Michael Punke’s The Revenant is brutal, gripping, and perhaps too historically accurate for its own good.
The story starts with a flash-forward, showing us the moment in 1823 when Hugh Glass, the protagonist, is left to die near the Missouri River. Then Punke flashes back to show how Glass came to join the Rocky Mountain Fur Company, get horrifically mauled by a grizzly bear, and be abandoned by the two men who were supposed to stay with him until he passed. Glass survives, though, and swears vengeance on the men who shirked their duty and stole his gear, including his prized rifle.
This quest for vengeance fuels the rest of the narrative by giving Glass a tangible goal: catch the thieves, enact his revenge, and reclaim his possessions. The simple mission carries him through encounters with other frontiersmen, Native Americans—both hostile and friendly—and the elements. Glass overcomes terrible injuries and faces down worse odds time and again to get what’s his. The clear target also allows the reader to navigate long passages with no dialogue, transforming what could have been a wandering survival story into something more compelling.
And yet… the conclusion doesn’t fully live up to the promise Punke makes in the beginning. There’s a semi-climactic confrontation, but it feels unsatisfying after the pages and pages of Glass’s torturous struggle to get there. I wonder if Punke felt constrained by writing a story about real men—many of the characters in the story are historical figures, including Glass. Punke notes in his afterword that he took some liberties with how the story closes, adding a partial resolution that doesn’t exist in the historical record. I wish he’d gone further and improvised a more fulfilling finale.
I’m curious to see how the (Oscar-winning) film adaptation handles the ending. My guess is that Hollywood takes greater license, but we’ll see. For now, I’ll remember The Revenant as a thrilling hunt that doesn’t quite catch its quarry.