Butcher’s Crossing / John Williams

John Williams is not a well-known author. During his lifetime, he wrote just three novels, all of which received glowing reviews, and one that won a National Book Award. Butcher’s Crossing was first published in 1960. It tells the story of a young Bostonian, Will Andrews, who in the 1870s leaves the civilized environs of Harvard to travel to the Wild West. Inspired by Thoreau and the back to nature movement, Will is determined to escape America’s increasingly industrialized society.

Andrews ends up in Butcher’s Crossing, a small town in Kansas used as a launching spot by hunters in pursuit of the hides of buffalo and other big game animals. While it is not yet evident, the herds they seek have already been slaughtered to the point where they are nearing extinction. Flush with cash, Andrews hooks up with a hunter who tells him that he knows of a place in Colorado, in a hidden valley, where an immense buffalo herd still roams. Lured by the prospect, Will agrees to fund an expedition guaranteed to net them a fortune in hides.

Setting out with the hunter and two other people, Andrews is sure that he will discover his “true self” in the wilderness. The hunter is not just telling tales, he truly does know of a valley that has yet to be discovered by human kind. In the novel, Williams details their difficult journey to reach this remote area, and graphically describes the slaughter that results when they finally do discover an Eden populated by thousands of buffalo and other wildlife. Arriving late in the summer, the hunt so captivates the members of the expedition that they are taken by surprise by an early winter storm, which traps them until the following spring.

Williams’ prose is not poetic, but it is descriptive and captivating. Using gritty detail, he describes the hardships encountered along the way, as well as what it took to survive a brutal winter in the Colorado Rockies. Rather than presenting a blow-by-blow account of the expedition, the author focuses on a handful of brilliantly staged set pieces. Be it the two days when the men and their horses and oxen are forced to go without much-needed water, a forty page account of the hunt itself, the snowstorm that came close to killing them all, or the perils of crossing a swollen river in spring, he kept me fully enrapt.

What makes this novel special is Williams’ non-judgmental account of the expedition and the conflicts that result when the four men are forced to spend the long winter together in close proximity. The details of the killing of the buffalo herd will be upsetting to many. But the intent of the book is not to judge the expedition by today’s ethical concerns. It simply focuses on what the character Andrews experienced and learned through this year spent in the wilderness.

John Williams is an author who strives in this book to realistically recreate an important piece of our history. It also introduces the reader to a gifted author. Butcher’s Crossing, especially in its concluding chapters, captures the folly and greed that has driven the American economy since its earliest days.

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