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So Brave, Young, and Handsome

February 26, 2009

I was delighted to discover that the author of one of my favorite books (Peace Like a River) had recently published a second novel, So Brave, Young, and Handsome by Leif Enger.  I swept it up at the library and dove in.

Set in 1914 Minnesota, Monte Becket, a postman turned one-time bestselling author, begins his story by describing in simple prose his family, fame, and fears about his inability to write again.  Living off of a river, he one day spots a newcomer rowing upstream: Glendon Hale.  Hale, a captivating “Peter Pan” figure, become friends with the Becket family, and Monte and Glendon soon set off for a liberating road trip — Glendon in an attempt to right some wrongs of his youth and Monte to escape the reality that his career as a writer is dead.  Along the way, Monte and Glendon run into a number of characters and ensuing adventures.

Enger did a great job personifying two of the primary characters in the novel: Hale and Charles Siringo.

Hale, a formerly adventurous outlaw whose wisdom and age have led him to make amends for his mistakes, is endearing in his honesty, kindness, and commitment to follow the dictates of his conscious.

Charles Siringo, a police inspector who has made career his life, makes you yearn for a self-awakening for a man who fights to keep his heart hardened despite the increasing strain it puts on his life.

It was fascinating to see the parallels in these opposing characters and how their outlook on life impacted their actions, their interactions with others, and the ultimate conclusion of their stories.

However, other characters left me wanting: I had difficulty understanding the motivation and actions of Hood Roberts, a teenage mechanic eager for adventure who turns into a shot happy remorseless cowboy outlaw through some unbelievable reactions to events.  I wanted to hear more from Monte’s son, Redstart, whose personality and enthusiasm showed a lot of promise but whose character didn’t make a meaningful appearance after the first few chapters.  The narrator, though an amiable, decent guy, reminded me of Nick in The Great Gatsby, a good teller of other’s stories, but whose own personality is best described as…blah.  I found his willingness to trust and assume the best in others, coupled with his personal distaste for Darlys DeFoe, somewhat inconsistent.

The plot, with adventures from a Minnesota town to a cowboy ranch and ultimately to California citrus farm, is a bit of an unbelievable stretch.  Everything had the feel of a cheesy adventure.  Some plot elements felt much like a poor scripted sitcom, where the main characters must countlessly walk into traps set by the villain in order to continue the storyline.  That being said, once you make it through the first quarter of the book, the story is fairly fast-paced and interesting.

So, in summary, this book includes a couple great characters and a decent storyline with some good, though underdeveloped themes of forgiveness and redemption.  Overall, I would recommend it.  But if you have to chose, pick up Peace Like a River.

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