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Gabriel's Story
by David Anthony Durham


Gabriel's Story recounts the adventures and trials of a pioneer family in the late 1870s. At the center of the story is Gabriel, a young man who moves reluctantly from the urban North with his mother and younger brother to join his stepfather, a homesteader in Kansas.

While his mother and brother accept the reduced circumstances of their new life, Gabriel looks upon the primitive one-room sod house, the meager crops, and the endless fields of grass with loathing. Filled with memories of his deceased father and the dreams they shared, Gabriel decides to run away and become a cowboy. However, his search for excitement brings trouble and danger as he encounters a host of unsavory characters while testing himself against this brutally unforgiving new landscape.

In a novel in which place itself is a character, David Anthony Curham re-creates the harshness of life on the plains and the desperate struggles of a family trying to eke out a meager existence while building a future for itself against seemingly insurmountable odds. His portrait of Gabriel masterfully captures a coming-of-age under extreme circumstances and presents a rare look at the role black cowboys played in settling the West.

Durham is an astonishingly gifted writer whose work crosses the boundaries of color by dealing in universal truths. His remarkable book not only opens up the hidden history of the West, where a fourth of all cowboys were black, but triumphs in its language and vision to reveal an exciting new talent.


Publishers Weekly (Starred Review): The old West, both beautiful and brutal, is the setting of Durham's magnificently realized debut novel, a classic coming-of-age story of an African-American boy. Shortly after the Civil War, 15-year-old Gabriel Lynch, his mother and younger brother head out from Baltimore to meet Gabriel's new stepfather in Kansas, where the family hopes to make a fresh start as farmers. But Gabriel finds homesteading to be backbreaking and depressing and is soon lured away by cruel, charismatic Marshall Hogg, who's leading a group of cowboys down into Texas. It seems a dream come true for Gabriel, but then the nightmare begins. While bloated with whiskey, Marshall accidentally murders a man, precipitating a flight from the law that degenerates into a grotesque spree of burglary, rape, kidnapping and murder. Gabriel desperately wants to escape, but is prevented by Marshall's threats and the menacing presence of Caleb, a mute and shadowy figure. When Gabriel finally manages to free himself, the evil that he unwillingly witnessed follows him back home--and threatens the people he loves most. Durham is a born storyteller: each step of Gabriel's descent into hell proceeds from the natural logic of the narrative itself, which manages to be inevitable even as it's totally surprising. Equally impressive is Durham's gift for describing the awful beauty of the American West: "The April sky was not a thing of air and gas," writes Durham. "Rather it lay like a solid ceiling of slate, pressing the living down into the prairie." The tale's racial dimension is subtly and intelligently developed, and though some readers may be turned off by the violence Gabriel witnesses, all will be impressed by Durham's maturity, skill and lovingly crafted prose. Copyright 2000 Cahners Business Information.

Kirkus Review (Starred Review): Intensely dramatic debut, set in Kansas and points west and southwest during the 1870s: a direct homage to Cormac McCarthy's highly praised fiction (both his Blood Meridian and the recent Border Trilogy) but also an original work of high distinction. The protagonist, teenaged Gabriel Lynch, arrives from the East with his widowed mother Eliza and younger brother Ben at a train station where they're met by her husband-to-be, Solomon Johns, a farmer who had been Eliza's first love before her life with the boys' father, a prosperous middle-class Baltimore mortician. Gabriel resents the opportunities lost, and the hard life they're introduced to, and eagerly leaves "home," joining another black boy (James) to ride with a group of cattle drovers. A bloodthirsty odyssey ensues, as the gang's embittered leader Marshall Hogg (an amoral fatalist straight out of Dostoevsky) directs his minions to steal, rape, and murder, ever moving on, through Mexico, Arizona, and the Rockies, en route to California, away from the avengers who slowly, methodically pursue them. Durham tells this story with great skill, weaving together a beautifully plotted central action and extended italicized passages detailing the embattled growth to manhood of the stoical Ben and the steely determination of a bereaved Mexican soldier who'll follow Hogg to hell and back. Meanwhile, he also depicts with hallucinatory vividness the enigmatic figure of Hogg's second-in-command Caleb, a black drover who never speaks, and harbors a terrible secret indeed... Gabriel's Story grates on the reader's nerves unerringly, and frequently rises to real grandeur. A brilliant example of how to assimilate and transmute powerful literary influence. And what a movie this dark, haunting tale will make.

Booklist (Starred Review): In 1871, 15-year-old Gabriel Lynch, his younger brother, Ben, and their mother, Eliza, arrive in Crownsville, Kansas. Gabriel is angry with his lot in life, particularly with his mother, who has taken him from his home in the East and his dream of becoming a doctor to a homestead on the plains and a stepfather, Solomon, whom he has barely met. Soon Gabriel befriends another dissatisfied youth, James, and the two innocent African American boys run away from their troubles in search of adventure with a band of cowboys. The road they've chosen becomes a perilous one, taking them across the American West with men prone to violence and pursued by their own demons. On this journey from home and back, one could conclude that Gabriel discovers what he values, but one also sees the enactment of that old saying about the grass being greener on the other side. And the surfeit of symbolism (for example, picture Eliza crossing troubled waters) will have critics salivating. Nevertheless, the circular movement of the plot is devastatingly powerful, particularly the embedded coming-of-age story involving the leader of the cowboys, Marshall Hogg, and his chief companion, the black Caleb. First-time novelist Durham acknowledges the influence of Cormac McCarthy's border trilogy, and Durham's novel does recall McCarthy's work in its juxtaposition of the pristine beauty and spaciousness of the land with the raw violence of the men come to carve a civilization out of it. Yet, perhaps because of the African American family and the skillful manipulation of myths, Durham posits a slant on the settlement of the West that speaks to the essential multicultural character of the nation. Durham is a storyteller touched by an angel. Bonnie Smothers. Copyright American Library Association.

Book Magazine: Durham has an ancient Israelite's knowledge of the desert, its mirages and badlands, beauty and threat. His language is King James plain and poetic... His West is a testing ground where human emotions as old as humanity reveal themselves. Although Gabriel's Story has been compared to Cormac McCarthy's All the Pretty Horses, Durham is more like William Faulkner on horseback. Rather than McCarthy's sometimes hardwired aggression, Durham focuses on acculturated racism against Indians, blacks, Mexicans. The result is a morally complicated, socially nuanced story of American violence and its discontents. Told with great economy and restraint, it is a very promising debut.



Growing Up With the Country

by Maria Russo, New York Times Book Review

One night early in 15-year-old Gabriel Lynch's journey southwest from his family's struggling Kansas homestead to the more glamorous cowboy precincts of Texas, he awakens and notices an armadillo making its clumsy way over to him. The creature nestles against his body and falls asleep. The next day he sees his first Indian settlement, its ragtag residents demoralized and starving, reduced to eating grasshoppers. Not long afterward he finds himself an unwitting player in a grisly quadruple murder, an eruption of lawlessness and carnage that he will never manage ''to clean from his mind completely.'' Later, a few weeks alone with his horse in the mountains goes a long way toward healing his soul and helping him become a man: ''It was a life lived leanly, beneath pine trees and along riversides, growing thin in the saddle and yet stronger for it.''

To readers of the literature of the American West, these striking scenes represent a familiar, if endlessly interesting, physical and spiritual journey. But Gabriel's story is rendered all the more intense by the fact that he's not just a Maryland-born Easterner, new to the wonders and horrors of the West; he's also black. In the decade after the Civil War in which David Anthony Durham's bold and richly imagined first novel is set, being black means that Gabriel is often a walking target. And yet, because of that, he may also be especially primed to experience the blissful solitude, self-sufficiency and self-possession that the vast and varied Western landscape fosters.

''Gabriel's Story'' reveals an intriguing historical lacuna. From the Underground Railroad to the Great Migration, the journey north is so important to African-American history and culture that it's easy to overlook the many black people who headed west instead. Gabriel's widowed mother has brought him and his brother from their home in Baltimore to join her new husband on the homestead he's already started farming. To Gabriel's homesick eyes, the place is an inauspicious mess, and the days ahead promise nothing but backbreaking work, drudgery and sacrifice. When a flashy band of cowboys whips into town to auction off some horses, Gabriel, accompanied by his friend James, decides to skip out on his family and sign on as a hand for the trip back down to Texas.

The group they join is led by a fast-talking, charismatic white man named Marshall and his mysteriously silent black partner, Caleb. It doesn't take long for Gabriel to realize that their destination is far from certain -- the horses were stolen, Marshall is a homicidal maniac and Caleb is a seething mass of hatred bound to enact ''some drama upon the world.'' The boys have been brought along on one of Marshall's capricious fancies. At first the gang's murderous episodes appear motivated by vengeance and score-settling, but soon enough they are killing and raping with merciless abandon. Gabriel and James watch in terrified dread. It's only when Marshall's men commit an act of pure evil against a Mexican family and a vigilante comes after them that the band starts to unravel for good and Gabriel can hold out hope of seeing his family again.

Durham's sonorous yet disciplined language soars during Gabriel's solitary journey homeward, the emotional center of the novel. Gabriel's true education begins as he finds himself becoming part of something magnificent and teeming: ''There was a pattern to the world, a meaning modeled by the land itself, that he began to divine through his silent journey.'' In this section, Durham renders especially well the intimate connection possible between people and animals, as Gabriel builds a bond with a majestic and well-trained horse: ''He'd grown accustomed to the feel of her, the swell and release of her breathing. Her earthy scent was around him always, in the fibers of his clothes, on his hands, in his very skin.''

Durham is really tracing two stories: the swath cut through the land by Marshall's outlaws and the stationary but still always developing story of the farm built by Solomon and Eliza, Gabriel's stepfather and mother. The novel's main narrative stays with Gabriel as he moves in each of these worlds, but Durham intercuts the story of his protagonist's progress with italicized sections that track the action where Gabriel is not -- first with Marshall, later with Solomon and Eliza. In this way the novel constantly juxtaposes the twin realities of Western life, the itinerant cowboy and the industrious homesteader, mutually exclusive yet interdependent. It's these two destinies that Gabriel must choose between.

The moral weight of the novel rests on the virtues of farming and creating a stable home. Solomon, a former slave who lives in daily gratitude for the chance to build a life for his family, is a figure of quietly heroic proportions: ''That's what it's all about out here, looking to the future and making it so,'' he says when Gabriel, just arrived in Kansas, expresses a sullen disdain for the state of the homestead. ''This here is a land and a challenge like God intended.'' Yet the moral necessity of Gabriel's journey -- his firsthand experience of traversing the land alone, cut off from the people he loves, as well as the witness he bears to violence and depravity -- is also unquestionable, and Durham nicely balances this paradox of the West.

He also finds in his 19th-century Western setting a way to play out some ironic truths of the American racial stew. The strange, corrupted connection between Marshall and Caleb turns out to be one more twisted legacy of slavery, while the constant background presence of Indians underscores one surprising commonality of blacks and whites, who stand equal at least as latecomers to the land. Although Gabriel is rarely given the luxury of forgetting his race when others are around, the West makes his Americanness, already the product of several generations, stand in extravagant relief, not just as he relates to Indians, but also compared with recent immigrants like the Scotsman who breaks with Marshall and befriends Gabriel...

''Gabriel's Story'' is both artistically impressive and emotionally satisfying, a serious work that heads off in exhilarating directions. In a brief, oratorical epilogue, Durham lets fly with the biblical resonances that have hovered throughout the book, reminding us that ''not even the angels live in peace.'' He's reaching for something grand, something like the pure but undeceived idealism that can be found in both the Western and African-American traditions at their best, and more often than not he catches hold of it.



A Review

By Brad Vice, San Francisco Chronicle

David Anthony Durham's literary debut, "Gabriel's Story," sweeps the reader up into a fascinating, Oz-like whirlwind of language that magically transports us through vast deserts and majestic canyons. Sometimes, though, the epic machinery of the prose distracts from the view.

During Reconstruction in the 1870s, moody, 16-year-old Gabriel Lynch, along with his younger brother and widowed mother, has traveled by rail from the East to the new state of Kansas, where Gabriel's stepfather has procured enough land to become a farmer. As former slaves, Gabriel's parents know firsthand that it's better to have property than to be property, and they hold dear the feeling of independence that comes with living on their own land. But Gabriel has larger ambitions; he wants to become a doctor or a lawyer, or at the very least a cowboy.

Tilling the hard Kansas soil doesn't suit Gabriel. At one point the boy becomes so frustrated with his stepfather's old ineffectual plow that he takes out his aggression on their rocky field with an ax: "Each stroke was a new act of increasing fury, stronger and deeper, punctuated by grunts and profanities. The horse and mule watched him with nervous eyes, as if beholding some crazed woodsman who had forgotten the true target of his trade."

During the opening pages of the novel, the reader might perceive Gabriel's attack on the field as some metaphor for Durham's own writing process. There is a lot of manic activity in the prose: wild sweeping proclamations, syntactic assaults and epic metaphors. These ultimately leave the reader feeling, like the Lynch family mule, a little perplexed.

As the novel progresses, though, Durham's language begins to work to greater effect. A taut plot gives the lofty rhetoric form and shape. Gabriel and his friend James (another orphan from the East) decide to run away from their problems and become cowhands. But when Gabriel and James sign on with the wrong wagon train, they unwittingly become "the archangel and the king," mascots for a brutal gang of horse thieves led by a brilliant, sadistic outlaw named Marshall.

Marshall, like the judge in Cormac McCarthy's "Blood Meridian" or Milton's Satan in "Paradise Lost," is the novel's villain and existential hero. Marshall encourages Gabriel to become an outlaw and a killer like himself. He does this by exploiting the hatred caused by 250 years of American bondage: "You got an anger in you just like all your race. Rightly so. All it takes is enough anger. Put the right person through the right ordeal, and they'll kill faster than they can think." At the same time, Marshall's gang is a haven from the usual American prejudices, since it is made up of a democratic sampling of immigrants.

Thus this unlikely assortment of criminals comes together to rob, kill and maim. Thematically, rape is the novel's cardinal frontier sin. As an educated man, Marshall understands that American history is the story of one rape after another. At night Marshall dazzles Gabriel and the other men with long campfire stories of Spanish conquistadors raping Indians, Indians raping captured settlers, whites raping blacks. "What if it was your mother?" Marshall asks Gabriel. "Wouldn't you track the bastard down and put a bullet through him?" This is a question Gabriel can't answer right away.

Marshall's multicultural tribe becomes fragmented when he allows his men to murder a family of Mexican homesteaders and take their daughter as a sexual captive. Under these circumstances, Marshall finds it difficult to maintain the loyalty of the "archangel" Gabriel. Here the novel takes a metaphysical twist. "Truth is, God don't give a good goddamn who we kill here on earth," Marshall informs Gabriel, attempting to justify the ways of man to man. "The devil's an iron horse, my boy. You either get aboard or you eat the lead." By now Durham has found the control and purpose he needs to take us to the inevitable showdown between the archangel and his mentor -- a test of wills, and one that ultimately brings Gabriel full circle, back to Kansas for the novel's apocalyptic conclusion.