Haunting, brutal story set in Western America
Butcher’s Crossing is a novel written in 1960 by John Williams about the journey of four men who go buffalo hunting in the American West, starting from a town called ‘Butcher’s Crossing’. The tale is told through the eyes of Andrew Williams, a young and inexperienced Harvard student who joins the three other men on their journey. The team is led by Miller, a gruff, ambitious experienced hunter who, as the best shot of the group, makes all the important decisions. He is tempered by Schneider, a man also of experience, who seems more in touch with the subtle signs of nature than the rough and ready Miller, and who is less driven by money. Schneider is the one that first senses the seasons start to shift, to realise snow is on its way and that the cart carrying the buffalo skins home will be too heavy to be safe. The fourth man in the team, Charley is more of a mystery, a war veteran, alcoholic and religious zealot, he does little round camp and is looked out for by Miller.
On their expedition, the group face lack of water, hard climbs, blizzards and flooding. Finally when they get back to Butcher’s Crossing they find the town deserted. In their absence the bottom of the buffalo hide market has dropped out and the hides they thought were with thousands are now actually only worth a few cents.
I read this book within a few hours one evening as I simply couldn’t put it down. The book reminded me somewhat of Steinbeck’s style, with minimal narrative so you, as a reader, pick up peoples character as you go along. The narrative is without adornation and focuses on the day to day lives of the four men at camp and the hardships they face finding, shooting and skinning buffalo on the plains. As the protagonist, Andrew Williams is the character most readers will relate to most; unlike the others, he isn’t quick or elegant in skinning buffalo, throws up at the sight of raw liver being eaten and is less weather hardy and tough than the rest. He is also the dreamer of the group, being the one who feels nostalgic when they set their sights on leaving camp, and less keen to be sucked into every day vices and greed. After the journey, William’s remains the more human and noble of the group- a character you can rightly admire.
There is a lot more I could say, but I don’t want to ruin the plot. All I can say is please read it. It is a book that I feel has changed me a little inside and been on my mind long after reading it.