So Brave, Young and Handsome (Hardcover)
Atlantic Monthly Press, 9780871139856, 272pp.
Publication Date: April 22, 2008
Indie Next List Highlights 2008
— Erica Caldwell, Present Tense, Batavia, NY
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Spring/Summer '09 Reading Group List
— Erica Caldwell, Present Tense, Batavia, NY
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A stunning successor to his best selling novel Peace Like a River, Leif Enger’s new work is a rugged and nimble story about an aging train robber on a quest to reconcile the claims of love and judgment on his life, and the failed writer who goes with him.
In 1915 Minnesota, novelist Monte Becket has lost his sense of purpose. His only success long behind him, Monte lives simply with his wife and son. But when he befriends outlaw Glendon Hale, a new world of opportunity and experience presents itself. Glendon has spent years in obscurity, but the guilt he harbors for abandoning his wife, Blue, over two decades ago, has lured him from hiding. As the modern age marches swiftly forward, Glendon aims to travel back to his past--heading to California to seek Blue’s forgiveness. Beguiled and inspired, Monte soon finds himself leaving behind his own family to embark for the unruly West with his fugitive guide. As they desperately flee from the relentless Charles Siringo, an ex-Pinkerton who’s been hunting Glendon for years, Monte falls ever further from his family and the law, to be tempered by a fiery adventure from which he may never get home.
Praise For So Brave, Young and Handsome…
After writing an adventure tale that was a surprise bestseller, Monte’s efforts to produce another have all failed. So when an old-time Western outlaw (who is now just plain old) floats by, Monte is swept down the river and into the past of someone who might have walked out of the pages of a Western novel. The two encounter ragtime remnants of the old west and a plot to match in a novel that is at once an elegy to a vanished past, a kindly-intended satire of the western genre, and a great story with a big heart.”Betsy Burton, The King's English, Salt Lake City, UT
"In this book Enger again explores the often transparent line between good and bad, focusing his story on characters who fall in the grey in-between. Failed novelist Monte Becket accompanies his friend,former outlaw Glendon Hale, to Mexico to find Hale's estranged wife. Their adventures along the way, and the surprising end of their journey, make for an exciting and thought-provoking read." Erica Caldwell, Present Tense, Batavia, NY
Set in the early nineteen hundreds, Monte Becket, writer of one very successful novel, is at odds with his inability to find a story for his second book. A chance meeting with a colorful character from the Old West sets Monte one the road to his adventure and quest. Enger takes us for a wonderful ride in a time gone by, where cowboys roam, Pinkerton men track their prey, and Wild West shows abound. The story is enhanced with Enger's ability to evoke time, place and setting as he did so well in Peace Like a River.”Jane Dawson, Porter Square Books, Cambridge, MA
Captivating cast of characters, (Monte, Glendon,Hood Charles Siringo) and a wonderful sense of place,(the American West of 1911). Leif Enger captures our interest again. Could he write faster?”Suzanne Droppert, Liberty Bay Books, Poulsbo, WA
I am just back from a bookselling conference called Midwinter Institute, hosted by the American Booksellers Association. The highlight of the weekend for me was meeting Leif Enger, author of Peace Like a River. On the plane ride, I brought along a review copy of Enger’s new book that will be released in May, titled So Brave, Young, and Handsome. While I was pulling out my copy of the book, I noticed another bookseller across the aisle from me also pulling out the same book. We chuckled over this and plunged into our respective copies. At the conference, we attended an author reception one night, a room with 40 authors, 500 booksellers, wine, and cheeseit’ s awesome to say the least. We, of course, patiently waited in line to meet Leif Enger. When we reached the author, I told him about reading his book on the plane, and he told me, somewhat shyly, I know, I was sitting behind you.” Furthermore, he visited Sister Wolf Books last summer, but didn’t identify himself to staff! You have a treat in store for you when Enger’s new book arrives in stores.” Jennifer Geraedts, Beagle Books, Park Rapids, MN
Enger treats us to a wild ride as we accompany the main character along on an adventure which not only cures his writer's block, but also permits him and his young family a chance to find a new life and home far from the one they have become accustomed to.” Betsy Goree, The Book Shelf, Tryon, NC
A riveting story that keeps taking unexpected turns. I was so involved with the characters; I didn't want it to end.”Jennifer Hall, Partners Village Store, Westport, MA
Leif Enger's long-awaited second novel is a joyride, deserving of a wide audience. With subtle artistry, it flows like the breeze over a rag-top dashboard. Stymied by writer's block, Monte is drawn inexplicably to leave his family and accompany his enigmatic neighbor on a quest to find the woman he left in California while running from the law a lifetime ago. Quickly, the pair becomes fugitives on the lam, among a cast of scalawags and outlaws in an old-fashioned road novel rivaling tales of Bonnie and Clyde. So Brave shines with the gritty romance and adventure of Water for Elephants, and Enger's own Peace Like a River.”Sara Hinckley, The Hudson Group
This wonderful novel written by a delightfully naive narrator recalls Mark Twain in its adventurous tale. When Monte Beckett, an author of a successful children's action novel, finds himself on his own Western odyssey, we find ourselves in the world of cowboys, outlaws and Pinktertons. A delight!!”Meaghan Leenaarts, Island Bookstore, Duck, NC
A charming and delightful read about the adventures of an accidental outlaw’ and the Western Romance writer with writer's block who accompanies him on his quest for forgiveness from the young wife he abandoned. A very satisfying ending.”Andy Lillich, University of Oregon Bookstore, Eugene, OR
Leif Enger has done it again: a novel that reads like a modern fable, with characters to cheer for and despise. A reformed bank robber begins a journey to reconcile with a long lost love. He is accompanied on this journey by a has-been author and chased by an obsessed ex-Pinkerton agent. What more can you ask for? Circus freaks? O.K. It has those too. For those of you who loved Peace Like a River, So Brave will not disappoint.”Chris Livingston, The Book Shelf, Winona, MN
Enger’s second novel is another rousing good yarn. A cast of varied, colorful characters weave among well-defined landscapes in a plot that defies re-telling or summation. You had to be there. I especially appreciated the first and last sentences of the chapters; it required discipline not to go on for just one more, as Enger teased us into the next adventure. While this reads like a transcription of a good storyteller’s oral entertainment, it is a finely-crafted work and exquisitely written.”Cheryl McKeon, Third Place Books, Lake Forest Park WA
Talk about living through the curse of the second book! I loved Peace Like a River madly and admit that I had trepidations starting So Brave, Young, and Handsome. What if it stank? What if he was a one hit wonder? But I loved it, LOVED it from the first paragraph on. Leif Enger is such a talented writer and this second book was as much of a treat as his first, and completely different. It is very Mark Twain and I can’t wait to recommend it.”Holly Myers, The Elliot Bay Book Company, Seattle, WA
Leif Enger has again successfully blended family, friendship and adventure set in the early Twentieth century west. It all adds up to a moving and satisfying page-turner.”Nancy Olson, Quail Ridge Books & Music, Raleigh, NC
This picaresque novel features rogues you might not mind having dinner with, heroes who appear in unexpected places, and atypical chases featuring handcrafted boats. This is storytelling at its best from a writer many already love.”Linda Ramsdell, The Galaxy Bookshop, Hardwick, VT
Just finished reading Leif Enger's new book, So Brave, Young, and Handsome. Actually, the book won't even be published until May, 2008. One of the advantages of being a bookseller, and there are many, is having access to books before they are born. Another advantage is that we often get to meet authors, as I met Leif last week in Louisville. I attended the American Booksellers Association Winter Institute (and believe me, it was WINTER in Louisville) where I was delighted to find that my favorite author finally had produced his second novel and he was in attendance, signing his book. I was delighted to meet him and report that our store had sold hundreds of his first book, Peace Like a River. That book, one of my most recommended for years, is referred to in the store as a bun burner.’ Lest you think it is somehow racy, let me assure you that it only means that one customer loved it so much that she let the buns burn! It reminded me of Huckleberry Finn, O, Brother Where Art Thou and The Fugitive all wonderfully rolled up together. I can't think of anyone who would not enjoy this one.”Susan Richmond, Inklings Bookshop, Yakima, WA
So Brave, Young, and Handsome contains all the elements of a wonderfully satisfying novel. Enger brings his unique and gifted voice as an old-fashioned storyteller to good use in this tale about an unassuming writer on an epic trip across the West in the year 1915. Populated with richly imagined, thoroughly credible characters, including a good bad guy and a bad good guy, a precociously knowing eleven-year-old, and Mexican girls, it is a tale of adventure, retribution, reconciliation and deep and abiding loves. Enger evokes the landscape and sense of place with the same care, lyricism, and joyful language with which he develops his story. Passionate fans of Peace Like a River will be delighted with this book and new Enger readers will be thrilled to discover him.”Tripp Ryder, Carleton College Bookstore, Northfield, MN
So Brave, Young, and Handsome certainly feels like Peace like a River in its poised, gentle handling of his characters (especially children) and his themes of flight and grace. The pleasure, though, lies as much in the new novel’s differences as in its similarities to the first. From the opening page, Enger signals his intention to keep the intimate narrator’s voice but filter it through a slightly drier, more mature speaker. Though comparisons can be made to Ivan Doig, to Twain, even to Beckett, my best compliment is to say that after approximately twenty-five pages, I forgot about other authors, and even Enger’s first book. So complete is this tale; so honestly written and plainly evoked (with just the right hint of mystery) are these characters that the chapters unfold with suspense and wonderment.”Stephen F. Shapiro, Rainy Day Books, Inc., Fairway, KS
Two men, two friends, two cowboys . . . and the whole West in which to ride, hide, explore dreams, evade those that follow, and live life to its fullest. This is a galloping book that begs to be savored by all armchair adventurers!”Nancy Simpson, The Book Vault, Oskaloosa, IA
It's been a long wait for the second novel from the writer of Peace Like a River. Enger's new book is completely different, also wonderful.”Sally Wizik Wills, Sister Wolf Books
I took Leif Enger's new novel So Brave, Young, and Handsome on vacation with me and the best adventure I had was reading it. Enger has written an old time western. The kind we loved to read before they became the dark, violent property of current writers. There is still plenty of action in the book. For that matter there is plenty of violence but it is woven together and driven by the development of the main men who inhabit this story. So Brave, Young, and Handsome is a long, lingering journey across the American West at the turn of the twentieth century. It portrays a still young country just turning from outlaws on horses to heroes in Model T's. Enger captures this growth sprit in our history with the perfect mix of nostalgia, anticipation and anxiety and places within the stark western landscape men who are seeking redemption, adventure and escape. This is an entirely different book than Enger's first, Peace Like a River, which speaks to the author's dexterity as a writer, but it was worth the wait. And I mean it.”Sue Zumberge, Common Good Books, St. Paul, MN
Conversation Starters from ReadingGroupChoices.com
- What elements of Enger's book play off the conventions of cowboy movies and cowboy novels? In Chapter 12, we read "And so it came down to a farmhouse. As it so often does!" (p. 232) Monte's son, Redstart, "knew which members of the James Gang had once ridden into our town to knock over a bank and been shot to moist rags for their trouble" (p.4). What other traditions of the cowboy genres do you recognize in the book? The lore of train robberies? Cattle rustling? The nugget of goodness under the outlaw behavior?
- How does Enger make these outsized characters convincing? Is there value as well as mayhem in these renegades? In their diction, do you find an odd level of civility even as death and destruction are threatened? For instance, look at some of the rather elegant locutions, such as that of Siringo on p. 115: "I'm leaving, you gentlemen may have this rocky paradise to yourselves."
- Does it make sense that it is Susannah who sets Monte free to make his journey with Glendon "because he dreamed of his wife" (p. 37)? But then, "Love is a strange fact—it hopes all things, believes all things, endures all things. It makes no sense at all" (p. 37). Talk about love in the book, relationships that occur or are recalled.
- How does Enger give us characters' inner lives? Are there some characters we feel we know inside and out? Which ones? Who in the book is most adept at holding us at a distance? Is that part of the person's charm as well as enigma?
- We read about a number of marriages in So Brave, Young, and Handsome. We begin and end with that of Monte and Susannah. Do you think it is a good marriage? Talk also about Mr. and Mrs. Davies. What about Blue and Glendon? And later Blue/Arandana and Soto, as well as Charlie Siringo and his wife who forgot who he was. Does Monte learn from each of these tales? You might look again at question #3.
- Monte and Siringo are juxtaposed as both adversaries and an oddly linked couple. Even as a captive, Monte maintains communication. "In the meantime I tried to remain pleasant company. He loved talking about books, especially his own, and his other favorite, Ecclesiastes. That treatise with its severe rhetoric—'all is meaningless'—he had by heart, often enlisting its author, Solomon, in his arguments against bothersome ideas like altruism and honor and clemency" (p. 207). Does this passage set an important dichotomy between Siringo and Monte? Why does Monte prefer Proverbs? Look, too, at Siringo's catechism on honor on p. 191.
- Royal Davies, the Kansas City policeman, says, "You're doing these youngsters no service, you know…you authors, I mean—this world ain't no romance, in case you didn't notice." But Monte later says, "I take issue with Royal, much as I came to like him; violent and doomed as this world might be, a romance it certainly is" (p. 51). Talk about this idea. Think about the definition of "romance" as a medieval tale about a hero of chivalry. How has Enger explored "romance" in the book?
- What is the result of Monte's weaving Susannah and Redstart into every turn of his story? Why do you think he consistently fails to write his wife? Ambivalence about what he's doing in this runaway adventure? Guilt? Another kind of writer's block?
- How is Hood held up as a version of the chivalric hero? Is he almost a foundling for Monte and Glendon? How is he depicted as golden boy (cherubic, even), magnificent horseman, boon companion, and charismatic lover? After Hood's initial conquest on a horse, Monte says, "It was as stunning an ascension as any I have seen (p. 143). How is Hood like a comet? "A cowboy doesn't ask for much, that's my observation. A flashy ride, a pretty girl, momentary glory—for a day or two, I'm glad to say, Hood Roberts had them all" (p. 145). Was his reversal inevitable, do you think, given his character?
- Describe Glendon as a phenomenon. What are traits you hold onto? Is it his melting disappearances? How are both Siringo and Glendon almost phoenixes, myths that resurface despite the odds?
- In contrast to the romance of heroic exploits, what are some blasts of reality? Would you agree that this is not a comfortable fairy tale? "We were a dozen weary men in a damp room with one smoky candle for light and no prospect of rest" (p. 159). What are other times Monte and his cohorts are battered by weather, hunger, or assailants? Is the life of the outlaw worthwhile?
- If you were to cast this book as a movie, who would play the principal roles? What would be essential scenes? As a director, how would you handle the frame tale of Monte, Susannah, and Redstart? Is there actually another frame tale?
- Is it justice that Glendon is seeking in the novel? For whom? Do you think it is achieved? Is forgiveness as important as justice in the book?
- The novel's humor is sometimes ironic or deadpan, other times pure slapstick. What purpose does recurrent comedy serve in a story with such violence and loss?
- Almost every major character in the novel has more than one name, whether an alias (like Jack Waits), a stage name (Deep Breath Darla), or a translation (Blue). What is the significance of a person's "true name?" Does the revelation of one's true name put him, as Redstart claims, at the mercy of others? Is that a bad thing?
- What is the time of the novel? Enger gives us a date, but what are other clues? Driving with pride eighty miles in a day? Pancho Villa?
- How do books pervade the novel? Monte, of course, is an author, and we follow his discomfort about producing a second success. But books are important to other people, too. Who are they? Emma Davies? Her grandmother as literary critic? (see p. 53). What happens to the book Monte had inscribed to Emma? How does Siringo's easy writing and reciting of his compelling narrative affect Monte? How does the library of Claudio and Arandana define them?
- "Most men are hero and devil," says Siringo (p. 224). Does that statement hold true in the book? And in general? Is it a description better reserved for leaders? Politicians, even statesmen, outlaws, C.E.O.s, Hollywood stars, sports idols? Who else? Do people in this book understand and accept this idea of human nature?
- How is Darlys the Sharpshooter a pivotal figure? Think about her deft explosion of the glass orb in Monte's hand as well as her well practiced aim later at Siringo who has cruelly spurned her.
- Siringo blazes from the pages, always surprising. This is the man who "left off cowboying when the profession of detective was chosen for him at a public demonstration of phrenology" (p. 173). Who is this "dark personage" (p. 178)? When do we see his menace most startlingly? He's an "old vulture" who "ate like a scavenging bird in big swallows without evident pleasure" (p. 197). Does that image tell us something about Siringo's other actions in the book? We know about his treachery to Monte. "That he could trust me was my own disgrace" (p. 205). Other times, "the old monster was capable of gratitude after all" (p. 180), to both Dr. Clary and Monte. Talk about his brilliant manipulation of the town of Alva. What is your ultimate evaluation of Siringo?
- "Say what you like about melodrama, it beats confusion" (p. 262). Is this how we feel after reading a page-turner? Enger's book has ambiguity to spare, but are you in doubt at the end about events or characters?
- Where do our sympathies lie in So Brave, Young, and Handsome? Did you feel a loss as Hood sank deeper into runaway crime? Is everyone on the trail tainted except maybe Monte? Is he, as well?
- The rivers, from the Cannon in Minnesota to the Rienda in California, link the sagas of the book and provide a central theme. Did you find it inevitable to compare Monte and Glendon to Huck and Jim in the Twain celebration of the Mississippi? "People on riverbanks understand one another. "If you can't be on a boat, a dock will do" (p. 55). The Kaw in Kansas City provides a moment of respite as well as another escape. How? How does the Hundred and One disaster, the Salt Fork flood, create a scene of biblical proportions? How is the post-lapsarian world a turning point and a rebirth for some of the characters?
- Do you see an analogy with Don Quixote and Sancho Panza in the book? (There are even recurrent windmills!) Can you talk about the idea of the Quest? The idealism, as well as the consistent blanket of reality? Give examples?