ON THE NIGHT TA­BLE Shades of Dick­ens in Weir’s west­ern


Michael Bar­clay


I just fin­ished Dave Bi­dini’s book Mid­night Light: A Per­sonal Jour­ney to the North; it’s his best book by a long stretch. It’s about his time in Yel­lowknife, dis­cov­er­ing the North as some­one who thinks he knows al­most ev­ery­thing about Canada.

He dis­cov­ers an en­tirely dif­fer­ent coun­try and char­ac­ters; it’s writ­ten with such em­pa­thy and cu­rios­ity and hu­mil­ity. I’ve also been read­ing An­drea Warner’s Buffy Sain­teMarie: The Au­tho­rized Bi­og­ra­phy — it’s eye-open­ing, hon­est, beau­ti­fully writ­ten and truth­ful. It ac­cords the artist the im­por­tance she has long de­served, but also deals with a lot of painful truths in her life that I wor­ried would be glossed over be­cause it’s an au­tho­rized book. YOU’D be right to think the ti­tle The Life and Death of Strother Pur­cell in­di­cates an epic of some sort. With al­most Dick­en­sian glee and skill, British Columbia nov­el­ist and play­wright Ian Weir has taken the myths of the Amer­i­can West, with a solid, lovely glop of its Cana­dian coun­ter­part, and cre­ated an ex­pan­sive odyssey in the form of an aca­demic’s search for the truth.

That truth, what­ever it may mean, is in the many tes­ta­ments re­lat­ing the story of Strother Pur­cell, his out­law brother Lige and the plethora of char­ac­ters, from fam­ily to by­standers, who help form and drive the jour­ney of their com­ing to terms with jus­tice, be­trayal, re­venge and love.

Our way into this epic — and Weir isn’t coy at drop­ping hints he means the novel as such, at one point evok­ing Ovid — is through a scholar, Pro­fes­sor Brook­mire. One day he is handed a mem­oir con­tain­ing the known story of the leg­endary Strother Pur­cell, a man feared by no less than Wy­att Earp. Brook­mire dives in, and the power of Weir’s multi-lay­ered nar­ra­tive makes us grab hold and dive with him. Noth­ing is as it seems. Pur­cell, pre­sumed dead in the win­ter land­scape of B.C.’s Cari­boo coun­try, ap­pears (alive) in the boom­ing San Fran­cisco of 1892. An am­bi­tious yel­low-press jour­nal­ist, Barry Weaver, presses him for his story.

Strother’s be­gin­ning in the far reaches of North Carolina’s Smoky Moun­tains in­volves the com­mence­ment The Death and Life of Strother Pur­cell By Ian Weir

Goose Lane Edi­tions, 392 pages, $23

of a blood feud amongst three fam­i­lies, above all be­tween the al­most­de­mented Col­lards and the slightly less crazy Pur­cells.

As with Dick­ens, no char­ac­ter is wasted along the jour­ney in the exquisitely slow build­ing story of Pur­cell’s ret­ri­bu­tion for the ca­su­al­ties of the orig­i­nal feud.

The broth­ers dis­cover fate is in­ex­orable; de­spite their bru­tal be­haviour, noth­ing fi­nally can keep them apart. Again re­lat­ing the novel to an­cient epics, in the end the “good” get what they de­serve, as do the “bad,” and those in be­tween (like the hap­less Barry) are left to tell the story. Even then, Weir doesn’t pass judg­ment — his char­ac­ters are ca­pa­ble of do­ing that.

The ta­pes­try the author weaves is en­tic­ing; the reader is drawn in to a world as dis­tant as the an­cients, but as near as a cen­tury or so ago.

One could go on at the power of de­tail Weir brings, es­pe­cially in the lan­guage used. Its par­tic­u­lar rich­ness re­minds one that elo­quence in this re­li­gious, pre-tech era was the rem­nant of the El­iz­a­bethans, the King James Bible and the ever-re­cur­ring Greek and Ro­man myths. How to re­sist a book which in­cludes “susurra­tions,” “en­sor­celled” and “el­dritch” without pre­ten­sion?

The won­der is that the nu­mer­ous “tes­ta­ments” which re­late the story have this elo­quence, yet each is in­di­vid­ual to its nar­ra­tor.

These frag­ments im­me­di­ately cap­ture the imag­i­na­tion without re­mind­ing us of any other in the novel, yet in­form the whole in an al­most as­ton­ish­ing way, page by page. The cli­max is a model of dynamic, pre­cise in­ter­cut­ting.

The Death and Life of Strother Pur­cell is a great yarn, an ex­tra­or­di­nary epic of lives marked by the power of guilt and for­give­ness at its best. Its hu­man­ity shines brightly.


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