Text says: "The Madstone a Novel Elizabeth Cook Author of The Which Way Tree." Cover image shows a woman on horseback with two children on horseback, a boy and a girl. They are on a dirt road that stretches into the foreground with trees on other side. In the background is a huge sky with a sunset. The cover blurb says, "'The Madstone is a treasure: a brilliant, beautiful page-turner . . . Both a poignant love story and a riveting road novel–I devoured it.'–Chris Bohjalian, #1 New York Times Bestselling author of The Double Bind."

The Madstone

THE MADSTONE rating: 4 stars ⭐⭐⭐⭐.

I’ve fallen for another western: THE MADSTONE by Elizabeth Crook (Little, Brown and Company/Hachette, November 7, 2023).

The madstone of the novel’s title is not just a talisman with reputed healing power: it is a symbol of found family, a mother’s determination to protect her children at all costs, and the found fathers willing to risk everything to get her little family to safety. One father figure, the main character, Benjamin, is the first person narrator. His straightforward yet magical voice drives the action and emotion of Crook’s novel set in the aftermath of the Civil War. Benjamin is telling the story to Tot, to be saved until he grows up, so this is an epistolary novel.

Disclaimer: Thanks to Edelweiss/Above the Tree Line and Hachette for sending me this book to me for review consideration. All opinions are my own.

The other father figure, Jorges (called Horhay, because Benjamin isn’t a great speller) is part Native American, part Black, and all heart. Benjamin accidentally finds himself helping Nell Banes and her son Tot when they flee from a band of evil outlaws. The journey is fraught with every kind of peril, from finicky animals to weather. Benjamin goes on a side quest to find a madstone after the little boy is bitten by a rabid coyote. Horhay provides the madstone and some desperately-needed help in getting across Texas to New Orleans. There is also a figure of fun on this road trip, Dickie, who turns out to have some surprising qualities.

I’d never heard of a madstone (also called a bezoar) as a folk remedy. The Old Farmer’s Almanac has a characteristically romantic take on madstones, but it’s basically a calcified hairball found in the stomach of ruminant animals. There is a centuries-long tradition of white folks obtaining madstones from nonwhite folks, including indigenous folks on this continent, including, per family lore, a notable Louisiana stony hairball called the Madstone of Vacherie.

Two things I enjoyed about this novel:

  1. I remained with one person, Benjamin, in one linear narrative from beginning to end, with only minimal looking back at the past and slim foreshadowings of the future. I am weary of constantly jumping from mind to mind, place to place, time to time. Few writers can pull it off well without overtaxing the reader, and yet it is all the rage in fiction.
  2. The novel, like the narrator, enchants the reader with understatement, a rare quality in a novel. What Benjamin leaves unsaid is as important as what he does not say. Healing power withheld speaks as loudly as healing power offered. A veil is drawn over the romance, which is sacred to Benjamin.

Will Collyer brings Benjamin to life in the audiobook, also set to be released November 7. This could be one of the most epic audiobooks of 2023.

Reading in context:

I enthusiastically recommend the western CHENNEVILLE by Paulette Jiles which I reviewed in July. Another great novel about love, courage, and sacrifice in the Reconstruction period in history. Right now it is in my top three picks of 2023!

Arguably this is a feminist western, given that Nell is taking no guff from any man and is fleeing and fighting for her life and her children’s lives. I blogged in April about LUCKY RED and some other great woman-power westerns.

My favorite first-person fictional narrator of all time is Cassandra in I CAPTURE THE CASTLE by Dodie Smith (1948). Getting into Cassandra’s mind is well worth the ride. I also love Murderbot as a first-person narrator (The Murderbot Diaries Series by Martha Wells, see my June 22 blog post) and Susanna Clarke‘s incredible Piranesi of the novel PIRANESI (2020).

What I’m reading right now:

I’m actually working on four books right now!

BUY YOURSELF THE F*CKING LILIES by Tara Schuster, one irreverent chapter at a time (Dial Press/Penguin Random House, February 18, 2020).

DIVINE MIGHT by Natalie Haynes, approximately one goddess per sitting (HarperCollins, USA release January 2, 2024).

KING NYX by Kirsten Bakis (Liverlight/W. W. Norton, February 20, 2024).

QUARANTINE NOTES by Yahia Lababidi, a few deep aphorisms at a time (Fomite Press, June 1, 2023).

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