Larry McMurtry has the fully justified reputation of being one of the most well-read of contemporary American authors, a certified bibliophile whose Booked Up bookstores in Archer, Texas, are marvels of the second-hand book trade. It seems therefore quite likely that an important historical source for many of the details of river travel, tribes observed, weather, and geography in Sin Killer (McMurtry’s thirtieth book) is Travels in the Interior of North America, 1832- 1834, written by Prince Maximilian Alexander Philipp of Wied (1782-1867) and published between 1839 and 1843. This respected naturalist and ethnologist had explored Brazil in 1815 and then in 1832 with his companion, the young Swiss artist, Karl Bodmer (1809-1893). He also made one of the most important of the early expeditions to explore the Louisiana Purchase, departing for America in 1832. Maximilian was a methodical and detailed observer, collector, and record keeper, and his important book, while not a commercial success, recorded a period of intense and rapid changes in the frontier brought about by the fur trade, extensive immigration, and the devastation wrought by epidemics on Indians in the area, especially the Mandans with whom Maxmilian’s party spent the winter of 1833-1834. An important part of the book was the eighty-one hand-colored aquatints created from Bodmer’s watercolors. George Catlin, who appears as one of several historical figures in McMurtry’s novel, also made a number of trips to the Plains beginning in 1832, completing more than five hundred paintings and sketches based on his observations and publishing his North American Indian Portfolio in London in 1844 after several successful years of exhibiting his work throughout the eastern United States.
To this background of abundant historical fact, McMurtry has added a host of fanciful characters. Most of them are quickly sketched out in this book, the first of a “planned tetralogy” entitled The Berrybender Narratives. A number of the characters are parody types prominent in literature since at least the early eighteenth century, including the bawdy, autocratic country aristocrat notable for his brutal nature and passion for killing game and the “Natty Bumppo” figure of James Fenimore Cooper’s fictions, figured here as “Sin Killer,” also known as Jim Snow.
The story line is simple: The family and servants of Lord Albany Berrybender have left their comfortable, if anarchic English country estate in Northamptonshire, sailed to the United States, journeyed by stage from Baltimore to Pittsburgh, hired a variety of boats including the steamer Rocky Mount, added more servants, and set forth from St. Louis up the Missouri River. The Berrybender family is guided, it is revealed early in the book, by whim, not logic. They plan on making it to Fort Yellowstone before the river freezes solid. They are “seeing the country,” and Lord Berrybender is shooting anything that comes his way, especially buffalo, leaving most of his victims to rot on the plains. As the novel opens, the Rocky Mount is stuck on a “riffle,” a sandbar or mud bank, from which it can be extricated only by the extreme efforts of the host of engagés, a band of small, smelly Frenchmen from the North Country. Tasmin Berrybender and three of her siblings have taken the pirogue and come ashore at dusk to see the prairie close up; later, Tasmin slips away from the boat again and spends the night sleeping in the pirogue, awakening in the morning a few miles downstream, quite hungry. Removing her muddy clothes, she wades out into the river to bathe in her New World solitude, only to discover that she is not as solitary as she thought. Another bather stands suddenly in the reeds, a young man, naked as Adam. Thus it is that Tasmin Berrybender and Jim Snow first see each other in what is as close to Edenic innocence and purity as any American Adam and Eve will get. Part of the plot of the rest of this swiftly moving narrative involves Tasmin’s pursuit and capture of Sin Killer, who although “married” to several Indian wives, marries Tasmin before first snow. The other major element of the plot involves the slow progress of the Rocky Mount upstream, losing members of the Berrybender family and entourage as well as assorted parts of Lord Berrybender’s body. He shoots off several toes in one incident and in another loses ears, fingers, and, apparently, a leg when he insists on killing buffalo in a fierce high plains blizzard, a whiteout...
(The entire section is 1851 words.)