The Trackers: A Novel
“A book about how history repeats itself . . .”
Charles Frazier conjures up the bleakness of the Depression, making strong parallels between that time and our own. The theme of discontent, distrust, and fragmented communities underly the story of Val Welch, a young artist with his first major commission, a WPA mural in a post office far from home in rural Wyoming.
As an artist, Val doesn’t really come to life. There’s not much sense of what drew him to painting, what he hopes for from the mural and afterward. Instead the position feels like a plot device, a way to bring a young male stranger into Dawes, Wyoming, and plunk him down to stay at the Long Shot Ranch, where a wealthy man and his younger wife drive the real story. Unfortunately, their characters aren’t any more fully fleshed than Val’s. They all feel like actors in a play, typecast in their roles. The one character who is more nuanced is Faro, one of the ranch hands. But his role is minor, and his skills and moral compass only serve to show up even more clearly Val’s failings.
The historical aspect, however, is accurate. Part of the WPA mission was to have artists paint murals in post offices across the country, a way of bringing art to the people with paintings reflecting local history. Val takes the responsibility seriously.
“Let people of the town see every brushstroke from start to finish. He wanted them to feel ownership of the art for decades to come. Every time they stopped by to check for mail or post a letter or buy stamps, he wanted them to leave with the image of an artist up on a scaffold being a genius, or at least a good craftsman.”
In fact, all the many historical details scattered through the story ring true, evoking a distinctive American era. What’s less effective is the narrative itself. The mural and its genesis serve merely as a backdrop. The main story kicks off when the wealthy rancher, John Long, puts out feelers for a run for political office, offering his young wife, with her tough and gritty backstory, as a way of proving his connection to the common folks. This wife, Eve, is clearly meant to be an alluring, enigmatic figure, as her stories of bumming around the country, then singing in cowboy bands, illustrate.
Val, naturally, falls for her. The reader may have reservations. Eve isn’t a compelling character so much as a blank slate for men to impose their own vision on, including her husband and Val, of course. Which doesn’t give the reader much incentive to care about her. When she disappears from the ranch, Long and Val are worried. And the reader is supposed to worry as well, or at least wonder why she left.
Long pays Val to track down his missing wife, making him one of the trackers of the title. (Faro is the other.) His journey across the country to find her gives Frasier the chance to make clear parallels between long-ago misery and that pervading America today.
“I started limping down the road again, thinking, Florida is an exhausting state. I wondered if Estafa County might be the bell-weather of the entire country. I thought, if the Depression never ends, if everything keeps falling apart, crumbling like watching the geometry of the Pyramids dissolve grain by grain into smooth humps of sand and dune, then maybe Estafa is already one step further into the future than the rest of us. . . . The mood I was in, I saw the large sweep of American history as Florida’s assault on civilization.”
It’s writing like this that carries the book along, not any sweeping plot nor interesting characters. When the reason for Eve’s escape is finally revealed, there’s no sense of surprise or satisfaction. Instead, it feels like yet another plot device, a way to inject contemporary political meaning into a 1930s story. This is a book about how history repeats itself more than anything else. For those alarmed by the events unfolding now, this book may provide some context. It certainly describes well the desperation people can feel as a social order splinters apart. The ostensible story of tracking down an alluring, mysterious woman is more red herring than satisfying meal. But if any readers search out their local post office’s WPA mural and appreciate it in a new light, then this book will have done a public service worthy of the New Deal.