Finalist for the Rathbones Folio Prize
“Carys Davies is a deft, audacious visionary.” —Téa Obreht
When widowed mule breeder Cy Bellman reads in the newspaper that colossal ancient bones have been discovered in the salty Kentucky mud, he sets out from his small Pennsylvania farm to see for himself if the rumors are true: that the giant monsters are still alive and roam the uncharted wilderness beyond the Mississippi River. Promising to write and to return in two years, he leaves behind his only daughter, Bess, to the tender mercies of his taciturn sister and heads west.
With only a barnyard full of miserable animals and her dead mother’s gold ring to call her own, Bess, unprotected and approaching womanhood, fills lonely days tracing her father’s route on maps at the subscription library and waiting for his letters to arrive. Bellman, meanwhile, wanders farther and farther from home, across harsh and alien landscapes, in reckless pursuit of the unknown.
From Frank O’Connor Award winner Carys Davies, West is a spellbinding and timeless epic-in-miniature, an eerie parable of the American frontier and an electric monument to possibility.
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From what she could see he had two guns, a hatchet, a knife, his rolled blanket, the big tin chest, various bags and bundles, one of which, she supposed, contained her mother's things.
"How far must you go?"
"On where they are?"
"So how far? A thousand miles? More than a thousand miles?"
"More than a thousand miles, I think so, Bess, yes."
Bellman's daughter was twirling a loose thread that hung down from his blanket, which until this morning had lain upon his bed. She looked up at him. "And then the same back."
"The same back, yes."
She was quiet a moment, and there was a serious, effortful look about her, as if she was trying to imagine a journey of such magnitude. "That's a long way."
"Yes, it is."
"But worth it if you find them."
"I think so, Bess. Yes."
He saw her looking at his bundles and his bags and the big tin chest, and wondered if she was thinking about Elsie's things. He hadn't meant her to see him packing them.
She was drawing a circle in the muddy ground with the toe of her boot. "So how long will you be gone? A month? More than a month?"
Bellman shook his head and took her hand. "Oh, Bess, yes, more than a month. A year at least. Maybe two."
Bess nodded. Her eyes smarted. This was much longer than she'd expected, much longer than she'd hoped.
"In two years I will be twelve."
"Twelve, yes." He lifted her up then and kissed her forehead and told her goodbye, and in another moment he was aloft on his horse in his brown wool coat and his high black hat, and then he was off down the stony track that led away from the house, already heading in a westerly direction.
"Look you long and hard, Bess, at the departing figure of your father," said her aunt Julie from the porch in a loud voice like a proclamation.
"Regard him, Bess, this person, this fool, my brother, John Cyrus Bellman, for you will not clap eyes upon a greater one. From today I am numbering him among the lost and the mad. Do not expect that you will see him again, and do not wave, it will only encourage him and make him think he deserves your good wishes. Come inside now, child, close the door, and forget him."
For a long time Bess stood, ignoring the words of her aunt Julie, watching her father ride away.
In her opinion he did not resemble any kind of fool.
In her opinion he looked grand and purposeful and brave. In her opinion he looked intelligent and romantic and adventurous. He looked like someone with a mission that made him different from other people, and for as long as he was gone she would hold this picture of him in her mind: up there on his horse with his bags and his bundles and his weapons — up there in his long coat and his stovepipe hat, heading off into the west.
She did not ever doubt that she would see him again.
John Cyrus Bellman was a tall, broad, red-haired man of thirty-five with big hands and feet and a thick russet beard who made a living breeding mules.
He was educated, up to a point.
He could write, though he spelled badly. He could read slowly but quite well and had taught Bess to do the same.
He knew a little about the stars, which would help when it came to locating himself in the world at any given moment. And should that knowledge ever prove too scanty or deficient, he had recently purchased a small but, he hoped, reliable compass, which he showed to Bess before he left — a smooth, plum-sized instrument in a polished ebony case, which when the time came, he promised, would point him with its quivering blue needle, home.
A week ago he had ridden out to his sister, Julie's, and stood on her clean scrubbed floor, shifting his weight from one large foot to the other while she plucked a hen at the table.
"Julie, I am going away," he'd said in as bold and clear a voice as he could muster. "I would appreciate it if you'd mind Bess a little while."
Julie was silent while Bellman reached inside his coat and took from his shirt pocket the folded newspaper cutting, smoothed it out, and read it aloud, explaining to his sister what it was he intended to do.
Julie stared at him a moment, and then flipped the hen onto its back and resumed her plucking, as if the only sensible thing now was to pretend her big red-haired brother hadn't spoken.
Bellman said he'd try to be back in a year.
Julie's voice high and strangulated — as if something had gone down the wrong way and was choking her.
Bellman looked at his boots. "Well, possibly a small fraction more than a year — but not more than two. And you and Bess will have the house and the livestock and I will leave the clock and Elsie's gold ring for if you ever get into any sort of difficulty and need money, and Elmer will lend a hand with any heavy work, I'm sure, if you give him a cup of coffee and a hot dinner from time to time." Bellman took a breath. "Oh, Julie, please. Help me out here. It's a long way and the journey will be slow and difficult."
Julie started on another hen.
A blizzard of bronze and white feathers rose in a whirling cloud between them. Bellman sneezed a number of times and Julie did not say, "God bless you, Cy."
"Please, Julie. I am begging you."
It was a lunatic adventure, she said.
He should do something sensible with his time, like going to church, or finding himself a new wife.
Bellman said thank you but he had no interest in either of those suggestions.
The night before his departure, Bellman sat at the square pine table in his small, self-built house drinking coffee with his neighbor and sometime yard hand, Elmer Jackson.
At ten o'clock Julie arrived with her Bible and her umbrella and the small black traveling bag that had once accompanied her and Bellman and Bellman's wife, Elsie, across the Atlantic Ocean all the way from England.
Bellman was not yet entirely packed, but he was already dressed and ready to go in his brown wool coat and a leather satchel across his front on a long buckled strap. A new black stovepipe hat sat ready on the table next to his big clasped hands.
"Thank you for coming, Julie," he said. "I am very grateful."
Julie sniffed. "I see you still intend to go."
"I do, yes."
"And where is your poor soon-to-be-orphaned little girl?"
Bess, said Bellman, was asleep in her bed over there in the corner behind the curtain.
He asked Julie if she would like coffee and Julie said she supposed she could drink a cup.
"I was just telling Elmer here, Julie, about the route I plan to take."
Julie said she wasn't interested in his route. Julie said why did men always think it was interesting to discuss directions and the best way to get from A to B? She leaned her umbrella against the wall, laid her Bible on the table, and sat down in front of her coffee, took a stocking out of her black traveling bag and began to darn it.
Bellman leaned in a little closer towards his neighbor.
"You see, Elmer, I've been looking at some maps. There aren't many, but there are one or two. At the subscription library over in Lewistown they have an old one by a person called Nicholas King and a not so old one by a Mr. David Thompson of the British North West Company, but they are both full of gaps and empty spaces and question marks. So on balance I think I'm better off relying on the journals of the old President's expedition, the one undertaken by the two famous captains — they're full of sketches and little dotted trails that show the best way through the tangle of rivers in the west and also the path over the Stony Mountains to the Pacific Ocean, should I need to continue that far."
Elmer Jackson belched softly. He looked up from his coffee with watery, bloodshot eyes. "What expedition? What famous captains?"
"Oh, Elmer, come now. Captain Lewis and Captain Clark. With their big team of scouts and hunters. They journeyed all the way to the Pacific Ocean and back at the old President's bidding. You don't recall?"
Elmer Jackson shrugged and said maybe he did, he wasn't sure.
"Well they did, Elmer. Seven thousand miles, two and a half years, there and back, and I'm thinking my best bet is to follow the path they took, more or less, and then diverge from it here and there, to explore where they didn't, in the hope that I can find my way to what I'm looking for."
Julie made an irritated, tsking sound with her tongue, and Jackson belched softly a second time. Bellman rubbed his big hands together. His face was pink with enthusiasm and excitement. He reached for a pickle jar from the shelf above Jackson's head.
"Imagine, Elmer, that this pickle jar is this house, here in Pennsylvania."
He set the jar in front of Jackson, at the far right-hand edge of the table. "And over here — if I might commandeer your coffee cup, Elmer, for a moment — is the town of St. Louis."
He set down Jackson's coffee cup a little to the left of the pickle jar.
"From where we are now" — he tapped the pickle jar — "to St. Louis" — he tapped the coffee cup — "is about eight hundred miles."
Elmer Jackson nodded.
"And way over here" — Jackson's watery, bloodshot eyes followed Bellman's hands as they lifted his tall new hat into a position over on the far left edge of the table — "are the Stony Mountains, also known as the Rocky ones.
"So. All that's needed is for me to travel first to St. Louis, where I will cross the Mississippi River and from there" — he began walking his fingers in a long arc that started at the coffee cup and curved up and across the large and vacant space in the middle of the table in the direction of the hat — "I will follow the Missouri River, as the two captains did, towards the mountains."
Elmer Jackson observed that relative to the eight hundred miles between the pickle jar and the coffee cup, the journey along the Missouri looked to be a big one.
"Oh it is, Elmer, yes. A very big one. I reckon about two thousand miles. Except it will be longer, because as I said, I will be diverging. Yes I will. I'll be straying from it quite a bit as I go along so I can have a look in some of the big empty areas the two captains didn't get to."
Jackson, whose own forty-year-old life so far had been a slow, meandering, and sometimes circular journey via a succession of gristmills, foundries, breweries, and a stint of soldiering, let go of a long whistle. He told Bellman he'd never taken him for such an adventurer. "And after the hat?"
"After the hat, Elmer, there's a longish run down to the Pacific Ocean, but I'm hoping I won't need to go that far. I'm hoping that if I don't find what I'm after near the river, then they'll be here, before the mountains" — his big hands circled the open expanse of table — "somewhere in this large, unknown interior territory."
Elmer Jackson scratched his belly and helped himself to another cup of Bellman's coffee and announced that he couldn't think of a single thing that would convince him to pitch his ass halfway across the entire goddamn earth.
Julie said she would thank Elmer Jackson not to curse.
Julie said, "Has it not occurred to you, Cy, that there will be savages?"
The savages he would encounter, said Julie, would be sure to set upon him the moment they spied his bright red hair and big, lumbering, foreign shape approaching them through the wilderness.
Bellman said he hoped not.
Bellman said from what he'd read the Indians where he was going were very content so long as you had a supply of useful manufactured objects and a handful of trinkets to give them, and he was bringing a fair few of those with him.
Jackson raised a hairy eyebrow and said he'd met as many Indians here in the United States as he hoped to in one lifetime and there was nothing would tempt him to run the gauntlet of all those gaudy painted faces and seminaked bodies in any kind of hurry.
Bellman nodded. He smiled in his genial way and patted the handle of his knife and the upward-pointing barrel of the rifle that stood propped against the table.
"I'll be fine, Elmer. Don't you worry."
Julie pressed her lips together, shook out the stocking in her lap, and said she didn't understand why a person would travel three thousand miles in an opposite direction from his home and his church and his motherless daughter. "No good father, Cy, would leave his flesh-and-blood child for such foolishness."
Elmer Jackson chortled. He seemed to find the back-and-forth between brother and sister a great entertainment.
Bellman let go of a long breath. "Oh, Julie —"
"Don't Oh-Julie me, Cyrus."
Bellman sighed. There was a helpless look about him. "I have to go. I have to go and see. That's all I can tell you. I have to. I don't know what else to say."
"You could say you're not going."
With one of his large and pawlike hands Bellman reached out to his sister across the table. Quietly, almost reverently, and with a kind of childlike wonderment, he said, "If they are out there, Julie, then I will be the one to return with news of their existence. Wouldn't that be a great thing?"
Julie laughed. "It would be a great thing, Cy, if you'd leave me and Bess with more than an old clock and a gold ring and a farmyard of miserable animals — one ancient stallion and a trio of exhausted mares, a clutch of jacks and jennies, a few unsold hinnies, and one bad-tempered molly mule."
Elmer Jackson drank the last of his coffee and stood up grinning. He rubbed his hand across his belly and stretched and announced that it was past his bedtime. On his way out he slapped Bellman on the shoulder and said to Julie if she ever needed a hand with the mules, just give him a holler.
When morning came Bellman was kneeling on the patched and sloping porch, arranging the bags and bundles he was taking with him.
Why, asked Bess, was he taking her mother's blouse?
Elsie's pink and white striped blouse lay across Bellman's big hands as he considered which bag to put it in.
"For the same reason, Bess, that I am taking her thimble and her knitting needles."
"And why is that?"
Bellman hesitated. He looked at his hands. "Because she does not need them anymore and I do."
He told her, then, about the Indians — how fond he'd heard they were, the men and the women both, of pretty pieces of clothing and useful metal items. One of them would be very attracted to her mother's blouse, others to her long steel knitting needles and her copper thimble. They would give him all sorts of things in return that he would need in the course of his journey.
"What kind of things?"
Bellman shrugged. "Food. Maybe a new horse if I need one. The knowledge of how to do things and which way it will be best for me to go."
Bess looked at him gravely and nodded. "Perhaps they can tell you where to look?"
He showed her then a tin chest full of trinkets that would go with him along with her mother's things. Bess looked inside and saw that it was full of buttons and beads and bells, some fishhooks and some tobacco and scraps of ribbon and pieces of copper wire and a pile of handkerchiefs, a few short lengths of colored cloth, and small fragments of mirror glass.
Bess said she hoped the Indians would be pleased with them and Bellman said he hoped so too.
He would write to her, he said, and whenever he could, he'd give the letters to traders or travelers who'd bring them back east to somewhere like St. Louis or St. Charles and send them on.
"Look, I even have a little inkwell here on a spike behind the lapel of my coat. I won't even have to stop to write you a letter — I can write to you from my saddle as I'm going along."
The whole thing had lit a spark in him.
For half a day he'd sat without moving.
He'd read it a dozen times.
When Bess came in from the yard wanting to chatter and play, he'd told her to run along, he was busy.
Excerpted from "West"
Copyright © 2018 Carys Davies.
Excerpted by permission of Simon & Schuster, Inc..
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
Reading Group Guide
This reading group guide for West includes an introduction, discussion questions, and ideas for enhancing your book club. The suggested questions are intended to help your reading group find new and interesting angles and topics for your discussion. We hope that these ideas will enrich your conversation and increase your enjoyment of the book.
When widowed mule breeder Cy Bellman reads in the newspaper that colossal ancient bones have been discovered in the salty Kentucky mud, he sets out from his small Pennsylvania farm to see for himself if the rumors are true: that the giant monsters are still alive and roam the uncharted wilderness beyond the Mississippi River. Promising to return within two years, he leaves behind his daughter, Bess, to the tender mercies of his taciturn sister, Julie. With only a barnyard full of miserable animals and her dead mother’s gold ring to call her own, Bess fills lonely days tracing her father’s route on maps at the subscription library in town and shrinking from the ominous attentions paid to her and her aunt by their neighbor and sometimes yard hand, Elmer Jackson. Bellman, meanwhile, ventures farther and farther from home, across the harsh and alien landscapes of the West in reckless pursuit of the unknown.
Topics & Questions for Discussion
1. West opens on the morning Bellman is preparing to leave his farm in Pennsylvania to head to the unsettled territories. What does “west” mean to Bellman, and how does its significance contrast with what it represents for his daughter, Bess, his sister, Julie, and his neighbor, Elmer Jackson?
2. Bellman can only explain his response to the giant animal bones in terms of bodily sensations: “There were no words for the prickling feeling he had that the giant animals were important somehow, only the tingling that was almost like nausea and the knowledge that it was impossible for him, now, to stay where he was” (p. 16). How would you articulate, using the words he can’t summon, the reasons that the animals ignite such a profound yearning in Bellman?
3. Why does Old Woman From A Distance choose to leave the Shawnees in favor of working with Devereux and Mr. Hollinghurst? Why does he then leave them to go with Bellman as a guide even though he knows the giant animals aren’t out there? What does Old Woman’s behavior toward these men reveal about his worldview, his hopes, his fears, and his deepest desires?
4. Bellman’s route to the West is retraced by Old Woman when he journeys east to deliver the letters to Bess. How do the two men experience the same terrain differently? How do they influence each other along the way?
5. West is narrated by a chorus of characters both principal and ancillary: Bellman, Bess, Old Woman From A Distance, Devereux, Elmer Jackson, the librarian, Mary Higson, and an omniscent narrator, among others. How did the shifting perspectives contribute to your enjoyment of the novel? Which character’s perspective did you relate to the most? The least?
6. In Bellman’s thoughts, Aunt Julie is often accompanied by a variation of the epithet “perhaps softer on the inside than she was on the out.” Do you think this is a fair assessment of Julie’s character? In what ways does she challenge it?
7. By the time Bellman meets his fate in the vast wilderness of the West, he is very, very far from his first home in England, a place he describes as “small and dark and cramped’’ (p. 111). How do you interpret Bellman’s feelings toward the notion of home at this point? Is he more or less ambivalent toward where he comes from than when he first left Lewistown? Did learning that Bellman has already made a journey from England to America change the way you think about his decision to continue west from Lewistown?
8. Aunt Julie regards Bellman as a fool; to Bess he is “grand and purposeful and brave” (p. 2). Knowing what happens, whom do you agree with more?
9. On page 113, Bellman thinks, “You had so many ways of deciding which way to live your life. It made his head spin to think of them.” What does he mean?
10. Bess will never know for sure what Old Woman was thinking while she was retrieving water for him at the pump. What do you think was going through his mind before fleeing? Where do you imagine he is headed after leaving Bellman’s farm?
11. West ends with a sequence dense with images that tie together elements from the entire story. Trace the journey of the objects in the images—the knitting needle, Elsie’s blouse, Bellman’s compass—and how their purposes have transformed.
12. West has been called a parable of the early American frontier. Is there a lesson to be learned from this story?
Enhance Your Book Club
1. The discovery of colossal animal bones that catches Bellman’s imagination in West is based on true events: In the late 18th century, Pleistocene megafauna fossils were discovered in northern Kentucky, and in fact, at many other sites across the United States as well. Research this chapter of paleontological history, including Thomas Jefferson’s own obsession with mammoths, and share your findings with the group.
2. Bess spends many hours at the subscription library in Lewistown poring over the maps and journals from Lewis & Clark’s expedition. Do some poring over these artifacts yourself online at https://lewisandclarkjournals.unl.edu/ and discuss your findings with the group.