Four pioneer women, all of them wives, for one reason or another have gone insane in a territory lacking an asylum. By default, Mary Bee Cuddy is chosen as the “homesman,” the person who will accompany the women back East. Once a teacher but now a lone and lonely homesteader in her early thirties, Mary Bee is at the beginning of her journey when she happens upon George Briggs, an ornery claim-jumper strung up with rope around his neck and readied for hanging. She will save his life if he will promise to accompany her to Iowa with her “cargo” of unpredictable women. Briggs promises.
The bulk of the novel, then, concerns their eastward journey, though slipped into the narrative here and there are fast-paced accounts of how and when the four women lost their minds. In fact, Swarthout’s burled, rough-grained realism is most engaging in these accounts, his writing nowhere more devastatingly powerful than in the first of three chapters here when he forces his reader to follow Theoline Belknap into her madness.
Swarthout is a fine writer, but his frequent lapses into cliches are troubling: Mary Bee rides her “trusty steed” and Briggs “avoided” people “like the plague.” Discerning readers will also be troubled by the infidelity--born out of authorial contrivance--of Mary Bee’s end to her “gritty” character. Both she and Briggs suffer the subordination of their characters to the demands of plot, much in the same way as they wrestle down one of their two mules so that they can force it to swallow a purgative to rid it of worms. The plot here is Swarthout’s purgative.