"RODE." By Thomas Fox Averill. University of New Mexico Press. $24.95.
More than a half-century ago, Jimmy Driftwood wrote a song about a man and his horse, "Tennessee Stud," that told the story of a man's lost love, travels and adventures with the horse, and eventual happy ending with his sweetheart.
Inspired by the song, Thomas Fox Averill, a professor at Washburn University in Kansas, made some travels of his own, to the locations in the song: Tennessee, Arkansas, Texas, Mexico. He took the song and filled in the gaps, rounded out the characters and created an enjoyable novel, one that reflects the American spirit of independence and fresh starts, as well as the optimism and belief in the future that may yet lurk beneath today's cynicism.
The song, and the novel, start out in Tennessee "along about eighteen and twenty-five." Framed for a murder he didn't commit by the disapproving family of his sweetheart, Robert Johnson flees on The Stud, the truest, fastest and most valiant horse in the new world, to hear Johnson tell it. He flees his family and his land, and the cabin he built with his own hands.
Aimless, Johnson heads west, with a bounty hunter in pursuit. He encounters a variety of characters along the way, some friendly, some not, some who offer advice like: "Whatever you're running from, remember that's what you'll end up running toward."
Those words ring true for Johnson in more ways than one, as he becomes an outlaw and a horse thief and even a killer despite having fled false charges of being the very same. And as he rides farther away from his Jo, she is all he can think about and what eventually brings him back.
In the meantime, though, he encounters a Memphis entrepreneur with a big heart and a dangerous side enterprise, Indians, missionaries, Texans with an eye on statehood, Mexicans, horse-loving Spaniards, and settlers in Arkansas who are such fine people that it convinces him to make that his new home.
He loses and regains The Stud more than once, but the pair have an indelible bond that deprivation, hardship and separation cannot break. An adult when he left, but still in some ways a boy, Johnson learns some hard lessons on his travels and truly grows up, mindful of the kind of man he wants to become.
When he finally returns to settle his score and claim his bride, the novel plays out a little differently than the song does, but it fits well with the character of Robert Johnson. His story, while archetypal in several ways, seems fresh and never turns into cliche. Averill paces Johnson's long journey well, giving fine detail when needed and rough sketches when that's all that's warranted.
Averill's prose is lively and evocative. He describes Laredo as "a small flourish of stucco and clapboard just high enough above the Rio Grande that it might not flood" and chooses the perfect words for a lovely spring prairie, "interlaced as the grass was with yarrow and spiderwort."
As Robert and Jo Johnson begin their lives together, their bliss is tinged with reality: "They would raise horses, become citizens of a new place, become people who could be trusted to do honest business in the world, who would have open hearts and open hearth. But first, Robert realized, he had to undo his words. And after that, unravel the knot of all his experiences in his travels, just as she had her own knots to loosen."
A new life, a hope for the future, the bonds of friendship and family: the classic story of America, told in "Rode" with depth and emotion.