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Way to Bright Star
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Way to Bright Star

by Dee Brown

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Ben Butterfield, ex-circus performer, is living out his days in a small backwater town. He spends much of his time dwelling on the past, pondering his glory days with the circus, and his first grand adventure—an odyssey across Missouri and Illinois to Bright Star, Indiana, during the Civil War. It was a journey that laid the groundwork for the man he would


Ben Butterfield, ex-circus performer, is living out his days in a small backwater town. He spends much of his time dwelling on the past, pondering his glory days with the circus, and his first grand adventure—an odyssey across Missouri and Illinois to Bright Star, Indiana, during the Civil War. It was a journey that laid the groundwork for the man he would become, and on which he got to know the two people who meant the world to him, and still do.

In 1862, Ben sets out to help Johnny Hawkes, a resourceful Texican, drive two camels to the farm home of a Yankee officer who has taken possession of the desert beasts as contraband of war. But when Johnny is imprisoned by the Yankees and charged with horse theft, it is up to Ben to complete the task without his friend and mentor. On the threshold of manhood, he has only the help of a young girl, nicknamed Princess, who spends most of the time masquerading as a boy to avoid drawing unwanted attention. Johnny and Princess must stand together and persevere against the odds if they are to overcome every obstacle placed before them on the winding way to Bright Star.

A magnificent tour of 1860s heartland America, The Way to Bright Star is a grand coming-of-age novel, in the tradition of Huckleberry Finn, and destined to become an American classic.

Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher

“This tale of America's Gilded Age is told with a vigor and irony that do full justice to its excesses, energies, venalities, and dreams.” —Newsweek on Hear That Lonesome Whistle Blow

“It is obvious from the outset that Brown knows the Civil War period as well as he knows the Indian War and the taming of the West…A consummate storyteller. The rivers flow, the winds blow, the nights are full of secrets, and the days pulse with real life.” —The Washington Post on Conspiracy of Knaves

“With unerring eye and unflinching irony, Mr. Brown shows how history, myth, and business work hand in hand…As loaded with nuggets as the streambed at Sutter's Mill.” —The New York Times on The American West

“Brown is a master of the plain style, modulating it skillfully to fit whatever engages his sense of wonder.” —The Orlando Sentinel

“There is serendipity involved in Dee Brown's story, all right, but it is ours, not his. A Boston banker reads Creek Mary's Blood and changes his mind about fiction. A bored young student picks up The Westerners because of the title and changes his mind about reading. An entire nation reads Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee and changes its mind about history.” —Arkansas Democrat Gazette

Publishers Weekly - Publisher's Weekly
Returning to the westerns he tells so well, Brown, best known for Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee (1971), takes us on a peculiar odyssey of youth and innocence during the turmoil of the Civil War. The spirited tale opens in 1902, when narrator Ben Butterfield, a gimp-legged former circus horseback performer who is now the harried proprietor of a hardware store, attempts "to set down the story of my wasted life" before he forgets the adventure that was its high point. Forty years earlier, in the spring of 1862 in northwest Arkansas, young Ben embarks on an unlikely journey. A Yankee officer assigns him, cavalry scout Johnny Hawkes and Egyptian cameleer Hadjee the duty of transporting two camels, the officer's own personal contraband, from Arkansas to his farm in Bright Star, Indiana. Traveling across Arkansas and Missouri in 1862 turns out to be a tricky proposition as Ben and his comrades meet Rebs and Yanks, shysters, thieves and all-around mean-spirited folks. After witnessing a bungled bank robbery, Ben's party offers sanctuary to a luckless robber who turns out to be a young girl. Now fugitive themselves, the party is pursued by the law and by a crazy gunmanwho is after more than just gold. Short on action but studded with colorful vignettes, this sentimental story reflects, both buoyantly and tenderly, the moments of love, friendship and fame its Huckleberry Finn-like protagonist briefly enjoyed.
Kirkus Reviews
An amiable, rather autumnal novel about the coming-of-age of an orphan during the Civil War, by a prolific western historian (The American West, 1994) and novelist (Conspiracy of Knaves, 1987, etc.). In a lively, appropriately picaresque narrative, Ben Butterfield, in the twilight of the 19th century, looks back at his life on the frontier and muses about the great love of his life. Orphaned under mysterious circumstances, Ben spent a hardscrabble childhood in Texas before falling in with the laconic (and somewhat lethal) scout Johnny Hawkes, a man supremely skilled in all matters having to do with horses. In 1862, Johnny and Ben, an adolescent, are recruited, by an arrogant and somewhat duplicitous Union officer, to drive two camels captured from the Confederate forces north to St. Louis, through the bloody, contested territory of Kansas and Missouri. Along the way they encounter outlaws, Confederates, a variety of hapless Union troops chasing both groups, some happily homicidal townspeople, and a young woman, Queen Elizabeth Jones, passing herself off as a boy. Elizabeth, Ben, Johnny, and the harried handler of the camels, an Egyptian named Hadjee, survive assaults and adventures, and Ben and Elizabeth, despite the obstacles, get the camels through. Meanwhile, Ben, confronted with crises and betrayals, grows up and falls in love with Elizabeth. Brown has a deft hand with dialogue, giving it a believable tang without overdoing the regional color, and his portraits of a war- ravaged countryside, devastated farms, and hard-bitten groups of men hunting each other across a harsh landscape are memorable and convincing. Ben, Elizabeth, and Johnny go on to join a circus, but their lives asentertainers, and the tragic end of Benþs romance, are treated in a somewhat desultory fashion. Still, this is a sweet-natured, vigorous, colorful entertainment, and a compelling portrait of the frontier.

Product Details

Tom Doherty Associates
Publication date:
Product dimensions:
6.00(w) x 9.10(h) x 1.00(d)

Read an Excerpt

Thinking about the circus coming to town led me to pull out this shoe box full of faded photographs that I keep in the bottom drawer of Old Man Fagerhalt’s desk. I have not looked at them for a long time, maybe a year or more. I just now found my favorite, the one of Queen Elizabeth Jones, of course, and there she is—in her white riding tights, her golden hair done up halo style, her lips parted in that joyful smile that is like none I’ve ever seen on any other human being’s face.
In the picture she is standing in front of those two damned camels. Those poor cursed evil-smelling beasts! Detest them I did, but it was they that brought me to Queen Elizabeth Jones, placing me in debt to them forever.
I would like to brood over the picture and dream again of the time and place where it was made and the life I led then. But I hear Hilda Fagerhalt out in the hardware store chattering with a customer, and I know that any minute now she will be traipsing down the hall, her slippers slapping on the hard boards, thrusting her Swedish head through the open door to remind me sharply to prepare an order for that keg of ten-penny nails I forgot about. “Remember the post office closes at six o’clock, Ben, and don’t forget the horse collars for Jack Bilbrew’s dray teams, either.”
I call her Fagerhalt, but she’s used my name, Butterfield, since Old Man Fagerhalt caught her in bed with me. And me at the time with a leg so badly shattered I knew I’d never ride in the circus again with Queen Elizabeth Jones. When Hilda crawled into my bed, she was only trying to comfort me and ease the cruel pain of mending bones. She is a great comforter, I’ll allow that. But Old Man Fagerhalt saw me as the spoiler of his daughter’s virtue, although she was the one who came into the bed. Maybe he just wanted to get her married and off his hands.
The desk before which I sit—this handmade oaken desk with its innumerable cubbyholes filled with useless papers and trinkets—Hilda now refers to as mine, although I will always think of it as Old Man Fagerhalt’s desk even though he has long been interred in Mount Holly cemetery out on Broadway.
Those camels! Omar and Tooley. I peer again at the old picture of them and recall the day after the battle, the one the Yankees named Pea Ridge and the Rebels call Elkhorn Tavern. No photographs were made there, but I’ll forever remember the face and arrogant stance of Captain Solomon Lightfoot as he took the measurements of Johnny Hawkes and me and talked about the camels being contraband of war.
Well, I’d better put this shoe box of photographs back in the bottom of Old Man Fagerhalt’s desk before Hilda comes in here and finds me musing over them. She hates all reminders of my youthful past, especially the gaudy circus posters I keep on the walls around me. Above the desk is a tall poster of a woman in white tights jumping a horse through a large hoop. Around the hoop is a circle of big scarlet letters: QUEEN ELIZABETH JONES. THE WORLD’S GREATEST EQUESTRIENNE! Every new season Johnny Hawkes used to send me posters carefully rolled into pasteboard tubes. A few years back, when Hilda still liked to tease me, she would draw mustaches in ink on the poster faces of Queen Elizabeth Jones.
I think I hear her coming now, prancing, her loose slippers slapping the floor, and I remember Captain Solomon Lightfoot, Quartermaster Department, U.S. Army. Popinjay, carpet knight, and flimflam artist.

Meet the Author

DEE BROWN is the acclaimed master of several bestsellers, including the classic nonfiction work Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee, which sold over five million copies worldwide, and the highly acclaimed novel Creek Mary's Blood. This revered writer, who has lived through most of this century, has written over two dozen books on life in frontier America, and forever put his stamp on American history. Dee Brown lives in Little Rock, Arkansas.

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