Taking as his inspiration the story behind the ballad “Tennessee Stud,” Averill is off and running on a journey tale set in 1825. Young Robert Johnson inherits disputed land in Tennessee. As he begins to settle it with his homesteading skills and his dreams of creating a horse breeding business with his remarkable Stud, he also falls in love with Jo, the daughter and sister of his feuding neighbors. When her menfolk burn down his cabin and frame him for murder, Robert and Stud become fugitives. Traveling the same route as the song, they journey from Tennessee into Arkansas, through Texas and into Mexico before Robert returns to clear his name and claim his bride.
Pursued by a relentless bounty hunter, Indians, religious charlatans, and harsh environments, Robert suffers the loss of his horse and virtual enslavement. But he is also graced by the kindnesses of fellow travelers, including an abolitionist family and French Canadian homesteaders. Throughout his transformation from innocence to experience, he keeps the kinship of his horse and the love of the pregnant Jo in his heart.
rode (all lowercase), told in the clean, spare style of a folk ballad, is an example of how a novel’s length does not necessarily coincide with depth. Although it loses some of its momentum by the end, its precise language, compelling characterizations and driving narrative provide an immersion into another time that is the essence of great historical fiction.