It comes as no surprise to me that I loved So Brave, Young, and Handsome by Leif Enger. Way back in 2008 when I read Enger’s Peace Like a River, I picked it as one of my top books of the year. What I didn’t expect is that I would love So Brave, Young, and Handsome as much as I did. Somewhere in the back of my mind I remembered reading a criticism of Enger’s second novel that said that it doesn’t quite come up to his first, and that colored my perception going into it. I don’t know about that, especially since it has been a while since I read the first one. I do know that I loved the second one as much as the first, and that So Brave, Young, and Handsome has the distinguished honor of making me laugh out loud (almost!) on several different occasions. What more could I ask for in a book?
I think I’ve found my second favorite book of the year! It would be in first place if I hadn’t already awarded that position, but I’m really somewhat comparing apples and oranges here since So Brave, Young, and Handsome is fiction. Rather than summarize it here, I’m borrowing this summary from Leif Enger’s website:
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.
After that brief-but-thorough introduction, I want to share a few of my favorite passages. What more can I really do for this book to commend it to you, my dear readers, than to share a few of the bits that made me laugh or sigh?
First, a few one (or two)-liners, shared without context but lovely, just the same:
Why was I a slave to sentiment when it failed me so reliably? (34)
In times of dread it’s good to have an old man along. An old man has seen worse. (104)
At this Siringo woke coughing, coughed himself to an elbow and spat the wicked day to life. (192)
We rose and smacked and patted down our corrugated sleeves. (35)
“Corrugated sleeves.” I love that.
“Did you know he was a wanted man and a felon?”
“No,” I said, aware of my neck hairs. (42)
How’s that for creating atmosphere?
“Well, it ain’t any good. You don’t ever wake up and say to yourself, what a pretty day, I feel good today. No,” he reflected, “a jail ain’t nothing but a collection of corners.” (63)
I am thankful to say I’ve never seen the inside of a jail, but I can see it just this way.
The turtle was there too, and together the three of us watched the rain turn into hail. It began as fingertips but changes to knuckles and fists. (65)
Fingertips, knuckles, and fists. Of course.
What can be said for Kansas? Plain describes it nicely, both as grassy tableland and unadorned prospect. It’s wide and there you have it. To one born amid forest and bluff on the upper Mississippi, Kansas is so wide and its sky so flat it’s disturbing. “Aren’t there any hills at all?” I asked Hood Roberts as we built up the fire in the morning. We were camped by the road and in that rosy sunrise could see miles of plain at every point of compass. (87)
I remember feeling similarly the first time I visited Texas. How amazed I was to see a train–from engine to caboose–in one glance, with no tree or bend to obscure the view.
A group of young women was also heading for California. Zealous botanists, they left the train at every stop to hunt local wildflowers, which they suspended in bunches from the coach ceiling. The drying blossoms swayed overhead, purple asters, orange skyrockets, white blooms plain as your chin but with the stunning names of heliotropes; most dangled low enough so passengers had to dodge them to walk, but it was also true we had the best-smelling coach on the train and no one minded except a soft banker in a homburg who sneezed hard under the waving fauna. (227)
I absolutely love the sheer improbability of this scene. It makes me smile.
“It’s peculiar, to reach your destination,” he told me. “You think you’ll arrive and perform the thing you came for and depart in contentment. Instead you get there and find distance still to go.” (236)
We followed this old ruin into his house. It was adobe and cool as a shovel of earth. (238)
“Cool as a shovel of earth.” Yes.
“By the time the doctor could be convinced, it was too late for him to do much. He did recommend a priest, although I was friends with one already.” “That’s unforgivable,” I said. “Nothing is unforgivable, although I admit I have yet to pardon this doctor. I will have to do so before the end lest the Almighty rethink my standing. There are certain unfairnesses I don’t much like, but then it is His story to tell.” (245)
And one more, one I need to have inscribed on the wall across from our bed, so I can see it every morning before I face a new day:
Sometimes heroism is nothing more than patience, curiosity, and a refusal to panic.
I hope this glut of shared passages hasn’t supersaturated you past the point of reading this wonderful story. I share so many mainly for my own benefit, that I can read this post and remember what I love so much about Enger’s writing.
Really, if you haven’t read anything by Enger, he needs to move to the top of your TBR list.
Please, Mr. Enger, write another book. Soon.
(Atlantic Monthly Press, 2008)
Chamber Four (This review isn’t as complimentary as mine, but it’s an interesting look at Enger’s “narrative playfulness.”)
**Special thanks goes to Europeanne for loaning me this Kindle book. If you’d told me even a year ago that I’d be borrowing a book from someone in Belgium, I would’ve laughed. The kindnesses of the book blogging community continually brighten my world 🙂