The Road to Reckoning by Robert Lautner

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Reviewed by Annabel Gaskell

Having grown up loving all those cowboy TV series from the 1960s and ‘70s like The Virginian and Alias Smith and Jones, maybe it’s not surprising that I’ve turned out to be a fan of the best ‘western’ novels too. Good literary stories featuring cowboys and American pioneer folk don’t come along very often these days, but this debut is one such book.

Young Tom Walker is twelve when this tale begins in 1837. His mother was lost to the pock; his father is a ‘quiet man in a noisy world‘– a spectacles salesman. When Mr Walker hears of an irresistible opportunity that could bring in enough money for a comfortable living, allowing them to escape the depression and the disease-ridden boroughs of New York, it can only be a good thing…

Tom’s father agrees to become a salesman for Samuel Colt’s new factory-made handgun with a revolving chamber, (the forerunner of the Colt 45). They set off westwards from the plant in New Jersey with a wooden model gun and twelve of the real things, which can be sold to clinch an order, or for expenses on the road.

“I, to this day, hold to only one truth: if a man chooses to carry a gun he will get shot.
My father agreed to carry twelve.”

It is in a small town in Pennsylvania that Tom’s life changes forever.  His father was about to clinch a good order in a hardware store, when they encounter Thomas Heywood who had been lurking in the back. Heywood, drunk, won’t take no for an answer when he confronts the mild-mannered revolver salesman. Scared, Tom and his father make a hasty retreat, change hotels, and leave town the next morning. Heywood and his pals follow them on the road and jump them, robbing them of the remaining pistols. Tom’s father is shot in the back in front of him as a parting shot. Tom is left an orphan – but an orphan with a full order book.

Tom resolves to return to NJ to collect their commission, and it is on his way back that he meets Henry Stands, a retired US marshal. Stands is large, gruff, and although he is heading east, he has no wish to be saddled with an orphan. However, with the killer of Tom’s father at large, he lets Tom tag along, but he’ll only take him so far. Tom persists, and eventually earns Stands’ grudging respect as they make their way and their journey is not without adventure.

The plot basics outlined above may remind you of Charles Portis’ wonderful novel True Grit, published back in 1968 and filmed twice now.  Indeed, there are many parallels between the two and The Road to Reckoning could be viewed as an east-coast version of the latter. Portis’ heroine, Mattie, and Tom are orphans, but whereas Mattie is single-mindedly hunting the murderer of her father; Tom just wants to go home to his aunt with his father’s last pay packet. Both eventually manage to awaken paternal instincts in their chosen protectors, but whereas Mattie sees Marshall Rooster Cogburn as the best man for the job, Stands is the only man around who can help Tom. Additionally, both books have their narrators recounting their childhood from old age, adding the veneer of wisdom that comes with hindsight to the story.

The Road to Reckoning may owe a debt to Charles Portis, but the world it evoked did feel very real. You can’t help but warm to Tom and Henry Stands and become emotionally involved in the story as Tom displays some true grit himself. Lautner’s fiction is geographically rooted in the towns near the Susquehanna River in mid-Pennsylvania, proving that you don’t need to be in Texas or the canyons of the West to achieve that ‘western’ feel – just leave the city and you’re a pioneer.

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Annabel is one of the Shiny Editors.

Robert Lautner, The Road To Reckoning (Borough Press, Jan 2014), 240 pages.

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