They don’t make many men like Hugh Glass anymore, probably never did. Glass, the Philadelphia-born adventurer, was a hard man to kill, a man who, time after time, miraculously managed to beat the odds that claimed lesser men all around him. Glass’s story was so intriguing, in fact, that newspapers of the day spread his fame across the country and around the world. In the end, though, Glass was best known then (and still is) as the mountain man who survived one of the most horrific grizzly bear attacks ever recorded before “returning from the dead” to track down the two men who robbed him of everything he owned before they abandoned him to what seemed to be his certain death.
But as The Revenant: A Novel of Revenge, Michael Punke’s 2002 debut novel illustrates, Hugh Glass was just one of an estimated 3,000 “mountain men” and fur trappers who struggled so mightily to make their fortunes from the beaver population of the American West. Ironically enough, although these men were among the most independently minded ever produced in America, they were forced into a lifestyle of almost military precision for the sake of survival. The Indian tribes whose territory was plundered by the trappers reacted in different ways. Some were willing to live in peace with the invaders, others waged open warfare against them, and some joined the white men in waging war on other tribes. The problem was that the Indians were prone to changing their minds and allegiances almost from one day to the next.
In an environment like this, a man needed someone to watch his back. But when Hugh Glass most needed someone to do exactly that for him as he struggled to recover from the bear mauling, the two men left behind to help him abandoned him at the first hint of danger. Bad as that was, what Glass would never forgive was how John Fitzgerald and Jim Bridger robbed him of his rifle, powder, and knife before running off to catch up with the rest of their party – dooming him to an almost certain death.
A lesser man would have just given up and died, but Hugh Glass was not that kind of man. At first crawling only a few dozen yards a day, he began to track the two men he swore to himself he would kill. Eventually he managed to crawl two or three miles a day, then to walk ten miles a day, and finally he was covering twenty or thirty miles between sunrise and sunset. Glass did catch up with the two culprits, but when he did, things did not go quite the way he had expected.
The Revenant is Hugh Glass’s story – and Michael Punke tells it well.