Scott Henders’ The Rawhide Homesteader offers readers an engrossing narrative engemmed with wisdom about the human condition within boundaries of the natural order. It is a novel most remarkable for its true-as-life characters, all of whom are intelligently moulded by the institutions of social life demarcating society, yet show the strains in traditional ways, under pressures of family, religion, nature, and changing socio-economic conditions at the turn of the 20th Century. Several characters are twice born, once into what must be endured, and once into what must be done to live well for themselves and their loved ones. The novel also offers rich insight into the spiritual life as a means of learning respect for forces of man and nature that can expand, yet will just as likely devastate, the soul. It is a novel about the inescapable needs that pulsate in the human psyche, the ties of society within and across cultural lines, and the inborn patterns of nature that provide the logic in which human beings must progress toward self-understanding and enlightened acceptance.
At the heart of this narrative is Josh McIntyre, a character memorable for his steadfast work ethic, his will and adaptability in grave circumstances, and the wonder he experiences toward nature and life. The son of an alcoholic, farming father and an oppressed, but resourceful, mother, Josh, a Methodist, travels west to homestead following a scandalous romance with a Catholic girl, Sarah. Alone on the prairie, Josh becomes aware of his own dependence on alcohol. The novel’s frank portrayal of addiction and isolation, in passages that show the grimness of their combined effects on the mind and spirit, make Josh a very sympathetic character. Because Josh also has a thirst to be connected with nature, to walk a spiritual path, his addiction is doubly problematic. The novel is highly effective at conveying the effects of past events on Josh’s psyche. As Josh strives to resolve his addiction, he cannot help but bear resentment toward the Catholic church, his father, and the social institutions that pressured Sarah to leave him with their child. The reader will root for Josh because he seldom strays far from being good, possessing heart, ability, and a longing for grace and wholeness. Through Josh’s experience, the novel suggests a social order that, while potentially harmful in its close-mindedness, anxieties and inflexibility toward deviations from tradition, contains an assortment of wise and honest people who will help a man willing to change himself. The landscape of this novel includes sages from all walks of life that will refresh and enrich the reader’s own better self.
Other characters in this novel grow and mature as Josh does. Angeline, a Métis woman with whom Josh shares a brief romance, and who bears Josh’s first child, is a striking character remarkable for her poise and intelligence during the final years of the prairie buffalo hunts. Josh’s wife, Janie, becomes a pillar of strength and encouragement for Josh in his struggle with addiction. Relationships between characters are presented without sentimentality and with the understanding that growth involves pain in oneself and in loved ones. Henders’ novel brims with truthfulness about the aches and needs of a better self.
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