Olmstead Rides Again with Acclaimed Western Novel

Professor Robert Olmstead’s newest novel, Savage Country, is earning reviews that are anything but savage. The professor of English and director of Ohio Wesleyan’s creative writing program is drawing raves on the heels of his previous novel, Far Bright Star (Algonquin Books, 2010), which was named one of the top 10 Westerns of the decade by Booklist.

Savage Country (Algonquin Books, 2017) features Olmstead’s first female protagonist, the widow Elizabeth Coughlin, seeking her independence in 19th-century America through a buffalo hunt in a desperate attempt to pay off her late husband’s debts. The book is driven by historical themes of economic exploitation and industrialization and is set in a post-Civil War nation that is just beginning the process of Reconstruction.

The author tells Kirkus Reviews: “I was attempting to get back to some kind of 19th-century authorial distancing in the writing of the novel.” He believes the work is his most somber since 2007’s Coal Black Horse, and he drew from Kenneth Roberts’ Northwest Passage, a book that inspired him as a writer when he was a child.

Olmstead wanted to deconstruct the mystery often surrounding Reconstruction in American history classes. “In my schooling,” he tells Kirkus, “we studied the Civil War and then jumped to World War I, as if nothing happened of importance in between.”

“So much of who Americans are came out of that crucible of those years between: We killed almost a million people over the notion that one class of human beings should not own another class of human beings.”

A sample of praise for Savage Country:

  • New York Times Book Review (October 2017) “Olmstead has a Dickensian sense of character… Such a quantity of characters can test any novelist — managing their proportions and appearances so they maintain their own identity and momentum while making room for everyone in the wings to reappear before fading from memory. Olmstead admirably navigates this challenge.”
  • Kirkus Reviews (July 2017) gave Olmstead a starred review, saying the novel is “equal parts adventure tale, biblical narrative, and Greek tragedy” and that “the reader closes the book with a sense of cautious optimism; some of us survive, as Olmstead explains, ‘no matter how wounded.’ ”
  • Amazon.com’s book editors picked Savage Country as one of their “Best of the Month” choices for October.
  • Booklist, the long-running book-review magazine of the American Literary Association, says (September 2017) in a starred review: “There is a tragic ambiguity at the heart of Olmstead’s brutal but beautiful tale of the last buffalo hunt.” It also compared him to other acclaimed authors of the Western genre, saying, “For a certain kind of uncompromising yet lyrical writer — think of Cormac McCarthy, Larry McMurtry, or William Kittredge — the West offers a stage for a special kind of archetypal, almost Shakespearean tragedy, and Olmstead makes the most of it.”
  • Bookish, a literary discovery site for book lovers and enthusiasts of all genres, featured Savage Country on its “Must-Read Books of Fall 2017,” saying: “Do you dream about the West? Do you keep spurs in your closet and a lasso on the back of your door? If so, then Robert Olmstead’s new novel is the ideal book to pick up this fall.”
  • NY Journal of Books, an online book-review journal composed of a panel of top academics, accomplished critics, award-winning journalists and authors, and established publishers (September 2017): “It is a textbook description of how the buffalo was hunted nearly to extinction but without the hand-wringing angst of many writers… a literary achievement that describes the West and those who struggled to survive in its harsh environment. It is not for fans seeking a romantic view of the West, nor for those wanting a tradition shoot-’em-up. Savage Country is for the serious reader.”

By A.L. Davies ’19

Return to the Winter 2018 OWU Magazine