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Country of the Bad Wolfes

Rain Taxi

" The sweeping family saga of Robert Blake Wolfe— pirate, joker, Romeo, an entire New World Court of characters in one person, and passed down through three further generations— makes for quite a tome, and that’s not a judgment call about modern readers’ attention spans. This story takes a reader from Captain Wolfe’s arrival in New Hampshire in 1828 through his descendants’ adventuring and philandering, smuggling and murdering and politicking in early-1900s Mexico and the borderlands, and readers need to be ready to face this pack of Wolfes.
Keeping the familial relationships straight poses one challenge right off the bat: If the characters’ names don’t rival the length of those in Russian novels, they certainly do compete in terms of confusing repetition. Blake, James, John, Samuel, Sebastian, and Thomas each make their way through multiple generations, sometimes in English and sometimes in Spanish, in male and female versions, and in a variety of first-name/middle-name combinations. Two contiguous generations produce twin boys; one Wolfe daughter alone marries five different men.
Fortunately, none of these Wolfes—by blood or marriage— is a retiring character; even the most private of them demands his or her story be heard. They don’t live in a quiet time or place, either. Barely into their twenties, twins John Roger and Samuel Thomas, sons of Robert Blake, are short an arm, an eye and part of a leg between them—and John Roger took the time to graduate from Dartmouth first. Samuel Thomas received his physical hardships (much more than a lost eye and a limp) because he enrolled in the U.S. military instead of boarding a trading ship and then through circumstance became a San Patricio, a traitor to his homeland for Mexico.
Though he details quite a few individual histories along his characters’ family tree, author James Carlos Blake—might there be a serious autobiography in the fictional Country of the Bad Wolfes? —clearly has a heart for the repeating Wolfe twins, first John Roger and Samuel Thomas and then John Roger’s sons, James Sebastian and Blake Cortéz, who follow in their father’s and uncle’s footsteps in terms of brotherly love and new-frontier abandon. Perhaps more importantly, the women in this novel are also strong, smart, and funny. It’s particularly devastating when the first woman we spend any length of time with, John Roger’s wife, Elizabeth Anne, dies (hardly a spoiler; one expects nothing less from a sweeping family drama set within the North American frontier). She, after all, is a better shot, a better swimmer, a better everything than her male counterparts—and they are proud of her for it. Women are men’s equal in Wolfe country; this is a Wild West tale but with a modern take.
Author Blake not only weaves a good fireside yarn, he produces a strong literary tale, too, one that can hold up to the bluster of schoolyard criticism. He expertly plays with form, changing verb tense and perspective occasionally, slipping back and forth through time and place as though from string to string on a guitar neck. One sentence tops out at 166 words long, but it is completely warranted in the exciting actions scene:

Then they saw the white water directly before them and saw too there was a small drop just ahead of it and then the raft seemed to leap off the river before smashing down into a snarling torrent and they were pitching and bucking and the jungle was a green blur to either side of them as the raft rocketed downriver and was jarring off one cluster of jutting rocks after another and rearing skyward and plunging headlong and tilting sidewise and almost overturning and then banging off one step bank to go spinning across the deranged river and bang off the other as the boys held on with all their might and bellowed in wild glee as they were slung about with arms twisting and legs flapping and at times they were in weightless detachment from the raft entirely but for their grip on the crossrope before again being slammed against the deck so hard that for days after they would be dappled with bruises.

Another sentence telescopes in and out and in, physically, temporally, and psychologically, perfectly capturing the moment John Roger, long believing his twin brother dead, happens upon that side of the family: 'They would become still better acquainted over the next few days, but on that gray dawn in that upstairs residence of that rundown café in that ramshackle neighborhood near the center of Mexico city, the only important question remaining was what they should do now.'
In terms of a broader historical significance, Country of the Bad Wolfes is set in Porfirio Diáz’s Mexico, and readers will get a socio-eco-political lesson in it, or at least a refresher. Most important, though, is what readers learn from the more common characters, the highly intriguing Wolfes, about a part of the Wild West not often discussed, at a time when stories from the U.S.-Mexico border are again being squashed."
- Kristin Thiel, June 1, 2012 

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