It’s 1937, and from his first boss, Fenton, he learns a love of the mountains that is next to mystical. Lifted there high above the everyday concerns of everyday folks, he is at home. His quiet strength, work ethic, and finely tuned skills eventually make him a legend among his peers.
Character. A character study succeeds to the extent that it finds ambiguities and complexities in its subject. Since no one is perfect, it shouldn’t be surprising to reveal a weakness or fault. But Wyman’s portrayal of Ty tends to be worshipful, and where his halo may slip a little, it’s easily excused.
Wyman celebrates a kind of character we associate with traditional Western values. Ty represents an ideal of individualism and self-reliance that also honors a code of responsibility to others. He may pass an evening at the town brothel or fly into a rare rage when another man insults his dance partner. But he has been stripped of every bit of human meanness.
|Trapper Peak, Bitterroot Mountains, Montana|
You don’t have to believe that such men exist to enjoy this novel. Ty’s presence is always persuasive. He is most believable in the scenes that are life threatening – getting lost in a snowstorm or swept away attempting to rescue someone who’s fallen into a swollen river.
But the overall tone of the novel is sentimental. Not that there’s anything wrong with that. It simply glosses over much that readers know about human life. Wyman leaves us feeling in awe of the man, and for many readers that’s enough.
Love and other scenes. This may come as a surprise, but something Wyman does particularly well is the writing of love scenes. He is unabashed about building sexual tension and then putting passion convincingly into words.
His women are usually the seducers, but when the men fall, they fall hard. They are undone by a flood of confusing emotions and desires, distracted during the days, and sleepless at night.
|Mount Whitney, California. Photo by Zeimusu|
There really is no plot. The story covers the years 1937-1984. With the exception of a few years in the service during WWII, Ty is in the mountains every summer. The same people work with him, as they pack and trail in supplies for hunters, dudes, and firefighters.
The latter years are spent in California’s Sierra Nevadas. Here Wyman spends more time describing the high country west of the Owens Valley, along the Kern River, and around Mount Whitney.
The end of the novel becomes a litany for the disappearance of mountain solitude. In the final chapters, the mountains are filling with hikers, vacationers, and other invaders. Only the highest, most inaccessible areas are left for old-time packers like Ty and his friends.
Wyman knows his subject, having worked during his life as a wrangler, guide, and packer. His book calls itself fiction, but there is the strong feeling of documentary about it. It is a record of a time and place when wilderness in the West was still wild.
High Country is available at amazon and Abebooks.
Photo credits: Wikimedia Commons
Coming up: Francis Lynde, The Taming of Red Butte Western (1910)