Book Review: Hard Country by Michael McGarrity
By Tim Chamberlain
Hard Country is a sweeping epic of the American West that tells the story of imperfect people trying to settle a harsh country.
Author Michael McGarrity, best known for his Kevin Kerney mystery series, is going back in time to the American origins of Kevin’s family. Hard Country follows Kerney’s ancestors starting with Irish immigrant and Civil War veteran John Kerney in 1874. John’s story starts with the birth of a son, the death of a wife and the murder of his brother and nephew, and it only gets tougher for him from there. McGarrity has a knack for crisp storytelling, and he weaves a tight story that takes the Kerneys up to 1918.
This is obviously a meticulously-researched novel, as McGarrity weaves the actual history of the region into his story. The politics of cattle ranching and railroad expansion predominate, with most of the real-life politicians appearing as themselves. There are also cameos by more legendary figures such as Billy the Kid and Pat Garrett, who just seem to mosey onto the page and are gone just as quickly. A larger part is played by the real western writer Eugene Manlove Rhodes, who is befriended by the Kerney family and even bases a story (that doesn’t sell) on one of them. This sort of historical framework around the story underscores the authentic feel of Hard Country.
McGarrity’s version of the west (specifically the Tularosa Basin in southern New Mexico) isn’t overly-romanticized and, thus, feels authentic. The gunplay, a staple of the pulp western, is sporadic, realistically presented and somewhat shocking when it happens. He is also mindful of the cultural shift going on in the area as Americans are settling an area already occupied by Native Americans and Mexicans. While the complex relations going on here are not deeply explored, they are also not ignored as something insignificant to the story.
With Hard Country, McGarrity has made a successful leap from mystery to history. His Tularosa Basin is almost a character unto itself, and his talent for bringing real cowboys to life is evident throughout the novel. Readers will find themselves transported to a time when the country was expanding and will get to know the tough (and not-so-tough) men and women that made it happen.
Fans of Hard Country will be pleased to know that this is the first of a trilogy, and McGarrity hopes to have the second installment (tentatively titled Backlands) published in early 2014.