“The Homesman”, a novel by Glendon Swarthout, and now a movie, explores an aspect of American western migratory history that is seldom considered: what happened to those 1850s settlers who suffered mental breakdowns under the extreme conditions common to their new environment and lifestyle? This was especially the case for those women, already isolated from everything and everyone they left behind, who lost one or more children to disease or accident. Who would care for them if they could not care for themselves?
The research Swarthout conducted in Nebraska gave him the answers he sought. Mentally ill men are likely to have died of exposure, disease, or death at the hands of fellow settlers who felt threatened by their presence. Women suffering mental illness, on the other hand, were not treated so harshly. It was more likely that husbands made arrangements to have their wives transported back east to family or institutions that could care for them for the rest of their lives. The tragedy of four of these women having to be removed from their families and carried back across the Missouri River for care serves as the premise of “The Homesman” (“homesman” being the term for the man chosen to escort the women eastward).
In the case of these particular women, however, when no man, including their own husbands, is willing to make that dangerous trek, the job falls to a woman volunteer, one Mary Bee Cuddy. The determined Mary Bee is perhaps the only woman who would even have had a small chance to get the four women home safely on her own. But, despite the fact that the four husbands are perfectly content to see their wives set out without a male escort, Mary Bee knows that she needs help if she and the women are to survive the trip – and she finds that help in the person of a claim jumper she coerces into accompanying her.
When first published in 1988, “The Homesman” won both major awards annually given to the best western novels of the year: the Western Heritage Wrangler Award and the Spur Award granted by the Western Writers of America. It is easy to see why.
Stop by the library and check out this book. The library’s book club will be discussing this novel by Glendon Stouthart on Monday, March 2nd. Everyone is welcome to join this discussion group.