Review: If God Will Spare My Life compellingly connects west Wales with the Wild West
It’s not often you get to mention Custer’s Last Stand and Fishguard in the same breath but this historical novel allows just that, as it compellingly connects west Wales with the Wild West. It’s in part the story of William Batine Jones, a Pembrokeshire wild boy with a bent for fighting who departs from the family farm at Dinas in search of broader opportunities. He is also keen to avoid what he considers to be a curse on the family, which claims his brother’s life and shortly thereafter this two sisters. Hard drinking and steel-fisted, William careers drunkenly through London’s drinking dens – spending much of the money he earns through a job as a porter, helping his sister’s stall at Portman market. He does manage to save money, however, so that he can return to Wales to marry the love of his life, before he finds out that she is marrying someone else.
This makes him decide to leave Britain altogether, getting a twelve pound ticket to cross the Atlantic to North America, leaving at least one broken heart in his wake. During his travels he survives the Great Fire of Chicago and eventually finds himself trading in his love for horses for a place in the Seventh Cavalry under General Custer. As he surveys the wreckage caused by all the bar-brawling and womanising he comes to realise that he is simply trying to flee his own worst instincts, realising that ‘a fellow can never escape himself.’
William thus finds himself in a a vast land full of all weathers and the scale of the place threatens to overwhelm him, ‘a landscape so vast we might as well have been a column of ants crawling across it. You could lose my own little country many, many times in this hostile wilderness…’ It’s a world familiar to readers of Cormac McCarthy, with the same brutalities and disarming violence, although Lewis shows more restraint than his American counterpart, who paints his prose in blood while Lewis explores the grain and timbre of the same times through the use of judicious fact and historical detail.
Journalist Mike Lewis clearly enjoyed getting the bit between his teeth in researching the true tale of William James and one of the sub plots in the novel concerns the efforts of a Haverfordwest solicitor to track him down which must have mirrored his own historical detective work. The novel is shored up by oodles of telling detail about the gruelling life of a Seventh Cavalryman – the arduous marches, the appalling food – such as raw bacon dipped in vinegar – and the myriad dangers such as rattlesnakes and wolves. When William signs up in Chicago and is given the sort of probing medical that makes him fee like a prize heifer at Cardigan Show he is given a lot of sweet talk about army which soon sours once he’s in the saddle:
What they didn’t tell you about were those long, hard marches in temperatures so low the snot freezes inside your nostrils, the tinned meat stamp-dated back to the Civil War days with green mould growing over it, the maggot-ridden hardtack, infestations of bed lice and rampant plagues of yellow fever and cholera that put many a young soldier in the ground before they’d even fired a shot in anger.
One of the climactic acts of If God Will Spare My Life is, of course the final doomed campaign by General Custer, when he hunts down the amassed warriors of the Lakota leader Sitting Bull, who united the Sioux, only to find himself among the hunted, culminating in the famous “Last Stand.” This is told with a creeping sense of doom and foreboding, carefully calibrated by the author. By this stage William has discovered Annie, the Irish woman who might well be the love of his life, were he not marching off into battle. It adds to the tension which builds with every scout’s report of what lies ahead.
Considering this is a debut novel one can only admire its boldly constructed plot and soaring ambition. It’s a big sprawling tale, spanning continents and bridging between the US of the 1870s and the Pembrokeshire of the early part of the twentieth century. Lewis does so with gusto and a sure sense of storytelling – which probably derives from his long career as a journalist – sure enough, indeed to allow himself some experiments with chronology and with dream and hallucination and even, towards the end of the book, a magical realist passage of events which shouldn’t really fit but it does. For a first time novelist to choose such a big canvas is unusual but in his depiction of canyons and buttes, the extremities of battle and all under the widest of wide skies Mike Lewis sure does pull it off.
If God Will Spare My Life is published by Victorina Press and can be purchased here.