"Ridgeline: A Novel," | Reviewed by Chris Stuckenschneider
Five months of bloodshed in 1866, between tribes and soldiers from Fort Phil Kearny, form the groundwork for Michael Punke’s newest offering, "Ridgeline, A Novel." The book has richly developed characters and a plot that grows increasingly addictive until the final battle bursts to life.
Readers may be familiar with Punke because of his previous bestseller, “The Revenant,” made into a 2015 film starring Leonardo DiCaprio. “Ridgeline” also is inspired by true-life events, but it’s primary conflict is man versus man rather than man versus nature, as in “The Revenant” when DiCaprio is attacked by a grizzly.
In “Ridgeline” we’re introduced to Crazy Horse of the Lakotas. The wise warrior is in Wyoming’s Powder River Valley to hunt for hides with his younger brother Little Hawk and Crazy’s Horse’s friend Lone Bear.
Punke establishes a juxtaposition between the peacefulness of the verdant land they survey, home to the elk and buffalo the tribes need to sustain life, and the march of progress they’ve seen traveling from Fort Laramie, a large group, making their way west, infantrymen and women too.
In charge is Colonel Carrington, Commander of the Second Battalion—his mission to build Fort Phil Kearny—an unlikely feat, the commander believes, given how ill-equipped they are to fight off attacks from tribes trying to protect their sacred hunting grounds. Carrington is assured, however, that a truce has been signed, a truce that seasoned scout Jim Bridger terms “…worse than useless.”
Punke skillfully sets the scene for action that plays out, but the gifted storyteller doesn’t shortchange readers by only offering strategies on the battlefield. There are his characters too, Crazy Horse and the respected leader Red Cloud, up against despicable, cruel, Lieutenant George Washington Grummond, who longs to be in charge of the army despite Colonel Carrington's upper hand.
Others stand out as well, seemingly insignificant, Adolph Metzger, the battalion’s German bugler, who proves brave beyond compare, as does Frances Grummond, the lieutenant’s wife, who we get to know through her journal entries.
Readers who enjoy books by Wiley Cash, Ron Rash, Tom Franklin and the like are certain to embrace “The Ridgeline.” Historical notes on real people who play major roles in this thrilling novel are included, an added plus in a read that already has boo-coo going for it.