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Gabriel's Story

Gabriel's Story

4.6 8
by David Anthony Durham

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When Gabriel Lynch moves with his mother and brother from a brownstone in Baltimore to a dirt-floor hovel on a homestead in Kansas, he is not pleased. He does not dislike his new stepfather, a former slave, but he has no desire to submit to a life of drudgery and toil on the untamed prairie. So he joins up with a motley crew headed for Texas only to be sucked into


When Gabriel Lynch moves with his mother and brother from a brownstone in Baltimore to a dirt-floor hovel on a homestead in Kansas, he is not pleased. He does not dislike his new stepfather, a former slave, but he has no desire to submit to a life of drudgery and toil on the untamed prairie. So he joins up with a motley crew headed for Texas only to be sucked into an ever-westward wandering replete with a mindless violence he can neither abet nor avoid–a terrifying trek he penitently fears may never allow for a safe return. David Anthony Durham is a genuine talent bent on devastating originality and Gabriel’s Story is as formidable a debut as we have witnessed.

Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
“Wise and beautifully written.”–USA Today

“Artistically impressive and emotionally satisfying, a serious work that heads off in exhilarating directions.”–The New York Times Book Review

“Sweeps the reader up into a fascinating, Oz-like whirlwind of language.”–San Francisco Chronicle

“Moving. . . . The moral gravity of Durham’s narrative is offset by his attentiveness to the primacy of nature in the Western landscape.” –The New Yorker

“Durham captures with exquisite precision the isolation, loneliness and cruelty of life in the vastness of the West . . . . The reader turns the last page with regret at the journey’s end.” –The Times-Picayune (New Orleans)

Debut novelist David Anthony Durham mines new territory in the literature of the American West with his searing portrait of a young black man's coming of age on a Kansas homestead in Gabriel's Story, a fast-paced, historically accurate adventure story in the tradition of Cormac McCarthy.
Bob Minzesheimer
Gabriel Story, a wise and beautifully written debut novel by David Anthony Durham. Its a Western adventure with overtones of the Old Testament.
USA Today
Patrick Henry Bass
David Anthony Durham makes a sensational debut with Gabriel's Story, a lush and atmospheric historical novel that races the unforgettable odyssey of a prairie family in the mid-nineteenth century.
THE LITERAL American West is the condo-stacked Pacific coast, yet there remains in our continental consciousness a mythical "West," a vast open space where imagination can roam. These two first novels are Westerns: Gabriel's Story a cowboy tale about a post-Civil War black youth who journeys to the heart of whiteness in the Arizona desert; America's Children a pioneer story about a World War II-era Jewish scientist—Robert Oppenheimer—who fathered the atomic bomb at Los Alamos, New Mexico, and exploded it at White Sands. David Anthony Durham and James Thackara are Americans living in Europe, and their books provide a European critique of New World innocence, Americans' hope that goodness can make even a Western desert bloom. Both novelists reshape pre-American genres—the heroic quest, the tragic fall—to give their densely historical fictions a timeless quality.

When Durham's Gabriel is fifteen, his mother and stepfather take him from a comfortable life in Baltimore to a sod hut on the Kansas plain, where the boy attacks the earth with an ax and his bare hands. Given the chance to escape farming with a band of cowboys, Gabriel and his young friend James join up. The group is led by Marshall, a fast-talking white man, and Caleb, his silent half-black half-brother. Not long into their trek toward Texas, Gabriel realizes the cowboys are horse thieves, who turn into rapists and murderers. Unable to leave the ironically named Marshall and his gang, Gabriel and James are pursued across western borders for their presumed complicity in the gang's crimes and for their color.

Because the novel is titled Gabriel's Story, it's no surprisethat Gabriel ultimately escapes the outlaws, makes a heroic journey home and tells part of his tale to his family. But Durham knows evil is not shed by telling, so he brings Marshall and Caleb to Kansas, the hunted now hunting Gabriel. Pervaded by Biblical allusions, including Gabriel's name, the novel ends with an Old Testament rigor and righteousness.

Durham has an ancient Israelite's knowledge of the desert, its mirages and badlands, beauty and threat. His language is King James plain—and poetic. The plot of Gabriel's Story is somewhat schematic in its stages of departure, initiation and return, and while Marshall sounds more like Flannery O'Connor's theological misfits than a cowpoke, Durham does not romanticize the West. Nor does he demonize it. His West is a testing ground where human emotions as old as humanity reveal themselves. Although Gabriel's Story has been compared to Cormac McCarthy's All the Pretty Horses, Durham is more like William Faulkner on horseback. Rather than McCarthy's sometimes hardwired aggression, Durham focuses on acculturated racism—against Indians, blacks, Mexicans. The result is a morally complicated, socially nuanced story of American violence and its discontents. Told with great economy and restraint, it is a very promising debut.

Publishers Weekly - Publisher's Weekly
The old West, both beautiful and brutal, is the setting of Durham's magnificently realized debut novel, a classic coming-of-age story of an African-American boy. Shortly after the Civil War, 15-year-old Gabriel Lynch, his mother and younger brother head out from Baltimore to meet Gabriel's new stepfather in Kansas, where the family hopes to make a fresh start as farmers. But Gabriel finds homesteading to be backbreaking and depressing and is soon lured away by cruel, charismatic Marshall Hogg, who's leading a group of cowboys down into Texas. It seems a dream come true for Gabriel, but then the nightmare begins. While bloated with whiskey, Marshall accidentally murders a man, precipitating a flight from the law that degenerates into a grotesque spree of burglary, rape, kidnapping and murder. Gabriel desperately wants to escape, but is prevented by Marshall's threats and the menacing presence of Caleb, a mute and shadowy figure. When Gabriel finally manages to free himself, the evil that he unwillingly witnessed follows him back home--and threatens the people he loves most. Durham is a born storyteller: each step of Gabriel's descent into hell proceeds from the natural logic of the narrative itself, which manages to be inevitable even as it's totally surprising. Equally impressive is Durham's gift for describing the awful beauty of the American West: "The April sky was not a thing of air and gas," writes Durham. "Rather it lay like a solid ceiling of slate, pressing the living down into the prairie." The tale's racial dimension is subtly and intelligently developed, and though some readers may be turned off by the violence Gabriel witnesses, all will be impressed by Durham's maturity, skill and lovingly crafted prose. Agent, Sloan Harris. (Jan. 16) Forecast: Durham's view of 1800s history through the eyes of a hopeful African-American boy adds a new dimension to the perennially appealing theme of the lure of the West. Doubleday seems ready to get behind this novel with focused promotion, including an author tour; readers may take notice. Copyright 2000 Cahners Business Information.
Library Journal
A Wild West debut: forced by his mother's remarriage to move from New York City to a sod house in Kansas, Gabriel decides to run away and become a cowboy. Copyright 2000 Cahners Business Information.\
Kirkus Reviews
Intensely dramatic debut, set in Kansas and points west and southwest during the 1870s: a direct homage to Cormac McCarthy's highly praised fiction (both his Blood Meridian and the recent Border Trilogy) but also an original work of high distinction. The protagonist, teenaged Gabriel Lynch, arrives from the East with his widowed mother Eliza and younger brother Ben at a train station where they're met by her husband-to-be, Solomon Johns, a farmer who had been Eliza's first love before her life with the boys' father, a prosperous middle-class Baltimore mortician. Gabriel resents the opportunities lost, and the hard life they're introduced to, and eagerly leaves"home," joining another black boy (James) to ride with a group of cattle drovers. A bloodthirsty odyssey ensues, as the gang's embittered leader Marshall Hogg (an amoral fatalist straight out of Dostoevsky) directs his minions to steal, rape, and murder, ever moving on, through Mexico, Arizona, and the Rockies, en route to California—away from the avengers who slowly, methodically pursue them. Durham tells this story with great skill, weaving together a beautifully plotted central action and extended italicized passages detailing the embattled growth to manhood of the stoical Ben and the steely determination of a bereaved Mexican soldier who'll follow Hogg to hell and back. Meanwhile, he also depicts with hallucinatory vividness the enigmatic figure of Hogg's second-in-command Caleb, a black drover who never speaks, and harbors a terrible secret indeed. The only flaw in the narrative is Durham's inexplicable tendency toward an abstract rhetoric clearly influenced by both the aforementioned McCarthy and hismajorinfluence,Faulkner, which often produces moments of ludicrous and vague grandiosity (e.g., watching Caleb,"Gabriel thought him some dark figure of the apocalypse"). Such moments aside, Gabriel's Story grates on the reader's nerves unerringly, and frequently rises to real grandeur. A brilliant example of how to assimilate and transmute powerful literary influence. And what a movie this dark, haunting tale will make. Author tour

Product Details

Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group
Publication date:
Edition description:
Reprinted Edition
Product dimensions:
5.25(w) x 8.00(h) x 0.60(d)
Age Range:
14 - 18 Years

Read an Excerpt

The boy had measured their progress across the land through the warped glass of the train's windows. He had seen it all unfurl, from the tidewater up over the broken back of the mountains, out onto rolling hills and into the old frontier, now pacified and peopled and farmed, and further still, through cities and small towns and finally out onto this great expanse, across which they traveled like fleas on a mammoth's back. He had even watched at night, while his younger brother slept against his shoulder and his mother contemplated thoughts of her own. He searched in the land's dark contours for things he dared not name aloud, and he held within himself a rage of voices that to the outside world looked and sounded like silence.

When they stepped off the train that afternoon, the boy couldn't help but stare over the crowd and out to the horizon. Looking to the west, he could just make out the geometric shadows that were Crownsville, that cowtown newly bloomed and thriving, connected to the East by a bloodline of iron and steel. To the north and south and back to the east the land rolled away in undulating nothingness. The grass lay heavy and tired from the beating of the previous evening's rain, and the April sky was not a thing of air and gas. Rather, it lay like a solid ceiling of slate, pressing the living down into the prairie.

The train station was made up of several sod-brick buildings. They had crooked roofs out of which sprouted an abundance of green shoots. In front of one of these structures a motley array of men lounged, with expressions of indolent curiosity on their faces. The grass had been trodden down and thinned by the traffic. It was pockmarked with puddles and prints of both feet and hooves, and cut by wagon wheels.

"Gabriel, you and Ben help the men unload," the boy's mother said. "Make sure we get all our crates. There's six of them. Count each one and stack them ready to load on Mr. Johns's wagon." The boys didn't move, but she didn't seem to notice. Instead her gaze rose and roamed through the sparse crowd of people. "Go on and help, like I said," she said, moving away a few steps. The trim of her dress dangled down into the wet grass and mud, but she made no attempt to hold it up.

Gabriel nudged Ben on the shoulder, and the two boys walked toward the freight car, carrying what hand luggage they had with them. Gabriel had just turned fifteen, although he looked two or three years older. He had a strong body, tall and lean, with the long legs of his nomadic ancestors. His wool jacket cramped his shoulders and impeded the swing of his arms. His skin was a dark shade of brown stretched taut across his features, as if the components of his face were growing more rapidly than the shell. His nose was thin-bridged, with a distinctive flair to the nostrils that was wholly African in design.

Ben was his younger by two years. They looked much alike in the rudimentary casts of their appearance, although Ben had a small indentation on his forehead, and his eyebrows were drawn in thin, wispy lines. He also moved with a nervous energy very different from his brother's brooding gait. His gaze bounced from object to object, out toward the fields, from person to person, and back to the enormous iron works of the train that had brought them so far.

The two boys saw to the unloading. Gabriel was quiet and respectful, yet only enough so as to avoid trouble. He counted the crates, inquired about a missing one, and soon had them stacked as his mother had instructed.

This done, they climbed onto them, sat, and waited.

The younger boy said, "I reckon we're here."

Gabriel was silent for a long minute. "I reckon we're nowhere."

Eliza johns rejoined her sons soon after. She had a gaunt face, in which one could trace the origins of her sons' russet eyes, their full lips, and the deep brown hue of their flesh. Her cheekbones curved upward in smooth diagonal lines, unmarked by scar or blemish. She was still beautiful in the eyes of men, perhaps more so now than ever, although years of quiet worry had carved an angular tension into her features. From her erect posture, her civilized clothes, and the demure manner in which she held her hands clasped before her, one might have gathered that she was unaccustomed to the frontier. But there was something determined about the way she set her jaw and surveyed the crowd unflinchingly which seemed well suited for a place such as this. "You think he's not coming?" Ben asked.

"Don't be silly," Eliza said. "He'll be here." She reached over and straightened Ben's collar with a quick tug, then turned back and faced the crowd. "Don't expect the worst from people until they've shown a history of it."

This answer satisfied the younger boy, but not Gabriel. "He better come. Couldn't pay to go back if we had-"

"There he is now," Eliza said.

Gabriel looked into the crowd. It took him a moment to pick the man out, but he was there, Solomon Johns. He walked toward them with an anxious gait, dodging people and animals and the larger puddles. Gabriel cut his eyes away and studied the ground.

Solomon stood just over six foot three, even with his slightly stooped posture. His size was measured mostly by the width of his shoulders and the weight evenly distributed throughout his torso, a chest as solid as a lifetime of work could make it. His features were a bit irregular, thrown about his face by a casual hand: eyes set far apart, nose wide enough to all but fill the space, and a mouth small by comparison, although what it lacked in size it made up for in enthusiasm: "Eliza! Praise God you made it." He strode toward her as if to lift her off the ground. Only at the last moment did he check himself. Instead of hoisting her into the air, he gripped her by the arms and searched her face, finding her features all and more than he remembered.

Eliza shared his gaze, smiling and nodding. They neither embraced fully nor kissed, but to the two boys watching, the exchange was so intimate as to be embarrassing. They lifted their eyes to meet the man full on only when their mother spoke to them. "Boys, what's the matter with you? Say hello to Mr. Johns."

"Hello, Mr. Johns," Ben intoned.

Gabriel moved his lips.

"Oh, boys! Look at ya!" Solomon reached out and ardently shook each boy's hand. "Lord, you two have grown. And it's only been a year's time? They do grow like weeds, don't they?" He paused and admired them, then turned back to Eliza. "I can hardly believe it. You're all here with me. Y'all came out sooner than I expected, but it sure does me good to see you. Now we can get this thing started for real."

Meet the Author

David Anthony Durham was born in 1969 to parents of Caribbean ancestry. He won the Zora Neale Hurston/Richard Wright Fiction Award in 1992 and received an MFA from the University of Maryland in 1996. He has lived and traveled widely throughout America and Europe. Durham, along with his wife and daughter, now divides his time between the United States and Scotland.

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Gabriel's Story 4.6 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 8 reviews.
Guest More than 1 year ago
This book is beautifully written. It tells the story of the 1870s American West from a rarely heard African American perspective. Anybody who loves westerns, mystery, history, family drama and poetic, descriptive writing should should read this book!
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Guest More than 1 year ago
If I could, I would give this novel a 3.8. I was just not engrossed in this book as most are. Maybe it's because my mind was still on another book I've just finished, prior to this one. Even so, I never did care for the wild west, or it's adventures, for that matter. I found myself unable to put the book down, only because I wished to be done of it as soon as possible. I never was one to abandon a book after I've begun it. However, I did like the well-developed characters, especially Dunlop. I also enjoyed Durham's literary techniques and the way he strung his words together. He is a writer who can paint great pictures with his words .. it was just that the topic did not appeal to me.
Guest More than 1 year ago
With Gabriels Story, young Mr. Durham has hit a homerun his first time at bat! McMurtry's Lonesome Dove & McArthy's All The Pretty Horses come to mind when I think of Western epics, and I'm sure Mr. Durham would say he owes a debt of gratitude to those great American authors, though the style in Gabriels Story is his own. In McMurtry's best books,even the bad guys have a certain appeal, due to their 'character'...don't expect that in this book! Durham's debut novel revolves around themes that are timeless, and it's to his credit that even with a formula that's 'tried and true' he can make it all seem so fresh. Some of the violence may be a bit much for some readers, but it is central to the story's theme and not overdone. What amazes me most about this book is that it's Mr. Durham's first novel published...Do yourself a favor and enjoy this work of one of America's great young writers.
Guest More than 1 year ago
Okay, so I'm not usually a Western type of person. Too much macho gun play... But I picked this up, opened it randomly and read... And I loved the language. I was immediately engaged. I closed it, opened it again and read... And the same thing happened. So, I was hooked. The writing seemed too good to pass up. Bought it and began from the beginning. I'm not actually finished yet, but so far it's been pretty great. It is a Western, I guess, but it's written with an eye toward serious literature. The descriptions of landscape are wonderful, a pleasure to read just by themselves. It has it's violent moments, I'm learning, but the author keeps a tight control on it. He takes me right to the edge of my comfort zone, teeters there, and then moves on. It's not always comfortable, but it is always compelling. And I can't help thinking the story is working on more than one level... I'm glad to have a first edition of this one, and I hope to see more from the author.
Guest More than 1 year ago
The plot is wonderful. The Characters are ungorgettable. The saga of a young black boy's will to survive the post-civil war era. Brutal. Yet honest.
Guest More than 1 year ago
I just finished Gabriel's Story and I'm amazed. It's literature as it should be but rarely is. Firstly, Durham's writing is wonderful, thoughtful, full of vivid images, a large cast of characters and an historical backdrop that's well done but not overdone. But secondly, the narrative moves. He creates wonderful characters that you care about and then sends them on an amazing adventure. It's all perfectly believable, but crazy and dangerous as well. The tension builds right up to the end and, somehow, he manages to pull it all together in the last few pages. Literature, yes. A great read? Yes.
Guest More than 1 year ago
Durham's first entry into the novel industry is an elloquently told tale of a young man, forced to grow up before his time. Themes of love, betrayal, maturity, and even racism are masterfully brought to life by Durham's skillfull use of metaphor. Such metaphor's produced some of the most memborable visualizations of the surroundings in the novel, and left an indelible mark in my mind. This book will undoubtedly become an American literary classic, and stand the test of time for all future generations to enjoy.