The Life and Times of Henry Plummer is an entertaining historical novel that plays out against the panorama of the Old West.
Linda Buxbaum’s action-packed historical novel The Life and Times of Henry Plummer follows west-of-the-Mississippi lawlessness during the Civil War era.
The end is clear from the prologue, wherein real-life historical figure Henry Plummer is dragged from his cabin and lynched as a thief and murderer. Whether the act is a last resort to rid the town of a corrupt lawman or a gross miscarriage of justice is left hanging.
The novel follows Plummer’s life leading up to his hanging. Though certain characters have been added to the historical record in order to flesh out the cast, the book’s basic elements are true: Plummer served as a marshal for two different towns, did time in San Quentin for murder, and lived a life of constant flux. He sometimes gambled, drank, and escaped one scrape only to get into another. At other times, he settled as a homeowner and rancher. At his last stop in Montana, he was believed to belong to a gang of marauders who preyed on the rich lodes of gold and silver bound for the east, using Plummer’s position as cover.
The book sets off at a fast pace and maintains a high-speed gallop to the end. Episodes that send Plummer careening from one situation to the next are credibly imagined, and his itinerant wanderings bring the vast openness and prevalent lawlessness of the west to life. Features of the story that might otherwise seem farfetched gain credibility when viewed through the context of the times—how a drifter with a checkered past could be elected town marshal, for example. The writing is unsophisticated but lands on firmer ground as the plot unfolds, though the sex scenes laced throughout are an awkward blend of flowery romanticism and graphic detail.
Plummer is sympathetically portrayed. He wants to do the right thing, has compassion for those who need it, and realizes that his fondness for gambling and drinking are flaws to be overcome. He makes frequent attempts to walk a straighter path and is less a varmint than a man with a deep capacity for self-justification.
Occasionally, the text’s situations are stretched too far in order to preserve Plummer’s innocence, making him seem naïve. Best drawn are the women who befriend and love Plummer. They are a lively cast, including saloon girls with hearts of gold, a freed slave pregnant with her master’s baby, a neglected housewife looking for a brief moment of passion, and the preacher’s daughter he eventually marries.
This book does not render a final judgement regarding Plummer; that door is left provocatively ajar. The Life and Times of Henry Plummer is an entertaining historical novel that plays out against the panorama of the Old West.
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