The fur trade played a pivotal role in the development of the American West. From the 1600s, France and England had competed for the best spots to trap beaver and other fur-bearing animals and ship the pelts home for enormous profits. Certainly the opportunity for America to join in this seemingly inexhaustible fur bonanza was one of the reasons that President Jefferson was eager for Lewis & Clark to stake U.S. claims to the Upper Missouri and the Rocky Mountains.
While I knew this historical background, I’d never given much thought to the young men who actually ventured into the wilderness and lived as mountain men. Who were they? Why did they choose to live such a hard life? How did they learn what to do in time to survive? What would it have actually been like to leave behind everything familiar and live such a free and elemental life?
About the time that our first novel, To the Ends of the Earth, came out, I had the privilege of reading and reviewing Edward Louis Henry’s excellent first novel, The Backbone of the World, on our old and long-gone website, and we later exchanged copies of our second novels. Like us, Ed has battled the indifference of the publishing industry to meaty American historical fiction, and so you can imagine how delighted I was to be contacted by his new publisher with a copy of his third novel, Shinin’ Times!
Shinin’ Times! explores the peak years of the fur trade, from 1828-1833, and continues the story of our picaresque hero Temple Buck, who at the ripe old age of 23 has graduated from wilderness newcomer to grizzled veteran of the Rocky Mountains. Henry writes the book as a first-person “memoir” by Temple, with an authenticity that can easily make you forget you are reading a work of modern fiction. The story begins with Temple returning to St. Louis to “re-up” for another trip up the river, and the sights and smells of the frontier gateway come to life, complete with a trip to William Clark’s farm on the outskirts of town.
Before long, Temple has embarked on his journey into the wilderness in the company of a wry Shawnee chief who happens to be his biological father, and Micah, a former slave turned expert gunsmith. As they join up with old friends at “rendezvous” (the annual fur-trade gathering of buying, selling, and carousing), the international nature of the rough-and-tumble early West comes alive — Americans, Irish, and French rub elbows with Indians of many tribes and dispositions, and in Henry’s skilled hands lovable fictional characters mingle effortlessly with real-life historical characters like Jedediah Smith and William Sublette.
Temple’s world is one of rough and raw beauty. In St. Louis, he finds comfort and pleasure in the arms of the always-randy and dramatic Lucette, a mixed-race madam from New Orleans, but lasting love and the final transition from boyhood to maturity come with Rainbow, a Salish woman who becomes the love of his life. Violence and death are ever-present, and Shinin’ Times! dramatizes countless battles with Indians who attack the fur trappers. The reality of the kill-or-be-killed ethos of the frontier is presented with matter-of-fact starkness, unmarred by either defensiveness or politically correct apologies by the author.
While focusing on Temple and his story, Shinin’ Times! and its predecessors are unlike any novels I have ever read. Henry has done it again, creating a fully realized alternate reality. Ed Henry is a mountain man reenactor as well a writer; perhaps that accounts for his ability to channel historical and cultural details into a total immersion experience, a time machine of the imagination.
I have some minor bones to pick with Henry, including wordiness truly worthy of the 19th century and the overuse of dialect to distinguish among the kaleidoscope of nationalities. But these are minor flaws in what is shaping up as a titanic achievement in historical fiction. A fourth book, Glory Days Gone Under, is planned to take Temple (and us) through the storied final years of this uniquely American saga. Shinin’ Times! is a fascinating novel, well worth picking up for everyone interested in the early American west.
Purchase Shinin’ Times! and other novels by Edward Louis Henry at Christopher Matthews Publishing.