While I am reading a book that I plan to review, I am constantly thinking of words and phrases that might best describe the author’s presentation. Turning the pages of Jack Todd’s Sun Going Down, I came up with ‘homespun family saga of the American West.’ I was delighted to find, at the end of the novel, an Author’s Note that confirmed my characterization. Todd originally was inspired by his own family stories and by elderly relatives he had known as a boy. But he doesn’t just mechanically replicate the exact lives of those men and women. Instead, he creatively combines their extraordinary experiences and their everyday circumstances into an archetypal western tale.
Sun Going Down begins with Ebenezer Paint, a riverboat captain plying his trade on the Mississippi during the Civil War. Recognizing increasing danger, Eb sells out and heads west. Eventually he marries, but like so many western men he never quite settles down. Always ready to seek his fortune elsewhere, he annoys his wife each time he relocates his family from one venture to another. After Eb’s demise, his twin sons, Ezra and Eli, carry on. One wanders, and is more like his father; the other, like his mother, prefers to stay put. “How come Uncle Ezra is always going off someplace?” asks Eli’s son. “Journey bound. That’s just the way he is,” Eli Paint replies. Wanting further clarification, the boy asks what ‘journey bound’ means. “Means you always got to be someplace you aint.” In a nutshell, that’s the restlessness of many men in Sun Going Down, and even some of the women.
The next generation travels into the twentieth century, and includes daughters as well as sons. When the novel ends, the Paints are still going strong. Some moving here and there; others firmly grounded to the land. Along the way, they will have seen and even participated in some of the highlights of major historic events. (Apparently this was true of Jack Todd’s ancestors, too.) The terrible winter of 1887, for example, hits Eli’s northwest Nebraska holding especially hard. And Ezra, always roaming, happens upon Wounded Knee the day after the violent battle there. Family members are affected not only the Civil War but also by World War I. And the Dust Bowl hovers on the perimeter when the story ends. However, the narration never felt forced. One of the things I liked best about Sun Going Down was Todd’s ability to integrate critical external events seamlessly with the internal stories of the Paints.
This is a novel for readers who like westerns. The events are not for the faint of heart, and the dialogue is all delivered in “ah shucks” vernacular speech. ‘A homespun family saga’ well describes its incidents and interactions. Overall, I would say that Sun Going Down is successful, a novel for anyone who once loved Zane Grey’s western landscapes and anyone who still relishes Larry McMurtry’s sprawling epics and Louis L’Amour’s generational tales. – Ann Ronald
Also available by Jack Todd: Rain Falls Like Mercy; Come Again No More; Desertion: In the Time of Viet Nam.