If you liked True Grit, galloping book critic Erin McCabe has a suggestion: Check out Robert Lautner’s Road To Reckoning.
I love it when I’m surprised by a novel I didn’t expect to be horse-y suddenly becoming horse-y. Road To Reckoning by Robert Lautner is one such book. While I have seen it called a Western, and while it does feature a journey through the wilderness, with horses, outlaws, guns, and murder, this book is not only for those who love Westerns. Especially since I don’t consider myself a Western reader (heck, I’ve never even picked up a Louis L’Amour novel!). I do, however, enjoy a good coming-of-age story, and Road To Reckoning is definitely that.
I initially picked up Road To Reckoning because it was compared to True Grit – another coming-of-age “Western”— which is also one of the books with a permanent home on my favorites shelf. Turns out, this is a very apt comparison. Both books feature a quirky older first-person narrator reflecting on a journey undertaken as a young teen (well, Mattie from True Grit is 13, Thomas from Road To Reckoning is 12), both stories revolve around the narrator taking a journey to avenge a father’s murder, and each story gives us the gift of a compelling character (Rooster Cogburn in True Grit, Henry Stands in Road To Reckoning) who is what Thomas refers to as “a good bad man”—men who do bad things for a good cause. And, of course, both stories also include memorable horse characters.
While True Grit stands out for the sparkling wit of its narrator, Thomas, the narrator of Road To Reckoning, is less memorable as his younger self. Where he shines is in the glimpses we get of his adult self. Now a father of two himself, both his sons have died in the Civil War, and he tells the story of the two men who acted as father to him, perhaps as a way to demonstrate what kind of father he became, perhaps because there is no one left to carry on the memory of his father figures now that his own sons are gone. What Thomas says about himself and his father figures is intriguing for what it reveals and what it leaves out. I love the strongly opinionated character Thomas has grown into, presumably as a result of the journey the book recounts. But the stand-out character is Henry Stands, a former ranger and a current “good bad man,” who helps Thomas in his attempt to get back home. He is the kind of proud, strong, silent, gun-wielding type who is admirable for what he says, but even more for what he does, which is to seem completely fearless, utterly competent, and entirely badass. Except for the touching moments where we see his softer side.
But the horses, you ask. Well yes, there are indeed horses in this novel. Namely Thomas’ horse Jude Brown. I confess that while Jude Brown is present in one way or another on most every page of the book, he is not a huge character. It’s more the periodic insightful and spot-on observations about horses that make me recommend this as a horse-y read. For instance, at one point Thomas says, “Until you have had a horse breathing beside your ear, eating from your hand, stepping with your step, and thanking you with his head nudging against you, the Lord is your stranger.” Seriously, does he get that sentiment right or what?
Author Robert Lautner gets a lot of other things right too. Once I got accustomed to Thomas’ narration, the language and diction felt absolutely authentic, though it took me a bit longer than usual (a couple chapters) to get into the rhythm of the book, and at times I had to slow down to take his meaning. The prose is terse and spare, yet beautiful, the turns of phrase just right while leaving plenty of room to read between the lines. It’s a short, fast-paced read, but it’s not easy. Lautner is clearly a writer who understands the value of letting the reins go and allowing the reader to figure things out herself—what amounts to self-carriage for book lovers. But where Road To Reckoning outshines (gasp! I can’t believe I’m saying this) True Grit is in how Lautner at times allows Thomas to address the reader, and in so doing, uses the plot and the telling of the story to reveal something about one’s own character. Really, it’s a marvel, and that’s what makes me say this book is fist-pounding-the-page good.
Erin McCabe rides two OTTB mares and hopes to someday soon get back to competing at horse trials. Her first novel, I Shall Be Near To You, was published earlier this year. You can learn more at erinlindsaymccabe.com.