2014-08-08

Husam Sweilah's "The Springfield Overland Trail"
—a review by Lala Lopezregis Dandaleiro

Husam Sweileh’s The Springfield Overland Trail is an interesting adventure early-American historical novel.  Once past the preliminary exposition, it becomes an eventful page-turner that is sure to hook fiction readers exposition.  Signaling an eventful story in the first paragraph, the novelist writes, “No trek like it had ever been heard of on the trail.”  I believe that because of its elegant style, exciting episodes and plausible content, this novel will see print publication one day.  In brief, I recommend this novel as a good evening entertainment.

I have read it three times and have given much thought to the deeper points of its internal structure and underlying logic.  Actually, I enjoyed the novel more and more as I came to see the results of the skill, effort and hours that went into making its manuscript.  The ending is an artful Hollywood-style ending with memorable feel-good events.  The main logic for the level of action in the storyline is that after the American Civil War, there was chaos in the Illinois, resulting in more criminality in the towns and on the prairie.  Even the wild animals started taking more liberties with people on the open prairie.

The novel contains a variety of dramatic events and high adventures breaking the daily travel accounts.  In the episodic plotline, the three protagonists ride a 20-day long adventure and witness dramatic happenings as they take place along the Chicago Springfield Overland Trail.  In addition, Sam Hudson lived an action-packed life previous to the beginning of the storyline. These memories are reported in the words of the third-person omniscient narrator and give deep insights.  In this episodic novel, various eventful adventures in each episode add to the overall level of excitement.

The story focuses on the struggle of three daring protagonists during their overland travel against the era's outlaws, wild animals, the natural elements and the surface terrain over twenty days in the early summer of 1868.  Had it wholly been non-episodic, the adventure would have been narrow in scope and would have appealed to a smaller sector of US fiction readers.

Unusually, this novel contains interesting historical information weaved in events, recollections, and thoughts.  One insightful sentence on the history of gold in the Near East goes “In that remote history, gold treasures were the true goals of the major wars waged between old empires, causing large-scale massacres and empire-wide devastation in which whole cities were razed to the ground.”  Nowadays it is rare to learn gritty historical facts from the works of fiction; instead, contemporary works of fiction tend to dwell on the detailing portrayals of fictional characters.  As it happens, this novel incorporates interesting passages on topics like the history of gold, epic immigrations, Rocky mountain men, Western cowhands, hunting expeditions, American Civil War, overland trekking, and frontier life.  Another insightful sentence is “He [Sam] however knew that the word "gold" alone was enough to cause murder at the hands of greedy gold-seekers.”  The novelist means that one can be murdered based on a rumor that he owns gold; in other words, even a rumored gold kills.

The novelist appears to be in love with the nineteenth-century USA and its glamorous history of all types of conflicts, which sure is suitable for fiction.  Regrettably, factual historical books focus on the contending politicians, debate issues and political parties of the nineteenth century.  Reading this unusual novel, one can see why the author loves US frontier life and its figures: the cowboy, the pioneer, the mountain man, the native Indian, the farmer homesteader, the gold prospector, the route guide, the free hunter, and the wilderness pathfinder.  Despite his personal feelings, the novelist’s tone of voice remains under control, and his mood of held emotions stays objective.  In this action/adventure novel, the novelist skillfully manages to weave in exciting conflicts of lifelike characters representing frontier figures.

On the downside, I feel that there should have been more dialogue; the dialogue is too laconic to my liking.  I however guess that the novelist might have made it laconic on purpose.  After all, dialogue is not action and weakens the excitement level; dialogue, being colloquial in style, does not admit the higher level of the formal style or literary style.  To my mind, the writer appears to like writing in a formal style, and (mercifully not all the time) in a literary style.  Indeed, he shies away from the “lean” style directed at a broader sector of fiction readers.  As I was reading author's well-edited novel, I have not noticed mistakes, and I doubt that anyone helped him edit the novel.

Another downside is that the novelist shows off some of his fair active vocabulary.  For instance, he uses some learned vocabulary including the nouns of assembly, being a subcategory of collective nouns.  In a descriptive passage, he writes, “A charm of goldfinches, a wing of shrikes, a murmuration of starlings, a watch of nightingales, a host of orioles and an exaltation of larks sang on at full throats.”  In another narration passage, he writes, “With his conversation done, Sam excused himself again and went out to try his hand at hunting, so he prowled in the pine and spruce forest, searching for a gang of elks, a covey of grouse, a leash of bucks, or a gaggle of geese.”  While these are correct terms, the author should have used such nouns of assembly more sparingly because native speakers of English rarely use, or even know, many of them. It is a learning experience but may take readers out of the story.

It is no surprise that in his debut novel, the author abides the storytelling traditions of the distinct American literature, suggesting that he is well acquainted with the literary theory and that he has read many works of fiction.  In addition to the era’s background political and social events, this delightful novel comprises sympathetic characters, vivid descriptions, a good plot, and a strong narrative drive.  Relating storyline events to similar recollections of Sam Hudson, the escapade yarn knits high-action episodes with gritty historical facts and intellectually sound insights.  A novel that is powerful, forceful and daring, I believe, appeals to a broad sector of US fiction readers.

The story is on the individual struggle of daring protagonists during their overland travel by wagon against the outlaws, animals, terrain and elements.  In the linear plotline, there are wolf attacks, trail assaults, town outlawry, rifle shootouts and draw gunfights.  As the three heroes strive against dangers down the Springfield Overland Trail, they prove to be hauntingly spirited-- notwithstanding the incessant harsh conditions.  Reading this eventful novel (with its adventurous, informative, insightful and feel-good episodes) has given me hours of entertainment.

Corresponding to twenty travel days, the novel comprises twenty episodic chapters in the self-same manner as the olden novels published in twenty installments.  Unwrapping a twentieth of the solid yarn, each chapter encompasses a day’s travel accounts and Sam’s powerful memories.  The novel paints a broad picture of the nineteenth-century United States.  Out of a fair vocabulary, the author uses the right words and neatly embeds them in elegant sentences.  Employing the third-person omniscient narrator, the author uses a literary narrative technique driven by Sam’s evolution, thereby exploring that character’s psyche in his broader social milieu.  What is more, the novelist uses vigorous compact sentences, arrives at the right level of diction technicality, and tops at vivid descriptions.  His beautiful descriptions vary each time with the predominant type of description such as colors or shapes so that his writing gives sharp impressions.


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Lala Lopezregis Dandaleiro is a High School Teacher of English in Springfield, Illinois, and a Graduate of the University of Illinois Springfield.

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