Monday, February 3, 2014

Book Review: "Road to Reckoning" by Robert Lautner

Full disclosure: I received an advance copy of this book in exchange for an unbiased review.

"I, to this day, hold to only one truth: if a man chooses to carry a gun he will get shot. My father agreed to carry twelve."

Thomas Walker is 12 years in 1837. An only child, he has lived a sheltered life, never leaving New York City, and following the death of his mother, he is homeschooled by his aunt and doesn't get the opportunity to interact with children his age. But when his mild-mannered, spectacles-selling father takes a traveling salesman job for Samuel Colt, selling his revolutionary new "Improved Revolving Gun," he decides to take Thomas on the road with him, much to his aunt's chagrin—and Thomas' delight.

"Even at twelve I knew that I would have no limit of things to do out beyond the mountains. My own thoughts of danger were less important than having the opportunity to be away from my aunt's lavender chiffon and her yardstick rule, which I never saw measure anything except how much blame my knuckles could take."

Not long after Thomas' father made his first sale, a run-in with a group of robbers turns their travel adventure to tragedy. Orphaned and alone, with no money and few possessions save a wooden model of the Colt revolver, he can think only of getting back home to New York and the comfort and security of his only living relative, his aunt. He then encounters Henry Stands, a cantankerous, larger-than-life former Indiana Ranger, who has little use for people except when they can provide him food, ammunition, and rum.

Stands, on his way to a Philadelphia prison to see if they need help tracking down escaped prisoners, is reluctantly pressed into helping Thomas find his way home. He cares little for coddling the boy, and wants only to leave him in the first town they come across. Thomas, though intimidated by Stands' surliness, finds security in his not-quite-fatherly presence, and fears that he will abandon him on the road. The two forge a strange alliance, one that grows a bit stronger after the two encounter the band of robbers who killed Thomas' father. Yet Stands isn't completely enamored of being the boy's protector, and Thomas wants desperately for Stands to treat him less as an obligation and more as a child.

As the pair make their way back to New York, their partnership—and their lives—are tested several times. Both realize there is more to their traveling partner than meets the eye, and while they have different desires for the resolution of their journey, it is a journey that shapes them both.

I really enjoyed this book a great deal. I thought Robert Lautner perfectly embodied the voice of a 12-year-old boy caught between bravado and vulnerability, and Thomas as narrator was tremendously effective. The book surprised me at times and was more than simply a story about an unlikely pair on an important journey—it was also a commentary on how the Colt revolver, and guns in general, shaped America in the mid-19th century and beyond. The characters were more complex than met the eye, and Lautner knows how to tell a good story.

Some of the blurbs I've seen about Road to Reckoning equate it with True Grit, and while there may be some similarities between the two, I think the comparison actually sells this book a bit short. Henry Stands is more Lonesome Dove's Gus than Rooster Cogburn, and Thomas is a more vulnerable character than Mattie Ross, but no less appealing. This is a different story about a different kind of partnership, and it is a compelling and entertaining one.

"When I first met Henry Stands I imagined he was a man of few friends. When I last knew of him I was sure he had even fewer. But, it could be said, just as true, that he had fewer enemies because of it. And as I get older I can see the wisdom of that."

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