With the brutal adaptation of “The Revenant” by Alejandro Iñárritu — using only natural light and filming in freezing temperatures in Montana and Argentina — Punke’s predilection for reanimating the stories of the Old West is known both for his historical rigor and for his tendency to pick violent and legendary characters to put on the page.
Ridgeline, the Missoula author's newest historical novel, follows the same contours of “The Revenant” but with more focus on the political aspects of telling a known and forgotten story. In 1866, the U.S. Army is attempting to hold onto the expansionary interests of a nation reeling from the horrors of the Civil War. Col. Henry Carrington shows up in the Powder River Valley and is told to defend a road that will bring settlers and extraction interests into the West, while Crazy Horse and Red Cloud gather a force of Native warriors intent on removing the Army from their land.
The action flows throughout the book and the scenes of carnage find themselves much more restrained than the more-fictional and harsher world of a book like “Blood Meridian” or the film “The Wild Bunch.” That’s not to say he doesn’t describe the world as it is — rather, Punke finds himself much more intrigued by the relationships between these historical figures. In his end notes, Punke notes that Carrington spent the rest of his life defending his decisions at Greasy Grass, which is not the normal response of someone who made the correct decisions that won’t eat at him for the rest of his life.
Punke is a good storyteller: this is fact. But the philosophical ask of “Ridgeline,” like “The Revenant” and all historical fiction before it, is would these characters have acted this way and spoken as they did?
The characters and places Punke writes about do crackle with life. You can hear them take a breath and look at a massive tree on the horizon to wonder about how long it’s stood there, like Punke does with the larger-than-life Jim Bridger at the beginning of the novel. And it’s hats-off to Punke for making these huge characters that fit more under “legend” than “historical artifact” fit into the world of a novel, like when Bridger interacts with James Beckwourth, another giant of Western imperial exploration.
There is however, still a sense that they are historical and must be treaded around with that idea kept close at hand. Does that make for a less-intriguing read? Not that I found, but as I continued through the novel I found myself considering James Welch’s “Fools Crow” more and more as if not a companion, then a progenitor to “Ridgeline.” Visions play a part in both of these novels, both as place-setters for the action and as apocalyptic reminders that victory for Native tribes would be short-lived as white settlers moved west and took more and more land.
The tragedy in Punke’s novel is not that of a man like Carrington trying to save his reputation into the 20th century; it’s that of the slow march of “progress” and the apocalypse for a people and their way of life.