Gabriel's Story

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Gabriel's Story recounts the adventures and trials of a pioneer family in the late 1870s. At the center of the story is Gabriel, a young man who moves reluctantly from the urban North with his mother and younger brother to join his stepfather, a homesteader in Kansas.

While his mother and brother accept the reduced circumstances of their new life, Gabriel looks upon the primitive one-room sod house, the meager crops, and the endless fields of grass with loathing. Filled with ...

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Gabriel's Story

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Gabriel's Story recounts the adventures and trials of a pioneer family in the late 1870s. At the center of the story is Gabriel, a young man who moves reluctantly from the urban North with his mother and younger brother to join his stepfather, a homesteader in Kansas.

While his mother and brother accept the reduced circumstances of their new life, Gabriel looks upon the primitive one-room sod house, the meager crops, and the endless fields of grass with loathing. Filled with memories of his deceased father and the dreams they shared, Gabriel decides to run away and become a cowboy. However, his search for excitement brings trouble and danger as he encounters a host of unsavory characters while testing himself against this brutally unforgiving new landscape.

In a novel in which place itself is a character, David Anthony Curham re-creates the harshness of life on the plains and the desperate struggles of a family trying to eke out a meager existence while building a future for itself against seemingly insurmountable odds. His portrait of Gabriel masterfully captures a coming-of-age under extreme circumstances and presents a rare look at the role black cowboys played in settling the West.

Like Colson Whitehead, Durham is an astonishgly gifted African-American writer whose work crosses the boundaries of color by dealing in universal truths. His remarkable book not only opens up the hidden history of the West, where a fourth of all cowboys were black, but triumphs in its language and vision to reveal an exciting new talent.

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Editorial Reviews

From Barnes & Noble
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.
From The Critics
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
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)

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9781419377778
  • Publisher: Recorded Books, LLC
  • Publication date: 3/27/2006
  • Format: CD

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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Read an Excerpt

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.
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Reading Group Guide

1. Why is Gabriel so dissatisfied and restless with his new life on the farm? What draws him away? What role does his father's death and his reaction to his stepfather play in his leaving?

2. Early in the novel, Ben and James trade insults and then fall into a wrestling match, and the narrator writes that Raleigh, the family horse, "watched them with vague and mistrusting eyes, with the air of one who had seen such behavior before and was certain it led to no good. He snorted his judgment on the two" [p. 39]. In what sense is Raleigh right? How does this competitiveness, or the instinct to violence, lead to "no good" in the novel? Are there other instances of animals commenting on human behavior? Why does the author choose animals instead of humans to convey these thoughts?

3. David Anthony Durham has been praised for his artful plotting in Gabriel's Story. How does he create suspense and surprise in the novel? What scenes are especially powerful or unexpected? What effect does Durham produce with the parallel narratives--distinguished by roman and italic typeface--running throughout the novel?

4. Gabriel's Story is a classic coming-of-age tale, in which a rebellious young boy must undertake an arduous journey and suffer tests and trials before he reaches manhood and returns home. What obstacles does Gabriel face? How does he overcome them? Why does he have to leave his family in order to be completely reunited with it? How is Gabriel different at the end of the novel than he was at the beginning?

5. What kind of man is Marshall Hogg? What makes him more complicated--and therefore more real--than the stereotypical villain ofthe Western genre? Where do his demons, which "had been planted in him" [p. 14] come from? What qualities does he possess beyond a criminal inclination toward violence and cruelty? Does he exhibit traits of kindness and fairness? In what ways is he a devil figure?

6. When Marshall first meets Gabriel and James, he exclaims, "The king and the archangel! Very impressive. Well, damned if I could be luckier" [p. 68]. And near the novel's end, he threatens Gabriel by saying, "Don't get any ideas, Archangel. You know who you're dealing with, don't you?" [p. 281]. Is Marshall simply playing with words, or is the author drawing a parallel between Gabriel and the archangel of the Old Testament? In what ways is Gabriel like his Biblical namesake?

7. After they pass a tribe of diseased Indians, Marshall argues with Dunlop about the fate of Native Americans, saying, "It's a sad world and the red man's been given a raw deal in it, but some sad things must come to pass in the betterment of society and mankind in general. You ever given that a thought?" [p. 95]. Why would Marshall take this view? Is he in a position to comment on "the betterment of society"? How does Marshall view Mexicans and blacks? How does he regard women?

8. What makes Caleb such a frightening character? How does his being half black complicate the novel's racial themes?

9. While Gabriel is away, a mysterious and terrifying wolf stalks the family farm. Both Hiram and Ben shoot at it and think they have killed it only to find the animal vanished, as if into thin air. At the novel's climax, when Caleb and Marshall are threatening the family, Ben discovers the wolf's remains, which he regards as a providential sign [p. 284]. How does Ben interpret this "sign"? What does the wolf symbolize in the novel?

10. When Gabriel comes upon a dead deer entangled in the branches of a tree, he observes that it "seemed somehow Biblical, some amalgamation of a burning bush and a living crucifix. . . . Once more this journey had given him an image he'd carry ever after" [p. 164]. Why is this image so potent for Gabriel? What other images sear his consciousness on his journey? What effect do these images have on him?

11. In the novel's climactic scene, as Gabriel is about to open the box in which he'd buried the gold brick, Marshall tells him that if God produces and places a second gold brick in the box, Marshall will spare them. "You people have faith, don't ya? Let's put it to the test" [p. 287]. But when Gabriel puts his hand in the box he finds a pistol instead. Is this an act of divine intervention, a reward for the family's faith?

12. How does Gabriel's Story address the grand universal themes of good and evil, human vengeance and divine retribution, the outcast and the community?

13. Why does Caleb shoot Marshall instead of Solomon and Eliza as he's been ordered to do? Which aspects of Caleb and Marshall's tangled history would make him act in this way?

14. Gabriel's Story takes place at a crucial moment in American history, just after the Civil War when freed slaves were moving north and trying to make new lives as landowners, when Native Americans were being swept from the country, and when the frontier was being fully opened to the West. How does the novel portray the changing relations between whites, blacks, and Native Americans during this period?

15. Much of Gabriel's Story revolves around family--the effects of abuse on Marshall and Caleb's family, their destruction of the "little Eden" of the Mexican family they encounter, and the trials and ultimate triumph of Gabriel's family. What does the novel as a whole seem to be saying about the importance of family?

16. What qualities make Gabriel's Story unique in the Western genre? In what ways is the West, as is it portrayed in the novel, different from the myths that have been passed down through film and popular fiction? In what ways can recent American history--especially in terms of race, gender, and family issues--be seen in embryo in Gabriel's Story?

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Customer Reviews

Average Rating 4.5
( 8 )
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  • Anonymous

    Posted October 18, 2001

    A Great Story of the 1870s American West

    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!

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted April 1, 2003

    not as appealing to me ..

    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.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted February 21, 2001

    Good Story

    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.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted March 17, 2001

    Saddle up and hold the reins tight!

    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.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted March 1, 2001

    A Western for people who don't read Westerns

    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.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted January 3, 2001

    Wonderful - Literature as it should be

    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.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted December 23, 2000

    Masterfully Done Piece

    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.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted October 27, 2008

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