Thompson Grey abandons his Indiana farm in 1858 and joins a caravan of pioneers trekking west along the Santa Fe Trail in Gary Schanbacher’s accomplished new novel, Crossing Purgatory, a moral Western that questions what any decent human being owes another amid the harsh conditions of the American frontier.

After Thompson’s wife and sons die of diphtheria while he is away on a fruitless mission to seek an advance on his inheritance, he plunges into deep mourning, blaming himself for being absent when his family became ill.

In grief and guilt, he tramps west, a man with his “spirit out of fix,” and with no plan in mind—until he encounters a caravan led by Captain Upperdine, a shrewd businessman who guides groups of potential settlers across pioneer trails and trades with Indians, homesteaders and prospectors along the way. Upperdine sees the taciturn wanderer as an asset, a competent and honorable man who can assist his current group of travelers.

When violence strikes, Thompson feels responsible for the pregnant wife and teenage son left behind by the murdered man. The one-time farmer, in his harrowing grief, would rather drift across the prairie like a tumbleweed, but that kind of behavior is not in his nature. He painstakingly fulfills both real and self-imposed obligations, and as a natural farmer, he can’t shake his dream for his own land—a yearning that sometimes leads him to act in unexpectedly rash ways.

When the group arrives at Upperdine’s homestead north of New Mexico near the confluence of the Arkansas and Purgatoire rivers, Thompson settles in to help the folks he met on the trail, as well as the family of Benito Ibarra, Upperdine’s brother-in-law. At this point, Schanbacher switches to Benito’s perspective, hinting that Thompson may not be as pure in his aims as he appears. “Is this a place of banishment or of second chances?” Benito wonders when he looks at the land they now farm together.

Through clear, lyrical prose, and convincing historical detail, Schanbacher examines the moral dilemmas facing Thompson and Benito, men trying to lead upright and useful lives in a place ruled by lawlessness and the punishing caprices of nature.

Crossing Purgatory is an especially thoughtful frontier story that will leave readers thinking about its characters long after the final page.

This article originally appeared in High Country News.

Crossing Purgatory

By Gary Schanbacher


336 pages, $25.95