Surviving the Frontier in The Revenant by Michael Punke

Leonardo DiCaprio portrays Hugh Glass in the upcoming film adaptation
Leonardo DiCaprio portrays Hugh Glass in the upcoming film adaptation

Michael Punke’s 2002 novel The Revenant is subtitled “A Novel of Revenge,” which hints at a major motivating factor for the protagonist, Hugh Glass, but belies a greater, more pressing motivator: survival.

Early in the novel—set in 1833—while going upriver with an exploratory party, Glass is attacked by a grizzly bear. The attack leaves him disfigured, disabled, and utterly susceptible to the harshness of the frontier. The severity of his wounds leaves Glass unable to continue with the party. While the rest of the group carries on, he is left to the care of two fellow expedition members named Bridger and Fitzgerald. Their purpose is to oversee his looming death, give him a proper burial, and rendezvous with the expedition as quickly as possible. When Fitzgerald spots a band of Natives coming close to their encampment, he decides that Glass’s dignity isn’t worth dying for, and after coercing Bridger to follow suit, begins to rob Glass of his knife, his rifle, and his possibles bag before running in the opposite direction of the native on-comers.

This act of betrayal sets the narrative in motion and provides for the dramatic through line of Glass’s journey: every step (or lumbering crawl) that he takes is one step closer to finding his betrayers and enacting revenge upon them. Early on he uses this hatred as fuel to continue when it looks like food and health will be out of his grasp, but as his journey progresses, the story takes a more somber, contemplative tone. The early, mythic, all-encompassing revenge gives way to a revenge mired in the practicality of merely surviving (and later, the practicality of civilization). And it is that self-reflective, solitary, practical mode—the stark passages of Glass at odds with man, beast, and the wild—which provides the best argument for The Revenant being a novel of survival before revenge.

Punke—who has said as a youth he was enamoured with wilderness and survival—seems to savour brief moments of description amidst the otherwise condensed prose driving the plot forward. The stylistic choice to write in a spare, historical, or even scholarly style in the midst of epic landscape and circumstance can be received as either uneven or wholly unique. Punke can—in the span of pages—go into the incredible minutiae of setting and maintaining game traps, or jump a month and many miles ahead in the story. I found both efforts enjoyable; the minutiae helps to create a sense of presence with Glass as he fashions rudimentary tools of survival, while the jumps in time create a brisk pace and thrust Glass further along in his journey.

This duality of prose permeates the novel—Punke can both accurately portray the economics of gulf coast pirating and beautifully paint an image of unimaginably massive plains. There is one particular passage where Glass encounters a pack of wolves which is especially well written, and an example of where this marriage of historical and descriptive prose creates an encompassing portrait. In short: the prose, while spare, fully renders the frontier in vivid imagery.

So while The Revenant is marketed as a novel about revenge, it is not a novel with such a singular purpose. There is much more contained within to enjoy; from the historically accurate maps and how they play into the novel, to the knowledgeable portrayal of french fur trappers, warring native tribes, and the expansion westward of the United States military. All of which would contain spoilers to further elaborate on, so I will only say that they help to mold the rich environment which Glass navigates. Punke was previously a history professor and the attention to historical accuracy shows. I would highly recommend this novel to fans of historical fiction or survival fiction.

As a side note (and more accurately, the reason I became interested in picking up this novel) there is a film adaptation releasing in December 2015 directed by Alejandro Iñárritu, and starring Leonardo DiCaprio and Tom Hardy. After seeing the trailer I immediately wanted to read the book; now having read the book, I am eagerly waiting to see how the tenaciousness of Glass will be portrayed on film. Shot in British Columbia and Alberta, with Emmanuel Lubezki as the director of photography, it looks to be very promising in bringing to life both the beauty and violence of the frontier. I have included the first teaser trailer:

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