Grove Press
Atlantic Monthly Press
Atlantic Monthly Press

So Brave, Young, and Handsome

A Novel

by Leif Enger

So Brave, Young, and Handsome is a sharp and brainy redemption tale, with all the twists and turns and thrills of a dime-store western. . . . [Enger’s] laid claim to a musical, sometimes magical and deeply satisfying kind of storytelling.” —Veronique de Turenne, Los Angeles Times

  • Imprint Grove Paperback
  • Page Count 304
  • Publication Date April 01, 2009
  • ISBN-13 978-0-8021-4417-1
  • Dimensions 5.5" x 8.25"
  • US List Price $18.00
  • Imprint Atlantic Monthly Press
  • Page Count 304
  • Publication Date May 01, 2008
  • ISBN-13 978-0-8711-3985-6
  • Dimensions 6" x 9"
  • US List Price $24.00

About The Book

One of Time magazine’s top-five novels of the year and a New York Times best seller, Leif Enger’s first novel, Peace Like a River, captured readers’ hearts around the nation. His new novel is a stunning successor—a touching, nimble, and rugged story of 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, Monte Becket—“a man fading, a disappointer of persons”—has lost his sense of purpose. His only success long behind him, Monte lives a simple life with his loving wife and whipsmart 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 finally lured him from hiding. As the modern age marches swiftly forward, Glendon aims to travel back into 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—a journey that will test the depth of his loyalties, the inviolability of his morals, and the strength of his resolve. As they 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.

With its smooth mix of romanticism and gritty reality, So Brave, Young, and Handsome often recalls the Old West’s greatest cowboy stories. But it is also about an ordinary man’s determination as he risks everything in order to understand what it’s all worth, and follows an unlikely dream in the hope it will lead him back home.

Tags Literary


“A superbly written, utterly compelling story of self-discovery and redemption disguised as a cracking good adventure tale . . . Enger has created a work of great humanity and huge heart, a riveting piece of fiction that while highly accessible is never shallow. This story of an ordinary man’s discovery of who he is and his place in the world is exciting, admirable and ultimately very affecting. . ..After reading the final page, don’t be surprised if you find yourself shaking your head and murmuring, ‘Wow. What a good book.’” —Peter Moore, Minneapolis Star Tribune

So Brave, Young, and Handsome is a sharp and brainy redemption tale, with all the twists and turns and thrills of a dime-store western. . . . [Enger’s] laid claim to a musical, sometimes magical and deeply satisfying kind of storytelling.” —Veronique de Turenne, Los Angeles Times

“With its brisk, short chapters and heady, nostalgic air, Enger’s delightful follow-up to Peace Like a River is a big-hearted western yarn, full of blossoming and reformed outlaws, wide prairies and aromatic orange groves, perilous chases and abductions, trouble and redemption. It’s an old-fashioned road trip you can’t afford to miss. . . . Enger’s tale is lively and generous of spirit, its stately prose steeped in warm, turn-of-the-century charm, and Monte’s discovery of his loyalty and limits is engaging. At a time when good westerns are hard to find, So Brave, Young, and Handsome deserves to become a classic.” —Connie Ogle, Miami Herald

“An old-fashioned, swashbuckling, heroic Western, with pistols and ponies and senoritas and sharpshooters—and adventure of the heart and mind.” —Carrie Brown, Washington Post Book World

“If you want a picaresque tale similar in flavor to Huckleberry Finn or Oh, Brother, Where Art Thou? read Leif Enger’s new book So Brave, Young, and Handsome. . . . Complete with reversals of fortune, shootouts, and colorfully drawn characters, this Western yarn is a fun ride and yet poignant too.” —Elissa Elliott, Christianity Today

So Brave, Young, and Handsome is an enthralling romp, appealing to fans of Peace Like a River—to anyone, that is, who loves a good story.” —Mindy Friddle, The Charlotte Observer

“A remarkable story told like the old-style Western novels. . . . [So Brave, Young, and Handsome] is an amazing adventure story, full of wonderful characters and a great plot.” —Vicki Rock, Somerset County Daily American

So Young, Brave, and Handsome is a fine novel, beautifully done, a serious Western story worthy of comparison with Shane and Monte Walsh and True Grit.” —Bryan Woolley, Dallas Morning News

“Enger’s long-awaited second novel measures up . . . So Brave, Young and Handsome is an almost perfect novel, lively and engrossing, full of surprises, funny, touching and a great read. . . . So Brave, Young and Handsome will appeal to fans of Larry McMurtry’s Western epics, but also to those who enjoy the magical realism of Isabel Allende and Alice Hoffman. The straightforward narrative, recounted in a single voice, keeps us turning the pages, faster and faster, and by the time the story comes full circle, Enger will have plenty of new fans hoping he gets to work soon on his next book.” —Gail Pennington, St. Louis Post-Dispatch

“[Enger is] a formidably gifted writer, one whose fictions are steeped in the American grain. . . . [He] is—like Ron Hansen—a child-friendly, contemporary American heartland novelist, a writer unafraid to concoct and couch his stories in such terms as faith, miracle, sin and grace, repentance and redemption, atonement and absolution. . . . Enger is a masterful storyteller . . . possessed of a seemingly effortless facility for the stiletto-sharp drawing of wholly believable characters [and] a pitch-perfect ear for the cadences and syntax of Midwest and Great Plains vernacular. His Amishly carpentered prose smacks of plow work, prairie, flapjacks and cider, butter churns, denim and calico. . . . At times reminiscent of the sinew and gristle in the craggier work of Annie Proulx, and at other times aspiring to a Jean Shepherdesque folk poetry . . . So Brave, Young, and Handsome is affable and human as all get out, homespun and sophisticated at once, wise and knowing about the ubiquity of the human condition and the vagaries of the human heart.” —Bruce Olds, Chicago Tribune

“Leif Enger has done it again. He has a magic touch with a high-action road novel, and the road in So Brave, Young, and Handsome leads straight into the wild heart of the American West. So Brave, Young, and Handsome abounds with adventure, comradeship and hardship, splendid characters, romance, humor, and good-naturedness. It is a literary western in all the best senses—and a world of fun to read.” —Howard Frank Mosher

“[Leif Enger is] in fine storytelling form, as he spins a picaresque tale of redemption and renewal amid the fading glories of the Old West.” —Kirkus Reviews (starred review)

“An inviting voice guides readers through this expansive saga of redemption in the early twentieth century West and gives a teeming vitality to [the] period. . . . Peopled with sharply carved characters and splendid surprises . . . An adventure story . . . so rich you can smell the spilled whiskey and feel the grit.” —Publisher’s Weekly

“Ernest Hemingway famously remarked that ‘All modern American literature comes from one book by Mark Twain called Huckleberry Finn,’ and while such a broad declaration might be worthy of challenge, it nonetheless struck me as apt while I was reading Leif Enger’s entertaining second novel, which follows his bestselling 2001 debut, Peace Like a River. Like Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, Enger’s So Brave, Young, and Handsome involves a quintessentially American journey. . . . Enger delivers a rip-roaring follow-up.” —Robert Weibezahl, BookPage

“Enger again explores the often transparent line between good and bad, focusing his story on characters who fall in the gray in-between. Failed novelist Monte Becket accompanies his friend, Glendon Hale, a former outlaw, 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, Book Sense quote


A Book Sense Selection
A Rocky Mountain News Best Book of the Year 2008
A St. Louis Post-Dispatch Best Book of the Year 2008
Selected as Amazon.com Top 100 Editors’ Picks (No. 8)
2008 Midwest Booksellers’ Choice Award Honor Book for Fiction
Midwest Booksellers Association Heartland Independent Bestseller List (4/27/08)
Pacific Northwest Booksellers Association Bestseller List (4/27/08)
Mountain and Plains Independent Booksellers Association Bestseller List (5/3/08)
Southern Independent Booksellers Association Bestseller List (5/3/08)
Finalist for the Christianity Today Book Award for Fiction

Pacific Northwest Independent Booksellers Bestseller List (#14 3/28/2009)


Chapter 1 — A Thousand a Day

Not to disappoint you, but my troubles are nothing—not for an author, at least. Common blots aside, I have none of the usual Big Artillery: I am not penniless, brilliant, or an orphan; have never been to war, suffered starvation or lashed myself to a mast. My health is adequate, my wife steadfast, my son decent and promising. I am not surrounded by people who don’t understand me! In fact most understand me straightaway, for I am and always was an amiable fellow and reliably polite. You, a curious stranger, could walk in this moment; I would offer you coffee and set you at ease. Would we talk pleasantly? Indeed we would, though you’d soon be bored—here on Page One I don’t even live in interesting surroundings, such as in a hospital for the insane, or on a tramp steamer, or in Madrid.

Later in the proceedings I do promise a tense chase or two and the tang of gunpowder, but here at the outset it’s flat old Minnesota and I am sitting on the porch of my comfortable farmhouse, composing the flaccid middle of my seventh novel in five years.

Seven novels, you exclaim—quite right, but then I didn’t finish any of them. I’m grateful for that, and you should be too. Number Seven featured a handsome but increasingly bilious ranch hand named Dan Roscoe. A right enough pard to begin with, he became more arrogant page by page. No laconic wit for Dan! It was himself I was writing about, with many low sighs, the morning I first saw Glendon Hale rowing upstream through the ropy mists of the Cannon River. What a cool spring morning that was—birdsong, dew on the blossoms—I yearned to be on the river myself, but Dan Roscoe had rustlers to catch and a girl to win. Neither seemed likely. How often I sighed in those days! I needed a revelation but you know how it is. I would have settled for a nice surprise.

Hearing the groan of oarlocks I peered downriver. A whiteheaded fellow was rowing up out of the haze.

He rowed standing, facing forward, a tottery business; twice as I watched, one of his narrow sweeps missed the water completely and he lurched like old Quixote, hooting to himself. The truth is he appeared a bit elevated, early though it was. As I say, he was white-haired with a white mustache and he wore white shirtsleeves and his boat too was white above the waterline, so that he had a spectral or angelic quality only somewhat reduced by his tipsy aspect.

Forth he came through the parting mists. To this day I don’t know what took hold of me as he approached. I stood from my work and called hello.

“Hello back,” said he, not pausing in his strokes.

“Pretty vessel,” I called.

“Pretty river,” he said, a simple reply that made me ache to be afloat. But he wasn’t slowing, as you might expect a polite person to do, and I stepped off the porch and jogged down to the stubby dock my son had built for fishing.

“Can you stop a minute? There’s coffee,” I said—sounding pushy, I suspect, though I am no extrovert; ask Susannah.

“Maybe,” he said, yet he was already well past me and in fact the haze was closing round him again. I had a last glimpse of his boat—its graceful sheer and backswept transom. Then it disappeared, though I could hear in the fog the dip of the old man’s oars, his screeling oarlocks, and what might have been a laugh of delight, as though he’d vanished by some mystic capacity that tickled him every time.

I went heavily back to the porch. My boy Redstart was there grinning—he was eleven, Redstart, catching up with his papa in all kinds of ways.

“Who was that man?” he inquired.

“I don’t know.”

“Was he drunk, do you think?”

“Anything’s possible.”

“He rows standing up,” said Redstart. “I never saw that before. Did you talk to him?”

“No, I didn’t.” I couldn’t look at the boy for a moment or two. I was embarrassed at how much I’d wanted to visit with the man in the boat, and how unaccountably sorry I was that he’d just rowed away. I sat in my chair and lifted pages into my lap. Dan Roscoe was waiting for me in those pages—boy, he was morose. Who could face it?

“I can still hear him,” Redstart said, “out in the mist. Can you hear him rowing, Papa?”

I looked at my son, the lover of mysteries. You could never guess what Redstart might say, for his mind was made of stories; he’d gathered all manner of splendid facts about gunpowder and deserts of the world and the anchoring of lighthouses against the furious sea; he 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; and about me he knew some things not even his mother knew, such as the exact number of novels I had abandoned on that porch. He whispered, “How many words today, Papa?”

I made a quick and not altogether honest guess. “Two hundred or so.”

“It’s early still, that’s pretty good,” he replied, then sat and shut his eyes and leaned awhile. I knew he should go take the horses to pasture or mulch the tomatoes but I didn’t want to lose his company. I picked up my pen and wrote: As Dan Roscoe branded each bawling calf with the Moon Ranch insignia, he recalled how Belle had clung to the arm of his hated rival—a moribund sentence that announced the death of my seventh novel. It didn’t surprise me. I had the grim yet satisfactory thought that it wouldn’t surprise Dan Roscoe, either. Well, let him moan! I was sick of Dan and his myriad problems.

“Red,” said I, “here’s an idea. Why don’t you go in the house and lay hands on a few of your mother’s orange rolls. Let’s climb in the boat and head upstream.”

“Hmm,” said Redstart. He dawdled to his feet; he said “Well” a couple of times.

“Well, nothing,” I said. “We don’t even need the rolls. Let’s catch up with that old man. I want to talk to him.”

Redstart went to the door. Poor reluctant boy; long my joyous accomplice in distraction, he had lately been run to ground by his efficient and lovely and desperate mother. He didn’t want to shame me, but what choice did I give him?

“I guess we better not, Papa. You got to get your work done. Remember what Mama said?”

Chapter 2

What Susannah said was, approximately, If you don’t soon finish that book of yours, we’ll have to start selling the furniture. Lest you read in her words a tone of panic, let me assure you there was none. She was only letting me know where things stood. The end of money didn’t mean the end of much—the end of our marriage, say, or even of Susannah’s obstinate confidence in me. At worst it meant the end of pretense. The end of my little run at distinction. To say it truly: the end of pride.

I was the one who panicked. Here’s how I came to this sorry pass. In the fall of 1910 I published a short novel called Martin Bligh, which became so popular I quit being a postman and started calling myself an author. Who knows how these things happen? The book was just an adventure tale. Nothing ambitious. I only wrote it for entertainment and to gratify a sort of wistful ache—Martin Bligh was a postman too, though as a Pony Express rider he had a better shot at glory and peril than I in my tinctured cell at the Northfield P.O. It was a story to make a boy lean forward; it had Indians and great ships and the buried gold of Coronado and two separate duels, including one with sabers. I also added a black-haired señorita because my own Susannah loves a romance, yet Bligh was reviewed in a Chicago newspaper as “disturbingly real,” no doubt because some of the Indians adorned their pintos with bloody blond scalps. That the haggard and venerated Buffalo Bill Cody read my story and praised it in newspaper interviews did not hurt the book at all, though it hardly explains why the first printing of three thousand copies disappeared in two weeks. My publisher, Hackle & Banks, New York, was startled enough to wire me congratulations and print another four thousand, which sped from the warehouse in exactly twelve days. At this I received a second telegram: BLIGH OUR FASTEST SELLER. THANK YOU. GRACE. I was ignorant at the time that Grace was Grace Hackle, the generous and canny widow of Dixon Hackle, who had founded the publishing firm twenty years before.

Then letters began to arrive. I was still employed at the P.O. and was startled in the sorting room when envelopes bearing my name began crossing the desk. I rarely received mail—when I did it was apt to be from my mother, whose letters were straightforward offerings of gained wisdom. These on the other hand were praise from strangers who had read my little tale. To call these readers charitable doesn’t touch it. They were lavish and interpretive; they were “stirred.” The daunting and completely unforeseen fact was this: They had mistaken me for a person of substance! I blushed but kept the letters. When I did hear from my mother, sometime later, she suggested I cling to my place at the post office and not let publication make me biggity. Fine advice, you will agree, yet vanity is a devious monkey. While some labeled my story na’ve or my diction purple, I clove to a review calling it “an enchanting and violent yarn spun in the brave hues of history.” A famous ladies’ journal claimed I’d crafted “the ideal popular tale.” By the time Mama wrote I was miles past her advice. By then Grace Hackle had sent me several elegant personal notes. She had paid for Susannah and me to ride the Great Northern from St. Paul to New York City, where she registered us in a hotel with frescoes and high ceilings. She had accompanied us to a stage play, then to a restaurant lighted the amber of sunsets, where we ate fresh sea bass and talked of books and authors.

“It is destined timing,” Grace declared. “You have dared paint a romance on the sterile canvas of our age.” She was a perfectly beautiful tidy small woman with the metropolitan habit of placing events in the big picture. She believed romance was no mere ingredient but the very stone floor on which all life makes its fretful dance. Having traveled once as far west as the Black Hills she still awoke from dreams of rock and prairie. She confessed to a fascination with the architecture of tepees. William Howard Taft might be president, Grace noted, but who did not miss Teddy Roosevelt? “The strenuous life,” she sighed.

Looking back, I have to laugh. You know why Martin Bligh was strenuous? Whenever I didn’t know what to write next, I put a swift river in front of his horse and sent the two of them across!

“And now,” Grace added, “tell me you plan to write another book.”

I looked at Susannah, who was squeezing my hand under the table. I had never thought about another book.

Grace sipped tea. “You have some ideas, I suppose.”

“Why, yes,” I said, though my lone idea at the moment was the fragile sweetheart Grace herself had just planted: that I was an Author now, that I had new Business upon the Earth, that the tedium of sorting mail might be exchanged for something more expansive or—dare I say it?—Swashbuckling.

Can you write another book?” she asked, rather baldly. I thought about it. Martin Bligh had not been difficult to write; whatever I wanted to do, that’s what Martin did. He rode in all weathers, flouting night and blizzard; he defied the wicked; he kissed the pretty girl. How hard could it be to do something similar again? I said, “Indeed I can.”

Grace’s eyes were unconvinced. Perhaps she saw what I could not.

Wanting to please her I made a hasty claim. “I shall write one thousand words a day until another book is finished.”

“You dear man,” said Grace Hackle. In memory she blanches at my na’ve pledge, but maybe not.

“Jack London sets down a thousand a day before breakfast,” said I. Why do the foolish insist? But I was thinking of the modest dimensions a thousand words actually describe—a tiny essay, a fragment of conversation. “How hard can it be?” concluded your idiot narrator, lifting his glass to the future.

Reading Group Guide

So Brave, Young and Handsome, by Leif Enger

1. 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?

2. 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.”

3. 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.

4. 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?

5. 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.

6. 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.

7. 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?

8. 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?

9. 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?

10. 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?

11. 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?

12. 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?

13. 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?

14. 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?

15. 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?

16. 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?

17. 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?

18. “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?

19. 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.

20. 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?

21. “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?

22. 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?

23. At the end, Glendon is able to give himself to the service of others, to Soto and Blue. Do you think he is truly selfless at this point? Can you possibly think he is not maneuvering? What is his persuasive act that settles the point?

24. 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?

25. 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?

Suggestions for further reading:

Fools Crow by James Welch; The Diezmo by Rick Bass; The Real Wild West: the 101 Ranch and the Creation of the American West by Michael Wallis; and A Cowboy Detective: A True Story Twenty-two Years with a World-Famous Detective Agency by Charles A. Siringo

Author Interview

Megan Sullivan: What inspired the setting for So Brave, Young, and Handsome? Why did you choose this setting? Can you explain why you like Westerns so much?

Leif Enger: Until the age of eighteen, I never traveled further west than Glendive, in eastern Montana, but knew, from Dad and my brothers and from Zane Grey, not to mention Little Joe Cartwright, that the West was where everything is possible. There’s just so much room in it! Even in the age of interstate highways and air travel the Great Plains are so large, so open—so unsupervised—that they must contain whatever a person needs, if the person looks hard enough. So it was easy to choose the West as a setting, and easier still to choose one of its prettiest and most melancholy moments, just before our entry into the Great War, when the cowboys were passing and the outlaws were looking around for easier work. Part of the beauty of the Western myth is that it offers no guarantee—you might get a happy ending or you might get a rattlesnake in your blanket. Either way you are out of the office.

MS: What’s the significance of the boats? Building boats seems to redeem the characters. Are you a boat builder yourself?

LE: Well, “boatbuilder” is a term reserved for people with specific enviable skills; I am not one of those. But I did once build a canoe with my brother Lee, and helped each of my sons build small boats when they were younger, and enjoyed the shaping of wood pieces and the way they fit together to make a simple, beautiful shape. What line is more pleasing than a boat’s sheer? And if there’s any better proof of time redeemed than the pleasure of rowing the craft of your hands through calm water, I don’t know what it is. Of course not everyone is happy in a boat, but many people are; paddling along a mossy shoreline at dusk is large medicine. So I’m not sure whether working on boats redeems these characters, but it gives them something pleasant to do and helps set their minds at ease.

MS: Explain the character of Siringo? Why does Becket remain with him?

LE: Charlie Siringo was a real Pinkerton agent of the time who wrote a terrific slam-bang memoir called A Cowboy Detective, which is still in print. Charlie was clearly a man with confidence about his place on the big stage—his tale spinning is magnetic, coarse and vulnerable, noble and cruel, and feels completely extemporaneous. It’s also cheerfully self-serving; I suspect nothing made him happier than the care and feeding of his own legend. He’s a layered old villain whose company is both harsh and fascinating. So Monte stays with him for any number of good reasons: initially fear, then a creeping curiosity, and at last, empathy.

MS: Is this a cowboy romance? Do you mean to point out the difference between the romanticized West and the real West? Glendon and Hood seem to represent these two disparate ideas.

LE: I’m not contrasting real and romantic so much as reconciling the two, marrying them together. Absolutely the West was brutal, unfair, and inhospitable, and its people commonly died young of deprivation and disease and violence. How many of them would’ve described it as romantic? But if romance is defined as a story or fiction of the wide and colorful world, in which conflicts are played out and character is revealed through action, then such bitter realities are not only inherent but necessary to the form. You actually can have it both ways—that’s my hopeful proposition.

MS: Is Becket’s writer’s block autobiographical? It’s been seven years since Peace Like a River. How difficult was writing another novel?

LE: Can it be called writer’s block if you’re writing hundreds of pages the whole time? The problem was, the pages didn’t hold together. They didn’t matter. It was as if there was some magic number of words I had to throw away. Then one morning Glendon rowed up the Cannon River in his little swift, and the story carried me off.

MS: So in a way, your experience writing this book mirrors Becket’s writing experience. That was intentional?

LE: Not really. When writing a novel, you have to stay where the current is running. I found Monte Becket’s voice to be the best entry to the outlaw/pursuit/redemption story I had in mind—it had spirit and doubt and momentum—so I went with it.

MS: What characters and places are based on real historical ones? Which character did you sympathize with most and which one do you expect readers will sympathize with most?

LE: Besides Siringo, some of the characters at the Hundred and One Ranch were real, and worked at the ranch at some point—the Ponca chief Iron Tail, Mexican Joe Barrera, and Colonel Miller, who owned the ranch with his brothers. The Hundred and One epitomized the flamboyant Wild West show, and it actually did flood in a dramatic way that sent monkeys climbing to rooftops, though I moved that event backward in time by several years. I chose to begin the story in Northfield, Minnesota, the town, for me, where the Old West transects the Midwest; the James and Younger gang attempted to rob the First National Bank there in 1876 and were rebuffed, an event Northfield still celebrates. Regarding the characters, I am especially fond of Glendon Hale, whose regrets have formed a man of character, Siringo for his pepper and wit, and Susannah, Monte’s wife, who has the strength and confidence to send her man away. Who will readers like? I honestly don’t know—and experience counsels me not to guess.

MS: You focus a lot on identity, particularly with names. Many of the characters have alternate names and egos. Can you talk about the connection and why so many characters have different names?

LE: One thing the West offered was rebirth. If you’d failed elsewhere—failed to rise in society, or satisfy your family, or live within the law—you had the option then of getting on a train and acquiring a new name, a new self. That sort of clean beginning isn’t available anymore. On the other hand, there were downsides to all those fresh-minted identities. It must’ve been awkward to invite old friends to visit. With new friends, you had to invent your history and then remember it. At bottom, though, people retain the soul assigned them at the beginning, and life becomes a matter of sloughing off whatever is not true, not genuine. I suppose that peeling away is inevitable, and not only for those who’ve consciously reinvented themselves. No wonder Glendon is worried that he never told God his true name. Who wants to die with explaining still to do?

MS: The women in your book seem more grounded than the men, especially Becket’s wife, Susanna. She feels free enough to send off her husband for weeks and then to take off from home with little warning. Even Blue seems to know who she is and what she wants. Can you comment on that?

LE: I don’t think men and women divide neatly into grounded vs. flighty, but do think that in couples where one is especially creative or romantically inclined the other is apt to develop a better hold on matters practical. In Susannah’s case, she sees that it’s important for Monte to go west with his friend; she understands he needs somehow to be made whole again, and so it is for her both a practical and a romantic consideration.

MS: Can you explain where the title So Brave, Young, & Handsome comes from?

LE: It’s from a famous old song called “The Cowboy’s Lament,” which tells the story of a dying cowboy who fell in with wicked companions, took up card playing and drinking, and ends up killed. You may recognize the terrific melodramatic refrain:

So beat the drum slowly

And play the fife lowly

Play the death march as you bear me along

For we all loved our comrade

So brave, young, and handsome

We all loved our comrade, although he done wrong.

Charles A. Siringo’s Biography

Charles A. Siringo was born on February 7, 1855 in Matagorda County, Texas. He was one of the most famous lawman and agent for the Pinkerton National Detective Agency during the late 19th century and early 20th century. His experiences were wide and varied. In Dodge City, Kansas he witnessed an incident involving gunman Clay Allison and Wyatt Earp, in Idaho he protect Clarence Darrow from being hanged, and infiltrated the outlaw Butch Cassidy’s Train Robbers Syndicate. He is the author of numerous books including A Texas Cowboy: or, Fifteen Years on the Hurricane Deck of a Spanish Pony (Penguin Books), A Cowboy Detective (University of Nebraska Press), and with Gifford Pinchot co-wrote Riata and Spurs: The Story Of A Lifetime Spent in the Saddle as Cowboy and Ranger (Kessinger Publishing). Siringo died in Altadena, California on October 18th, 1928.

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