It’s easy to imagine how, in the winter of 1874, with cold winds blasting flurries of alarm along their spines, a stranded Alferd Packer and his gold prospecting crew allowed desperation to scramble their moral compasses and fix on whatever course of action was necessary for survival. Packer’s compass was, as those who brought him to trial for cannibalism suggested, least prone to resistance. As the only crewmember to return to civilization (or, in the case of Old West Colorado, to the first of many bars he could have stumbled upon), Packer atoned for his survival by spending the next 40 years in prison.
This historical anecdote, related by a character in David E. Hilton’s "Kings of Colorado," a 2012 High Plains Book Award finalist for fiction, reinforces the author’s examination of wilderness, violence and redemption. Set mostly in the early 1960s just miles from where Packer allegedly ate his companions, the novel describes William Sheppard’s remembrance of his two-year sentence at Swopes Reformatory Ranch for Boys after stabbing his father with a Davy Crocket Explorers pocketknife.
Readers are first introduced to a 62-year-old Will, a lonely widower just released from his job due to “generic personnel reduction,” whose memories of his traumatic past are jarred loose by a traffic accident. Will relives both the haunted altitudes that texture his memories and his initiation into a tightly bonded circle of friends who attempt to hold on to their humanity despite the wild brutality around them.
In violent and elevated fashion, Swopes Reformatory magnifies the common adolescent social predicament that one must “swim with the group or sink alone,” and, in spite of his circumstances, Will learns that the most meaningful relationships are bonded through the intimacy of shared self-revelation. Each of Will’s closest friends reveals himself to be a whole greater than the accumulation of generic notations in his personal background file, and eventually Will does the same. As the novel continues, however, these friends are robbed of growth by the obsessive violence prevailing at the ranch.
Though Hilton successfully creates a detailed and engaging world and shapes his characters well, he appears far more comfortable in the domain of tragedy, in creating scenes of brazen pathology, than in illustrating the extent to which wilderness environments can mirror our greatest capacity for feeling. In a turning point for Will’s self-esteem, what the narrator calls an “apotheosis of my adolescence,” the boy spends 14 weeks breaking a wild mare, and in order to save the horse’s life, struts his accomplishment through the pasture in a public display of defiance. Here, in what could be a moving example of personal freedom elevating the narrator beyond his confined circumstances, internal dialogue around Will’s action is given only curt illumination, and a connection between wilderness and self-discovery is glanced over in favor of the rifle butt sure to be brought crashing into his skull.
Repeatedly, violence intercedes against the characters’ pursuit of selfhood. This is most apparent in what happens to Benny, perhaps Will’s closest friend at the ranch, who, after a horse kick shatters his skull, is brought back to the ranch to complete his sentence, a dilapidated but preternaturally gifted version of his former self, only to be further brutalized by guards and delinquents alike.
"Kings of Colorado" leaves the reader poised to consider many important questions related to violence in society. Despite its use of cruelty to legitimize redemption, its sense of place and crafting of lively characters make the novel genuinely affecting, a worthwhile analysis of how deep friendships can ease the pain caused by humanity’s self-created wilderness.
Zach Duval is a Billings native and a part-time writing instructor at Montana State University Billings.