Kevin McCarthy is an Irish thriller writer, so I was quite intrigued when I read the blurb for Wolves of Eden (W.W. Norton & Company 2019), a novel set in the American West during Red Cloud’s War. The novel is a war story and a mystery. It is brutal and brilliant. And it is decidedly not for the faint of heart.
The book is dedicated to “the memory of the American Indian peoples who suffered and died defending their homeland and the impoverished immigrant soldiers who suffered and died in the U.S. government’s efforts to take it from them.”
The dedication makes clear that McCarthy isn’t going to sugar coat his depictions of actual historical events. As he indicates in the Historical Note at the close, “the crime for which the brothers stand accused is fictional, though based on similar incidents in other Western forts. The crimes perpetrated by the government and army of the United States on the indigenous people of the American West are real. Fiction has nothing on them.”
It’s a hard read. War is ugly and many of the soldiers sent West to drive out the Sioux, the Cheyenne, and the Arapaho were still struggling with the scars left from the battles they’d fought during the Civil War. There are bloody flashbacks to the war between the states, and sharp and painful depictions of mutilated bodies (both the innocent and not so innocent) that will turn your stomach.
Captain Molloy tries to drown his war demons by turning to the bottle. He has an easy way with folks from all walks, but he has little love for the government. Daniel Kohn has been at his side for years, and knows that demons come in many forms. He is loyal beyond measure to the Captain and his post. General Cooke orders the pair to Fort Phil Kearny in the Dakota territory to investigate the murder of the sutler and his wife. It’s a political favor – the dead man is the Secretary of the Treasury’s brother-in-law. The murders had been blamed on the Sioux in the area, but something wasn’t adding up. The two disagree on the investigation – Molloy has no desire to hang a man over the death of the sutler and his wife – men are dying every day. Kohn believes in his duty and that orders must always be followed.
The novel alternates between the investigation and Michael O’Driscoll’s written confession. O’Driscoll is one of two brother’s Kohn has fingered for the murders, and his sections detail some of the more human and heartbreaking aspects of war. Through O’Driscoll, McCarthy is able to give voice to the many Irish-born cowboys who fought and died for the US in the attempts to “tame” the West.
As the novel gallops forward, watching the two timelines finally converge highlights the fun behind the writing. McCarthy is clearly a skilled writer and quite the historian. If you enjoyed Lonesome Dove and more recently Deadwood and Hell on Wheels, give it a read. If those turned your stomach and/or lost your interest, this probably isn’t your cup of tea. And that’s okay.