Click here to read the first pages of Glendon Swarthout’s other Western masterpiece (besides The Shootist). The Homesman swept the Western genre awards for 1988, winning both the Spur and Wrangler Award as the Best Western Novel of that year. For a long time owned and in development as a feature film by actor Paul Newman, film rights to this tremendously powerful story of madness and heroism on the Great Plains in the 1850's is now a film starring and directed by Tommy Lee Jones, which debuted at the famous Cannes Film Festival on the French Riviera in May of 2014. Mr. Jones' co-stars include Oscar-winning actresses Hilary Swank, Meryl Streep, as well as other Oscar nominees John Lithgow, Hailee Steinfeld (True Grit), plus James Spader, William Fichtner, and Tim Blake Nelson. The Homesman's composer, Marco Beltrami, and its cinematographer, Rodrigo Prieto, are also former Oscar nominees.
If Bless the Beasts & Children stands as Glendon Swarthout's contemporary masterpiece, then I believe that The Homesman qualifies as Glendon's historical masterpiece. The Homesman, however, stands as Glendon's culminating Western, an epic tale of hardship on a journey from the frontier back East, with a wagonload of mad women being ferried to better care in more civilized cities on the east coast. It is a frontier adventure in reverse, a peek at the dark side of America's great Western quest, depicting the misfortunes of the losers in the relentless press onward of our frontier.
The Homesman in 1988 won both the Western Writers of America's Spur Award and the Western Heritage Association's Wrangler Award, a fairly rare sweep of these two most important genre writing awards for Best Western Novel annually. The Homesman was also a Book-of-the-Month Club selection. It is Glendon's crowning achievement in the Western, the literary genre in which he remains best-known.
The Homesman is a devastating, humane story of early pioneers to America's West in the 1850's. It celebrates the ones we hear nothing of -- the brave women whose hearts and minds were broken by that life of bitter hardship. When a nineteen-year-old mother loses her three children to diphtheria in three days, or a woman left alone for two nights has to shoot wolves as they crash through the window, it is no wonder they should lose their minds. After a dreadful winter, the Rev. Dowd finds there are four such cases in his parish and, as yet, no asylum.
A "homesman" must be found to escort the women East to civilization. Not a job anyone would volunteer for, it falls to Mary Bee Cuddy, ex-teacher, spinster -- indomitable, resourceful, "plain as an old tin pail." Brave as she is, Mary Bee knows she cannot succeed alone -- and the only companion available is as low-life and untrustworthy as may be: "George Briggs" the claim-jumper.
Thus begins a trek East, against the flow of the country, against hardship, Indian attacks, ice storms, loneliness, and the unceasing aggravation of a disparate group of mad women, which provides a series of tough, fast-paced adventures and introduces two wonderful, idiosyncratic characters. This is the tale of their journey, and a tribute to the valor of the men and women who homesteaded the frontier, whether they survived or not. The Homesman is narrative fiction of the first rank. And in Mary Bee Cuddy, Glendon Swarthout has created a portrait of a frontier woman who is as moving and believable as she is unforgettable.
"An epic journey across the plains It is as good as novels get." Cleveland Plain Dealer
"No reader should attempt to guess what happens. Surprise piles upon surprise . . . Glendon Swarthout has honed writing excellence to a nearly unsurpassable level . . . A powerful novel . . . A classic of vivid realism and gripping storytelling." Associated Press
"One of Swarthout's best . . . An absorbing epic of endurance." Kirkus Reviews
"Glendon Swarthout is a master storyteller . . .The Homesman is one hell of a ride." Los Angeles Daily News
"Love and madness on the frontier . . . totally involving from its very first words . . . a dangerous journey into the soul, an exploration of the relationships of men and women to each other, to their environment and -- ultimately and most devastatingly -- to themselves . . . impressive . . . shattering . . . convincing . . . nothing less than a study of the human spirit." Los Angeles Times Book Review
"Captures both the adventurous spirit and realities of frontier life." Booklist
"Swarthout's tale reeks with period atmosphere . . . A very good story, rich in characterization . . . Pioneer passions . . . Earthy stuff with which the West was won." El Paso Herald Post
"A classic of Western Americana. Filled with the sights, sounds, and daily trivia of frontier life and peopled with authentic characters . . . A novel that can't be put down and once finished will not be easily forgotten." Flint, Michigan Journal