The Last Ram, Steve Linstrom (2013)
Another member of my on-line writing group published this year. Steve Linstrom may live in Minnesota, but he knows and writes about the landscape and history of the Dakota Badlands so well, he can make you feel you’re walking along one of the dusty washes, with spires and crags towering overhead.
The Badlands (a national park since 1978 — before then it was a National Monument) is not a soft terrain. Hence its name. Imagine yourself in a covered wagon, crossing the Midwestern plains in the 1880s. Days on end of flat tree-less prairie broken by the occasional river. You know the Rocky Mountains are ahead — you can even see a few bumps on the horizon that might be the foothills — and you’re preparing yourself for that hair-raising passage, when suddenly your mules pull up on their own. In front of you is a sheer drop. Those bumps that you thought were foothills are actually the upper reaches of cliffs whose bases lie below ground level. Now you remember being warned of this: You’re at the Badlands “wall,” and ahead of you is a maze of canyons and clefts that reveal striations across sheer walls of hard rock. Without a guide, you’d be hopelessly lost in there within hours. Luckily, you’re not even tempted. Passage is impossible with a wagon, so you turn your mules to go around.
This is the setting for Linstrom’s first novel, about the repercussions when 13-year-old Evan Warner spots an Audubon Bighorn ram within the Badlands. It’s 1903, a new century, and it doesn’t take long for the news to travel. Within days, big game hunters have gathered in Evan’s town of Interior (just south of the Badlands), each hoping to be the one who bags this trophy, perhaps the last Bighorn sheep in the Badlands. Rumors fly that even Teddy Roosevelt himself will show up.
Then Evan’s best friend, David, a Lakota Sioux who has been away at school for two years, arrives, and Evan’s familiar world shifts. His father, James Warner, treats him like a child; David is distant and unwilling to fall back into their childhood camaraderie; and Morgan, a solitary cowboy reminiscent of Ethan Edwards in The Searchers, pulls away when Evan recklessly mentions Morgan’s presence at Wounded Knee.
Wounded Knee. Occurring the year Evan was born, this horrifying event is still fresh in the minds of nearly everyone around him. Fears of Indian uprisings — of another Ghost Dance movement — flit through the town, and we see the power of anti-Indian prejudice.
Linstrom’s novel is essentially about the changing west (the Badlands aren’t that far from Deadwood, the notorious town where Wild Bill Hickok was killed in 1876). In the 20th Century, what room is there for the shoot-em-up exploits of men like Hickok, Wyatt Earp and others? When one character carries a Winchester into the Badlands, it fills with dirt during a fall and becomes useless.
The Last Ram is also about what it’s like to be a Lakota at a time when whites and Indians have reached an uneasy truce. The goal of David’s school back east is to “kill the Indian and save the man.” When he returns to Interior, he’s uncomfortable with both whites and Indians, unable to make connections to anyone. His path into the Badlands is metaphorical as well as actual, leading him to past horrors and personal tragedy. At the end of the novel, Evan and David both move forward, but in opposite directions: David into his own past, and Evan into the land’s future. Very satisfying.