) that the idea of progress merely masks humanity's fundamental heart of darkness--a heart of darkness that not only did not go away with the "civilizing" forces of settlement but indeed will never go away, as science, technology, and greed (for power and money) lead to ever more violent and efficient means of destruction. Caught up in this savagery are the novel's protagonists, Elizabeth Coughlin and her brother-in-law Michael, who lead the expedition to massacre one of the last remaining buffalo herds. Elizabeth needs the money to help rescue herself and her ranch hands from the debt left by her husband, and Michael, who has hunted for profit across the world (including for zoos and the wealthy) goes along to help. Even Michael, who knows what he’s getting into, is eventually worn down and benumbed by the slaughter. But it’s Elizabeth who is most affected by the enterprise, at first developing into a skillful and firm leader (she’s a cross between Scarlett O’Hara and Ron Rash’s Serena), but she too eventually finds that the dark forces at work are too much for her, despite all the money she’s making. What happens next carries the novel toward its staggering conclusion.As always with Olmstead, this novel is intense and often frightening--a gripping read, in other words. Readers who enjoy literature of the West will discover many nods to and echoes of other writers, most particularly Cormac McCarthy.Thanks to NetGalley for providing me an ARC for an unbiased review.
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  • Kim McGee
    January 1, 1970
    A recently widowed woman along with her brother-in-law plan a last ditch effort to save their family fortune by going on a massive buffalo hunt. They venture from Kansas with a rag tag party and face indians, bad weather, vermin (both animal and man) all just to keep out of the poorhouse. Elizabeth is the perfect role model for the tough pioneer woman- independent, tough as nails, but still graceful under pressure and kind. Everything lives up to the title - savage people, savage animals and an A recently widowed woman along with her brother-in-law plan a last ditch effort to save their family fortune by going on a massive buffalo hunt. They venture from Kansas with a rag tag party and face indians, bad weather, vermin (both animal and man) all just to keep out of the poorhouse. Elizabeth is the perfect role model for the tough pioneer woman- independent, tough as nails, but still graceful under pressure and kind. Everything lives up to the title - savage people, savage animals and an even more savage landscape. Fans of the classic westerns will appreciate the author's use of language. He writes in a style that seems true to how they would have spoken. While the short formal sentences may make for more careful reading, the voice feels authentic. My thanks to the publisher for the advance copy.
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  • Tehila
    January 1, 1970
    I received a free copy of this book for review purposes.Savage Country is the first book I’ve read by Mr Olmstead. The plot pulls in with plenty of action, but I found the writing off-putting, with many phrases that sounded stilted. There were some editing errors, a pet peeve of mine. I hope this is cleared up by the final editing before the final edition comes out.Mr Olmstead has done his research regarding the period; there were several things I had not known before reading Savage Country.I am I received a free copy of this book for review purposes.Savage Country is the first book I’ve read by Mr Olmstead. The plot pulls in with plenty of action, but I found the writing off-putting, with many phrases that sounded stilted. There were some editing errors, a pet peeve of mine. I hope this is cleared up by the final editing before the final edition comes out.Mr Olmstead has done his research regarding the period; there were several things I had not known before reading Savage Country.I am looking forward to reading Mr Olmstead’s previous books.
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  • Kathleen Gray
    January 1, 1970
    Bleak, dark, and highly descriptive, this is one for fans of Western literature. I'd not read a novel based around a buffalo hunt before and likely won't again (not my genre) but I am glad to have read this. Elizabeth doesn't know what she is getting into when she agrees to go on the hunt with her brother-in-law Michael. Don't look for romance between these two, or any romance at all. A lot of this is brutal but it's well written and in many ways informative. I actually think this would make an Bleak, dark, and highly descriptive, this is one for fans of Western literature. I'd not read a novel based around a buffalo hunt before and likely won't again (not my genre) but I am glad to have read this. Elizabeth doesn't know what she is getting into when she agrees to go on the hunt with her brother-in-law Michael. Don't look for romance between these two, or any romance at all. A lot of this is brutal but it's well written and in many ways informative. I actually think this would make an excellent film. Thanks to Netgalley for the ARC.
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  • Lynn
    January 1, 1970
    Indians kill with arrows and then scalp their victims. White men kill buffalo with rifles and then skin their kill for the hides have inestimable value. It is, indeed, a savage country. I read this EARC courtesy of Edelweiss and Algonquin Books; pub date 09/26/17
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  • Carol Ann
    January 1, 1970
    Edge of year seat stuff...historical fiction. I enjoy Olmstead's work very much. Recommended.
  • Ann Theis
    January 1, 1970
    Kirkus
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