Gabriel’s Story: An Odyssean Journey on the Western Frontier
Leonard Engel, PhD
Professor Emeritus of English, Quinnipiac University
In the decade following the Civil War, the exodus of former slaves from the South to the North has been well documented in both fiction and non-fiction. Less well known is the migration of African Americans heading West during that time with the dream of home- steading and a better life. Gabriel’s Story by David Anthony Durham is a coming of age fiction, a personal epic into hidden parts of the West that carries the protagonist into terrifying recesses of his own mind and heart. Set in Kansas during Reconstruction, the story depicts the struggles of an African American family, some of whose members are former slaves. Solomon Lynch and his brother-in-law Hiram establish a homestead on the plains; a year later, Solomon’s new wife and her two sons from a previous marriage arrive from Baltimore: Eliza (an allusion to Liza in Uncle Tom’s Cabin?), Gabriel (the 15-year old protagonist), and his younger brother Ben, age 13. The farm is struggling, but Solomon is optimistic and tries to convey to Eliza, Gabriel, and Ben his enthusiasm for their new life. Gabriel, however, remains unconvinced and aloof. Haunted by the death of his father, disgusted with the condition of the farm, and harboring feelings of hostility and resentment toward his stepfather Solomon, Gabriel abruptly leaves the family for what he believes will be an exciting adventure farther west.
In Crownsville, Kansas, the town nearest his family’s homestead, Gabriel and his friend James, who is also looking to escape what he perceives as a dull, oppressive existence, sign on with a motley group of trail drivers led by a charismatic white man named Marshall and his sidekick, a solemn, dangerous black man named Caleb. They are heading back to Texas after having driven a herd of horses to Crownsville. Promising freedom and excitement for the boys, the trip soon turns sour, and they begin to doubt their decision to join these lowlifes.
Employing the Odyssean journey motif, Durham has Gabriel leave a loving family and unknowingly attach himself to this band of horse thieves and killers. Dissatisfied with his life on the homestead, Gabriel resembles a wayward, immature Telemachus, who leaves home (in Book 2 of The Odyssey, putting himself in danger of being killed by the suitors), to experience the world on his own terms. He does, finally, rejoin his father in Ithaca and establishes himself as an authentic part of the family. Gabriel’s experience is similar, but since he is the major character, the journey has a more profound effect on him than Telemachus’s has on him. Witnessing cruelty, depravity, and the murder of innocent people, Gabriel descends into a symbolic underworld, suffers greatly, and experiences dark nights of the soul before he returns. In dramatizing this harrowing journey, Durham reveals the West not only as a place where evil can spontaneously erupt in human beings, but also as a testing ground, a place where the self is pared down to its bare essentials. If one survives the ordeal, the landscape may provide healing and selfhood. Gabriel does survive, but not before danger and distress, and as his new self emerges, Durham balances the stark beauty and vastness of the land against sudden, unanticipated events.
As indicated earlier, Gabriel’s odyssey takes him from the Kansas plains to Texas, then to New Mexico, Arizona, Colorado, and, most importantly, to the Colorado River before he arrives back in Kansas. This physical journey becomes not only spiritual for Gabriel, but is starkly contrasted with the stationary, settled life of the family back in Kansas. Following Homer’s account of Odysseus’s ten year journey by depicting the difficulties in the warrior’s Ithacan household, almost 20 years after has left, Durham juxtaposes the itinerant, rugged cowboy life (in this case, violent, murderous cowboys) with that of the hard working, sod-busting homesteader Solomon. Just as Homer never lets us forget the powerful emotions Odysseus, in his absence, inspires in his wife and son, Durham reminds us of the family virtues Gabriel has left behind. Gabriel’s journey juxtaposes powerful imagery of the western frontier: stability, commitment, and love, on one hand, excitement, danger, and violence, on the other. The journey’s mythic elements lead to Gabriel’s epiphany and eventual maturity and wholeness, and one is struck by Durham’s integration of animal imagery in his depiction of the vast, forbidding, western landscape.
Like Telemachus in The Odyssey, Gabriel is moody and solemn when we first meet him, but he becomes inspired by the mysterious, inscrutable, white man named Marshall, who leads the ragtag group of cowboys. Marshall promises excitement and adventure if Gabriel will join up and head back to Texas with him and his crew. Recall that Telemachus was also inspired early in The Odyssey by the goddess Athena, disguised as an old family friend named Mentes. Athena had noble intentions in mind for her young, distraught hero—to inspire action and get him moving by visiting the older heroes of the Trojan War, and to find out if his father Odysseus is still alive. However, Marshall’s intentions are anything but noble, and the two young black men, James and Gabriel, who join are totally unaware of the depth of his evil. If Telemachus received reinforcement of his identity from his visits to the palaces of Nestor and later Menelaus and Helen, it was not so for Gabriel. In fact, his identity is gradually stripped from him the longer he’s with Marshall.
One day, a lone rider named Dallas intercepts the herders and relates how ranchers back in Texas are gathering a posse to come after Marshall for stealing their horses. At this point, the group breaks apart, several men leave (one with the wagon the boys have been riding in), while Marshall and the remaining four head out on horseback to an outpost called McKutcheon’s, leaving the boys to fend for themselves—on foot. But instead of heading home, they follow Marshall to McKutcheon’s, about a 3-day walk, and this decision seals their fate. Their experience at this outpost can be read against the mythic background of Telemachus’s journey away from Ithaca, followed by his successful return—successful because Athena has warned him to take an alternate route when he leaves Menelaus’s palace as the suitors, who have become wary of his newly displayed maturity, are planning to ambush and kill him if he returns to Ithaca the same way he departed.
Durham, of course, has no Athena looking out for the boys, but he does use Marshall as a god-like, controlling presence. Although Marshall has provided protection for them and will again when they rejoin him at McKutcheon’s, he attracts and repels so forcefully that they are not able to detach themselves from him. Thus, he serves as an unpredictable, manipulating omniscience, leading the boys, not to an open, exciting life, a new freedom, but, rather, to a harrowing experience of brutality and death, the first, of which, occurs when they rejoin him and his remaining men and head toward Texas and the Three Bars Ranch, where the posse had been formed to track down Marshall for stealing horses.
They arrive at the ranch just before dawn, and Gabriel is given the task of approaching the house and knocking on the door. He hasn’t been told the purpose of this action and when a man and woman, both armed with guns, eventually open the door and demand Gabriel to state his business, Durham writes, “in an instant, a moment frozen in Gabriel’s mind then and forever after, a dimple of red no larger than a dime appeared on the man’s forehead, above his left eye. At the same instant, the doorjamb behind him splintered. And also in the same instant, a fan of liquid sprayed the doorjamb, the nearby wall, and the left side of [the woman’s] face” (147). A defining moment for Gabriel--one he will never forget-- a turning point in the story--Durham now moves Gabriel from Telemachus’s mythos toward what might be called a western, mythic journey that combines both the short sojourn of Telemachus and the much longer one of his father. Telemachus, recall, is buoyed up by his travel to see Nestor and Menelaus and by his escaping death at the hands of the suitors. He is mentally and spiritually prepared to meet his long, lost father in the swineherd’s hut on the outskirts of Ithaca. His brief journey has served to give him a sense of the larger world outside his home and to reinforce his identity as his father’s son when he and Odysseus finally come together. However, his journey hasn’t really tested him yet—that will happen when, with his father, he battles with and defeats the suitors.
Gabriel, having permanently lost his biological father before the story begins and refusing to accept his stepfather Solomon, finds a false father in the character of Marshall. Marshall, with his charisma, his fascinating tales, his gift for language, and his uncanny knack of getting inside people’s heads, initiate Gabriel at the Three Bars Ranch to an underworld of violence and bloodshed.
If the experience at Three Bars is Gabriel’s introduction, the encounter with the Mexicans on their farm on the outskirts of Santa Fe is his immersion in horror, his final descent, one might say. The farm is an edenic setting, an idyllic valley that could pass for the Elysian Fields, and the family is loving and generous. Marshall’s men kill the parents, rape the two daughters (killing one and taking the other with them in order to continue raping her), and plunder whatever they can load unto the horses. These horrors dramatically effect the boys; in shock, they move with dazed, entranced motions, not unlike souls of the dead Odysseus meets in his descent into Hades. For James, it is the beginning of the end; he will soon die in a raging river. Gabriel will survive, but be changed completely. After leaving the Mexicans’ farm and traveling West for a number of days, Marshall and his men discover they are being followed. Their pursuers include the girl’s brother, who was away when the men killed his parents and kidnapped his sister. The brother has rounded up a posse and is gaining on Marshall, who subsequently orders the girl to be set free. The experience with the river occurs in the middle of a frightening thunder storm; desperate to escape the posse, the men try to ford the river, but most are swept downstream by its force, except for Gabriel who, miraculously makes it to the other side. In the confusion, he accidentally grabs Marshall’s horse and manages to head upstream. The horse, Durham writes, “had swum into a swirling eddy that sent the confused horse and boy circling in a strange flow of gurgling, recirculating water. ... Gabriel thought for a moment that all was lost and that the horse was retreating. But the creature never turned the side of its body to the current. Instead, it ferried across the current at a slight angle, touched land, and a second later was up on a shore that Gabriel hadn’t even noticed” (217-18). It isn’t until a few moments after this when a flash of lightning illuminates his surroundings that Gabriel realizes he’s on Marshall’s horse; this discovery sends chills through his body, for the horse is carrying not only food, a Winchester, and ammunition, but a huge chunk of gold the men had pilfered from the Mexicans’ ranch. As the realization strikes him, “Gabriel had the feeling that he was just now beginning his journey” (230).
Read in a mythic way, this tumultuous water experience reveals Durham balancing Gabriel’s sudden, unexpected, wrenching survival with the peaceful, almost beatific, death of James. Here are James’s final thoughts: “Finally, after so many days under the weight of his own mind [James couldn’t get the deaths of the Mexican family out of his mind], he floated free of it. He felt himself wrapped within a deep, somber embrace that was beyond reason.... It was strange ... floating like this, letting go like this ... everything now seemed so clear. He knew now that he would not swim for shore. If his friend [Gabriel] could only feel what he now felt coming ... If he could only know what it feels like to swim into the heavens” (223-24). Durham hints at redemption in James’s death scene, but it can also be read as Gabriel’s symbolic death, for a part of him (his innocence, his childhood) dies with James, and he carries the guilt of abandoning James long after this underworld experience.
After emerging from the river and riding the rest of the night and all the next day, Gabriel, when he finally sleeps, has dreams reminiscent of Odysseus’s descent into Hades-- encountering the spirits of the dead. Just before a deep sleep, Gabriel equates the stars, the points of light in the sky, with the souls of his loved ones. “So many souls,” he says, and “one of those points was the soul of his companion. When he arose the next morning, he would feel that during his sleep he had traveled very far in the company of a great host of beings” (226). These “beings,” these souls of the dead, recall Odysseus’s experience with the spirits in Hades, for they force Odysseus to face the deaths of his former friends and loved ones. This dream, then is another symbolic death for Gabriel—the death of his old, hubristic self, and this jolts him out of his passivity and dependence on Marshall. He is now doomed to survive on the unforgiving, western landscape, totally alone, with only Marshall’s horse as his companion.
Thus, it seems that Durham intends this river crossing to be both a symbolic death and a rebirth for Gabriel, for on his long journey home, Gabriel must reach down to the roots of his being, so to speak, and become one not only with himself and his horse but with the natural world as well. Durham writes “by the second week of his solitary journey,
Gabriel realized he’d come to know his horse as he’d never known another animal ... to the feel of her, the swell and release of her breathing. Her earthy scent was around him always, in the fibers of his clothes, on his hands, in his very skin. He came to know her temperament, her gestures, the manner in which she raised her head at a certain angle to scent the air, the way she sidestepped....” (235). Gabriel then begins talking to the horse, telling her things he never told anyone, and finally admits that all he wanted now was to be home, to be a son to his mother and stepfather, and a brother to Ben.
Gabriel does return home and in a touching, poignant scene is embraced by his family, but his ordeal, and theirs, is not over. Marshall and his black companion Caleb survived the Colorado River; they have been tracking Gabriel and arrive at the homestead only days after he does. In a bloody finale that has numerous twists and turns, Gabriel, facing the possible destruction of his family by the two killers, finally awakens from his passivity and like Telemachus plays a dominant role in defending them and restoring order in the household.
In the short epilogue, Durham reminds us once again of the mythic underpinnings of his novel; he gives Uncle Hiram, Solomon’s brother, the voice of the epic bard, a role Durham implied earlier. “The Beloved Uncle speaks. He tells a tale that all around him have heard before. It is the story of a young man loose in the world. The boy wanders through the land and looks upon things with his own eyes, as he trusts little the words of others. He sees the glory of God, sees his creations as they go about their loves and hates, sees them make a confusion of that which could be so divine. He sees them struggle.... This boy becomes a man, and he speaks to the people in words he hopes they’ll understand, but few do.” Hiram then reminds his loved ones “that a battle won in the name of good, for protection of family against the devil’s agents, is a blessed thing” (293-94). Even the angels, after all, have done battle with the forces of darkness, and they don’t “live in peace. At least, not yet” he concludes.
By employing Homeric themes and devices, the young man’s quest for selfhood, the older man’s struggle to bring order, stability, and prosperity to his family, the juxtaposition of one narrative with another, underscoring the simultaneity of events, and the suggestion of the oral tradition, Durham brings new life to the age-old maturation story. More importantly, however, he infuses the western narrative with a vitality rarely seen in this genre of western fiction. By dramatizing the hopes, dreams, and struggles of a Black family moving West after the Civil War in an effort to secure a better life, he tells a powerful and moving tale of a people who have been overlooked in our westward movement. Gabriel’s Story is a welcome, and much needed, addition to our frontier mythology.
Durham, David Anthony. Gabriel’s Story: A Novel. Anchor Books, a Division of Random
Leonard Engel, Professor Emeritus of English, Quinnipiac University