The Homesman

Written by Glendon Swarthout
Review by Jo Ann Butler

Anyone who imagines that a homesteader’s life on America’s Great Plains was all “Little House on the Prairie” hasn’t tried it. Spend six months trapped inside a dark sodhouse with sickly children, your food and firewood running low, and your nearest neighbor many miles away so you are forced to deliver your baby by yourself, and the Polar Vortex will seem like a tea party.

Many 1850s pioneers broke under the strain, and four women in Glendon Swarthout’s award-winning The Homesman are in dire straits. All their overwhelmed husbands can do is cast lots to see which of them will escort the madwomen back across the plains to Iowa, where they can be cared for. When the chosen man refuses his duty, an unlikely volunteer steps forth.

Mary Bee Cuddy, an iron-willed spinster tough enough to manage a claim by herself, can’t bear to see the demented women left to their fates. She finds an even more unlikely assistant in George Briggs – at least that’s the name he gave Mary when she rescued the claim jumper from a lynch mob’s noose. The price of Briggs’ life is to help Mary with her unwilling charges.

The Homesman was first printed in 1988, and is highly worthy of its 2014 rerelease. Swarthout’s prose and plot flow like the swirling Missouri River, deceptively smooth but with dangerous undercurrents. His characters are heart-wrenchingly believable because they are drawn from true-life pioneer experiences. Mary Bee Cuddy is simultaneously gritty and fragile – in other words, utterly human. She and The Homesman are unforgettable, and highly recommended.