John Gload is a murderer, plain and simple. Murder is how he made his living, and in his late seventies, he’s finally been caught and is waiting for his trial. He’s smart, strong, and utterly unrepentant.
Valentine Millimaki is a sheriff’s deputy, the most junior man on the force and its most skilled tracker; together with his dog he searches for people lost in Montana’s wildernesses. Haunted by the death of his mother, on a bad streak of finding only bodies, and fighting to keep his marriage going, he comes to sit by Gload’s cell at night, to talk and to listen.
The two men have more in common than they know, and slowly, they share more with each other. Valentine’s job is to extract information out of Gload that will damn him at trial; Gload finds himself concerned by Valentine’s appearance, as the long night shifts and daytime insomnia take their toll.
For the rest of us, thought, thought Millimaki, the distance from reason to rage is short, a frontier as thin as parchment and as frail, restraining the monster. It was there in everyone, he thought. It was there in himself. (113)
The Ploughmen is tense; I was never sure what would be revealed next, or how the two men’s relationship would develop. It’s not a tale of redemption, but neither does it glory in cruelty for its own sake. The violence in the novel isn’t sanitized, but it almost seems to be played off-stage.
Often Westerns are described as “spare,” but The Ploughmen is the opposite. Mr. Zupan’s prose, almost old-fashioned, given the novel’s contemporary setting, luxuriates in the Montana landscapes he knows so well; seldom have I been able to picture a place so clearly.
Far below through the greening trees he could almost see the place along the creek where they’d swum one afternoon in their courting days. To get there they pushed through undergrowth and came out near the creek and from the tall grass and thin willow stems at their elbows rose a cloud of small orange butterflies and they went before them on the warm air like a blizzard of flower petals strewn before heroes. (120)
Despite its beauty, at times the landscape, with its blizzards and wildlife and craggy ravines is just as brutal as John Gload’s hands. Valentine is used to seeing death from exposure, and John Gload has caused death by violence, but old age and sorrow too haunt the jail they share together.
The Ploughmen is about searching, no matter how little hope there is, and no matter how strange or difficult the object of the search.
Highly recommended reading. Also recommended: Rory’s wonderful review.