The English countryside surrounding Tommy Bedford's boyhood home has became his own personal wild west as he obsesses over his TV cowboy heroes, Flint McCullough from Wagon Train and Red McGraw from Slip Rock. Aside from his romps in the woods during which he pretends to be fighting Indians and cattle rustlers, his life is pretty bleak. The eight year old's elderly parents are at a loss to understand his nightly bedwetting and send him to a boarding school where sadistic classmates and teachers torment him emotionally and physically.
The school's motto, Semper Fortis, becomes harder and harder for Tommy to follow as the beatings and ridicule continue. Only his older sister, Diane, a promising actress who lives in London, seems to understand his pain. Just as in the movies, one day Diane rides in from the west (West End London) accompanied by the handsome cowboy who plays Red McGraw, and rescues Tommy. After disclosing to Tommy that she is really his mother, not his sister, she takes him to Hollywood where she marries Ray Montane AKA Red McGraw, and Tommy's world becomes the polar opposite of the one he left in England. With his cowboy hero for a step-father, a mother who dotes on him and ranch hands who show him how to ride, rope and shoot Tommy is finally happy.
As an adult, Tom Bedford's memory of that happy time and the violent act that ended it does little to temper the guilt, despair, and sense of loss he now feels. His battle with alcohol has cost him his marriage, and his estranged son now awaits possible court martial and death, accused of atrocities in Iraq.
Nicholas Evans successfully intertwines several plot lines to arrive at a very satisfying and believable conclusion. He incorporates evocative descriptions of sophisticated celebrities and the excitement of living and working in Hollywood with equally convincing descriptions of lives in a rural English village and boarding school. He skillfully shifts the action between the present of the adult Tom and his current relationships and the past, taking Tommy through various ages from eight to adolescence to maturity. The narrator, Michael Emerson, adapts to these shifts with expert dexterity. His portrayal of both feminine and masculine characters is so convincing, I had to check the credits to make sure that there were not multiple readers.
In addition to the time shifts, this book deals with numerous contrasts, among which are those of the past and the present, the urban and the rural, the famous and the obscure, the detached and the loving and the sophisticated and the naive. It is a tribute to Evans' ability to create memorable characters that instead of seeming jarring and disorienting, these differences add credence to the turmoil felt by the major players. By interspersing recognizable historical figures like Gary Cooper in with the fictional characters, he adds realism to the book, making it easier for the listener to relate to and to empathize with the characters. This is a book whose plot and characters leave a lasting impression, inspiring the listener to reflect on Tommy's school motto, Semper Fortis. Highly recommended.
The Brave by Nicholas Evans
Read by Michael Emerson
Hachette Audio, unabridged: 10 hours