After Craig Lancaster wrote last month about a reading by the novelist Richard S. Wheeler in Livingston, I thought it was high time I finally cracked one of Wheeler’s many, many books. (They fill seven pages on Amazon!)
For no particular reason, I chose to start with “Going Home,” set in the Northwest and Northern California in the 1830s. I knew it was part of Wheeler’s Barnaby Skye series, but I didn’t know until a moment ago that it was No. 11 in a 19-book series, making it nearly as long as Patrick O’Brian’s justly famous series.
I figured if it was a good book it wouldn’t matter where I entered the series. It was and it didn’t. Wheeler is, as Lancaster said, a master craftsman who builds good books one sturdy sentence at a time.
And here’s an exercise tip: I downloaded this book on my Kindle, making it only the third book I have read electronically. I discovered that the Kindle is ideal for reading on an elliptical machine: it stays flat and you can adjust the font size and the brightness of the page. There were several days when I didn’t feel like going to the Y, and all I had to do was tell myself, “Barnaby Skye!” and off I went, Kindle in the gym bag.
Also, my minor exertions at the Y seemed like nothing compared to the deprivations, beatings and half-starved expeditions endured by Mister Skye. If he suffers this much throughout the series, Job would not have traded places with him.
Wheeler is the kind of writer who makes you want to read his passages aloud to other people. I thought I would share just one. The setting is Fort Vancouver, at which Skye and his Crow Indian wife, Victoria, have just arrived. Victoria has already seen and experienced a world of strange things in Barnaby’s company, but nothing had prepared her for this:
At sundown that first night she had heard the strangest howl, a noise that sent a chill through the marrow of her bones. Skye was closeted with McLoughlin and she didn’t know what to do, so she slammed the door of their small apartment and waited. But the howl droned on, never stopping, like the groan of a dying dog, but there was more to it. She heard a whining melody, soft and cruel, like the wailing of mourners when her people lifted a dead person into its scaffold, and this wail sent chills through her. The yellow cur lifted its nose to the sky and howled. Still, no one seemed alarmed. She heard no shouts, no running, no clamors, no war-cries. She softly opened the door a crack and peered out upon the dusky yard of the post, and there she beheld a man in a skirt, holding some fiendish device, walking in measured paces about the perimeter of the post. Then she had understood: he was a medicine man, chasing away the devils of the night, scaring the wandering spirits away from the post so the people could sleep in peace. Ah! A holy man!
I hang around a lot of musicians and I know that no other instrument, not even the banjo, comes in for as much derision as the bagpipes. And this was the best description of the bagpipes I’ve ever read.