Midway through Glendon Swarthout’s 1988 novel, The Homesman, Mary Bee Cuddy wakes up and, from her bedroll by the frame wagon, hears the good-for-nothing cull Briggs, the claim-jumper she saved from hanging, shouting, “Whooeee!”
There, by the fire, he is dancing. It astonishes her.
Strong drink, she supposed, affected different men differently. Briggs had built up the fire and was on his feet by it — dancing. Of all things, of all people, George Briggs was dancing. And, unlike the recital of the dragoon story, this seemed to be a performance for his own pleasure.
It was a kind of jig, or hoe-down, and he pounded his energy into it without stint. He banged his boots, he clapped his hands, he flapped his arms like wings around himself, and as he danced, he began to sing some words of ‘Weevily Wheat’ in a loud, besotted voice.
Mary Bee turns over to go back to sleep. But, before she does, she notices that the four insane women whom she and Briggs are escorting, bound and guarded, to Iowa are wide awake.
They lay on their sides under the wagon watching the dancer. In the firelight their eyes glittered.
This dance by Briggs, one that will be repeated later, seems to me, after my second reading of this novel in nine years, to be the core of The Homesman.
That may strike other readers of the book as foolish and misguided. After all, this is a book about the hardships of women in mid-19th century America on the far edge of the frontier in the sparsely populated Nebraska Territory:
- About the hardships of all women who were wives, mothers and homesteaders, usually with their husband, there, in a place where, especially in winter, not another single soul might be seen for months on end and where the pounding of the weather and the pounding of isolation could and did drive a worn-down spirit mad.
- And, more particularly, about the hardships of the four women who have gone crazy from their life in all that bleakness.
- And, yes, too, about the hardships of Mary Bee, strong and competent as any man on the frontier, who has — by herself — made a life of her own on her own property to the admiration and respect of the men who know her, though not enough to prompt any to romance her into a marriage.
“I can do anything.”
That’s what Mary Bee says to Alfred Dowd, the preacher. They have just talked about this past winter, only now slowly letting go its grip on the prairie, and how it drove four local women insane.
Last year, it was three. Last year, one of the husbands served in the role of “homesman,” as Dowd calls it, and brought his wife and the other two home to relatives back east who would be able to care for them. This year, another homesman will be needed.
Dowd who is something of a wilderness saint tells his friend: “I don’t know how you do it, my dear. Honestly. Living alone, I mean.” That’s when Mary makes her calm brag which doesn’t seem like much of a brag, given her grit and will and talents and strength of character.
Yet, Mary Bee isn’t as indomitable as she appears.
When Dowd leaves, Mary Bee saddles her horse Dorothy, and rides to visit one of those deranged women, her friend Theoline Belknap — a woman who lost her wits after giving birth on a winter night with her husband away. She threw the baby girl to her death in the pit of the outhouse.
Theoline is on her bed, her head a “rat’s nest,” her long twill shirt food-stained, and each of her wrists tied to a bed post. And all she will say are nonsense syllables, “Tha, tha, tha, tha, tha, tha, tha, tha, tha, tha.”
Mary Bee looked away and sat a spell. Inside, she went void. At length something flared in the void like the strike of a match in pitch dark. It was anger.
A few days later, when Theoline’s husband refuses to take part in the drawing to determine the homesman for this year, Mary Bee — out of duty, yes, and maybe out of hubris and probably at least partly out of boredom — takes his place.
And draws the short straw.
And, now, she is seated alone, face-to-face with the reality of what she had agreed to take on, thinking about an early line in Genesis: “And the earth was without form and void; and darkness was upon the face of the deep.”
She took the word “deep” to mean the void, which was dark. What had happened to her lately she thought of as going void. She was suddenly empty inside, absolutely void. In her was a great, dark deep. Then one of two things occurred in the void. A match was struck, a light flared, and soon she was full of flame. That was fury, as she had been furious at Vester Belknap. Or, like a seed, a crystal of ice formed and grew, and soon her deep was solid ice. That was fear, as she had feared the snake.
She had discovered that fear was more often the cause of the void than fury. And that is what she now feels — knowing that, alone, she cannot carry out the task she has taken on.
The Homesman is the story of the four insane women and of Mary Bee and her own travels along the edge of insanity, her own travels into the void.
But it is also the story of the husbands of the four women who, whether loving or abusing to their wives, are also beaten down by the land they have sought to conquer.
And it is the story of George Briggs, the drifter who a vigilante group has decided to hang for jumping the claim of one of their friends. He is shiftless, coarse and violent, but Mary Bee saves him from the noose in return for his agreement to accompany her with the women to Iowa. That, and $300.
And, on the trail, for all of his irritating ways, he turns out to be highly skillful, savvy about such arcane things as a dried out wagon wheel, a high-strung band of Indians, and a brutal ice storm.
Actually, much of what happens in the lives of all these characters is brutal in the inadvertent, blind way of weather and geography. And, even more, in terms of loneliness.
Each of the four crazy women has chosen the brutal loneliness of insanity rather than the brutality of reality. Mary Bee is forever working to fend off loneliness and the brutal void. And Briggs, for whatever his reasons, has made the brutal choice of a life of loneliness, a life without permanent ties, a life in which he can always leave in whatever direction he wants. So much of the lives of these characters is finding a way to simply survive in a brutal environment and way of life.
And then there’s the dance Briggs does by the fire.
A dance of hope
This is a dance of hope amid hopelessness. It is the seed buried under the ruins that sends a flower up through the crack in the stone to the sunlight and a short time in the sun.
Briggs dances, and it has something to do with the community he has found with the four crazy women — “the giddyup girls,” he calls them — and with Mary Bee, the community that, for all the work involved, breaks, at least temporarily, his isolation.
The Homesman is also the story of the dancing of the other characters. The decision of the women and their husbands to come to Nebraska was an act of hope. Mary Bee’s decision to buy and run her own farm was an act of hope. Her assertion that she can “do anything” is nothing more than a hope that she can.
The women, now insane, are beyond hoping. Mary Bee, throughout the time on the trail, has hopes for life after this journey, for communion. It’s a hope that wars with the void inside her.
In his life, Briggs, for all his competence, for all his seeming freedom, has seemed to hope hardly at all, has seemed to just ride with the breeze, fearing even to have a goal to aim for.
Yet, in dancing, he is celebrating the communion he has found and, in some way, hoping for future joy. He is saying that, at this moment, in this place, his body moves with pleasure. At this moment, in this place, his actions have nothing to do with surviving life’s brutalities.
They have only to do with joy.
For a novel that tells so many brutal stories, The Homesman is a book of joy — the joyfulness of making miles on the trail, of working together on the trail, of finding an open ear and an open heart on the trail, a community and a communion if only for this moment, if only in this place.
Patrick T. Reardon
For my 2012 essay on The Homesman and the movie made from the book, see Believing in Movies.