A runaway wife, intrigue and secrets in a Depression-era tale

Paul O’Connor reviews the latest novel – the fifth –  by North Carolina author Charles Frazier.  He finds a lot to like.

Reviewed by Paul T. O’Connor

THE TRACKERS. By Charles Frazier. Harper Collins. 320 pages. $19.99, softcover.

In 1937, a young artist has landed his dream job. Val Welch, with the help of a former art professor, has secured a New Deal appointment to paint a mural in the newly opened post office in rural Dawes, Wyoming.

To go along with the generous $100 a month salary, Welch will get free room and board from a local couple, John Long, an art-loving former Easterner who came west to ranch, and Eve, his much younger wife.

Long Shot is not just any ranch. It stretches for miles in every direction, so large its size has never been computed in acres. It’s also home to Long’s exquisite art collection. A sniper in World War I, he had stayed in Paris after the armistice and bought artwork, including a small Renoir, whose value had grown tremendously in the intervening years.

Thus, the three central characters, while all being different, appear to mesh. Welch is in his mid-twenties, a college graduate, a Virginian who had never been west. A bit of a Boy Scout. Long inherited the ranch after his siblings conspired to stick him with the least valuable part of his father’s estate. Eve is young and beautiful, a veteran of hard times riding the Great Depression rails and singing in itinerant bands.

One other ingredient comes into the plot. Long has his eyes on becoming either governor of, or the U.S. senator from, Wyoming. A bachelor into middle age, and an educated easterner who is trying hard to portray himself as good ole boy western stock, he’s married Eve in part because she is a bit rough around the edges, looks good when dressed in a cowgirl outfit and knows how to flirt with the great unwashed of politics. In short, she’ll make a great trophy wife for politician Long.

Welch’s mural, the design of which had to be approved in Washington, is to be named “The Trackers” and depicts a benevolent, hopeful view of the region. But Welch, himself, becomes a tracker when Eve runs away, absconding with the small Renoir that Long loves.

Politically, Long can’t afford for it to be known that she has left him, but he needs answers: Did Eve’s first husband really die in a flood, or did she really divorce him? She’s told different stories at times. Or, did Eve run off to reunite with the ex-husband so the two can sell the Renoir? So, he sends Welch off to find her despite his complete lack of any experience as anything akin to a detective.

Over the search, we see two sides of Welch. He’s both clever as a tracker and naïve, a goody-two shoes. We see hints that Long may have a sinister side, and it is obvious that Eve is the most streetwise of the three.

Welch narrates the story, so it should come as no surprise to readers – although it did to me, and it will to most male readers – that Eve ran away for reasons we did not assume. It’s a story with a good twist about 30 pages from the end.

Charles Frazier, like author Amor Towles, has a talent for taking us into the era of his stories. We saw this in his magnificent Cold Mountain and we see it here again. Much as with Towles’ Rules of Civility, we can feel what life was back in 1937.

There is a scene where Welch hands a man a $2 tip when 10 cents was the custom for the day, and the recipient responds as if he just earned an extra day’s wage, which he probably did. We see the desperation of the Hooverville camps and the difficulty of travel even when a wealthy rancher is footing the travel tab. It all brings us back to that age.

Authors who score so spectacularly with their first book, as did Frazier with Cold Mountain, often disappoint readers with their subsequent works. In this case, for example, readers might compare The Trackers, now his fifth novel, to his Civil War masterpiece.

My suggestion is to avoid such a trap. The Trackers is a fine novel on its own. Enjoy it as such.

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