Peter R. Decker
Western Slope Press (2017)
Reviewed by Jeffrey W. Massey for Reader Views (11/18)
In his sixth and latest novel “The Go-Backer,” Peter R. Decker blends historical fact and engaging prose to illuminate a little-known part of America’s famous Manifest Destiny; that seven out of every ten settlers heading west returned east.
The story focuses on Civil War veteran Calvin Marlow, who completed the bloody conflict as a First Sergeant in the Tenth Vermont Infantry. After being discharged in April of 1865 somewhere in northern Virginia, Marlow practically walks back to his thirty-acre farm in Vermont. Instead of healthy vegetables and green pastures he finds that his wife Grace and their two children are almost starving. The dry, hot summer that had begun the previous year had continued into the present, and the war had taken away so many young men, that available labor to work the fields had been reduced to almost none. While no bloody battles had been fought on his native soil, Calvin quickly realizes that the dark tentacles of war had seemingly touched every part of the countryside.
In an effort to find a better life for themselves and their two children, Calvin and Grace begin looking westward at that great expanse of land that lay between themselves and the Pacific Ocean. The Homestead Act of 1862 promised free land to any settler willing to make the journey, file a Homestead title and stay on the land for a specified period of time. In addition, gold had been found in California and all of America seemed to be under the spell of western fever. After much consideration, Calvin and Grace decide to sell everything that was not vital and invest the proceeds towards a new life west of the Mississippi River. Almost immediately they were confronted with the fact that a great number of would-be settlers were now headed east on the trail, and consternation grows steadily with each broken wagon wheel or outbreak of sickness.
Mr. Decker brings the smell of the land, the various characters, the weather, and most importantly the genuine fears, hopes and dreams of these settlers alive on each page. His prose is stitched together nicely with a series of letters that Grace sends back to her brother in Vermont. Her letters are especially poignant, heartfelt, and were easily this reader’s favorite part of the narrative. They lay bare the soul of a wife and mother who feels at the mercy of a larger world that she neither understands nor controls, and they capture a love and genuine affection that she fights to maintain under the most grueling of circumstances.
A graduate of Columbia University with a PhD in history, Mr. Decker’s narrative is rich with the politics of the period. He gives the reader a real window into not only the physical challenges these prospective settlers faced, but also the complex relationship between large landowners, railroad interest, Indians, and just plain ordinary men and women trying to survive. The reader is thrust into a world void of safety nets, a world where events and circumstances can conspire against even the best of people.
“The Go-Backer” by Peter R. Decker is a novel that is straightforward in its account of western life during the 1860s. It keeps the reader’s attention not through multiple subplots or twists and turns, but by ripping the veneer off the old romanticized version of the American West. The toughness of the settlers is on full display, and any reader will clearly see how fighting for survival can bring out both the best and the worst in everyone.