Right now I'm scanning my slightly used memory attempting to determine the last time a debut novel moved me as much as Gabriel's Story, the debut novel by David Anthony Durham. I'm coming up with blanks. I'm quite confident in stating that I've read the best book of the year. I can't heap enough words of praise upon Gabriel's Story to do it justice, but I'll try. Gabriel's Story is haunting in it's beauty. When anyone claims, wishes, or dreams of the ever elusive ’Great American Novel’, Gabriel's Story is the book. Gabriel's Story covers the settlement of the American West but through the eyes of an African-American family. A perspective that isn't lauded enough. A perspective that is told with a sharp eye for images, a strong ear for dialogue, and the heart and tongue of a poet.
Gabriel's Story is the coming-of-age tale of Gabriel Lynch, in the late 1800s after the Civil War. 15 years old Gabriel, his 13 years old brother Ben and his mother Emma have left their home in Boston to move to Kansas where his new stepfather Solomon have established a small farm. Gabriel is in the full swing of his adolescence, as my grandmother use to say, ’being mannish’. The farming life isn't for Gabriel. He's still mourning the death and dreams of his father, adjusting to the economic shift of the family, and quietly hating his new stepfather. After several months, Gabriel and his friend James decides that farming is not a way of life for them and runs away with a gang of cowboys that is led by a white man named Marshall Hogg who can be both charming and dangerous, and Marshall's right hand man, Caleb, a black man who silence is frightening. The life of a cowboy isn't exactly the life Gabriel envisioned. It does open his eyes to the way of the world and the ways of men.
I so identified with the character Gabriel that I had a hard time letting him go. Gabriel felt the same way I would have felt about his mother's marriage, his life on the trail to Texas. Durham created all of his characters just as well. Marshall is dangerous, smart, and yet had a charisma going that it was easy to understand this strange ’attraction’ that could be generated from being in his company. Caleb was just plain scary. Not scary like a Hollywood monster such as Frankenstein, more like Norman Bates with an ominous cloud around him. Durham re-created late 19th century Kansas so completely and beautifully, I was THERE!
To state that Durham has a way with words would be an understatement. He's an artist. The manner in which he portrayed the racism that Gabriel and his family faced, the violence of life in the West, and the family dynamics was with a sure and subtle hand. Prose was lyrical, easy on the eyes, pretty to the ears.
Gabriel's Story is a beautiful novel! It is a promise of good things to come from Durham, a promise that I can't wait to see what will become of it in the future. As far as the year 2001 is concerned, I'm ready to close up shop, grab my coat, get the keys and lock up. Gabriel's Story is the best book of 2001. It doesn't get any better than this! Believe it!