(Author’s note: For the last year, I’ve been running a series in my crime-fiction blog, The Rap Sheet, about “forgotten books” that deserve to be rediscovered. But this is the first time I’ve picked up that same theme in Limbo. Credit for the original idea goes to blogger and award-winning author Patti Abbott.)
In September 1893, a troika of young gentleman hunters from New York headed into northern Idaho’s Bitterroot Mountains, hoping to bag some trophy game--moose, elk, maybe even a grizzly bear or two. With them traveled a guide, a camp cook, ten horses, and three dogs. They packed along ample food and equipment, including a couple of the latest, most sophisticated firearms, and it seemed that nothing could prevent their enjoying a relaxing and rewarding wilderness adventure.
Nothing, that is, except perhaps the weather. Locally heavy autumn rains portended an early and brutal snowfall in the Bitterroots that year. But the hunters chose to ignore the weather, just as they did the obvious ill health of their cook. These were only the first in what would be a series of bad judgments that turned this pleasure trip into a memorable race for survival.
Combining a reporter’s devotion to detail with a yarn-spinner’s talent for building suspense, Ladd Hamilton has crafted from the true tale of the Carlin party a riveting, often chilling book that’s timeless in its portrayal of human frailties and nature’s capriciousness. Snowbound (Washington State University Press, 1997) is the sort of tome that John Krakauer (Into the Wild) might have penned had he lived a century earlier. It’s a classic story of people overreaching their abilities in the bush, but is made especially impressive by the fact that Hamilton had to stitch it patiently and tenaciously together from one-dimensional military records, a slanted account published by a member of the Carlin band, and equally suspect newspaper reports.
A retired newspaperman who went into teaching journalism at Lewis-Clark State College in Lewiston, Idaho, Hamilton has some experience recounting bygone tragedies. His 1994 book, This Bloody Deed: The Magruder Incident, breathed grisly new life into the case of Lloyd Magruder, a prominent Lewiston merchant who in 1863 was murdered in the Bitterroots, provoking a chase after the killers that extended as far as San Francisco.
Like that earlier work, Snowbound has the deceptive pace of a slow-burning house fire. Readers see disaster dogging the heels of the Carlin party long before its members do. In large part, this blindness was the result of distrust between the two breeds that made up the expedition: the citified sportsmen, represented by organizer Will Carlin, a photographer, skilled marksman, and son of the general in command of the army at Vancouver, Washington; and the veteran outdoorsmen, among whom cook George Colegate is the most noteworthy. The Easterners, overconfident of their mountaineering prowess, refused to listen to their backwoods guide when he counseled retreat before the threat of record snows. Meanwhile, Colegate grew sicker with each passing day, yet lied about his condition, fearing the hunters would resent him if they knew the truth: that he was suffering from a severe urinary blockage, and had foolishly left at home the catheters he needed to drain his bladder.
Not until snow closed the trail home and Colegate was unable to move on his own--his body rotting from the inside out, putrid with gangrene--did sense overcome suspicion. And by then starvation and desperation had set in. While army troops and the cook’s son scoured the Bitterroots for signs of the company, Carlin and the rest finally decided to abandon the dying Colegate and thrash their way over ridges and rivers toward civilization ... only to find their rescue overshadowed by national criticism that they’d acted hastily and with cowardice in leaving a comrade behind--something that no hard-bitten child of the West would ever have thought to do.
In another writer’s hands, this debate might have played out as a silly one pitting city slickers against country clods. However, Hamilton demonstrates an uncommon sympathy for rigid frontier ethics. He also has a spare prose style that seems ideally suited to a story, like this one, that even without embellishment moves like a frigid mountain wind. The only times when the author’s presence is significantly felt are in those cases where his historical sources failed to answer questions in the narrative--when, for instance, he could find no explanations of a character’s thoughts or responses to a situation. Then, Hamilton writes, he blended in fiction “consistent with the facts as they were recorded.” This technique will probably send traditional, footnote-happy historians into frothing convulsions. But what reader, reflecting on the agony of having digested more academic history texts in school, wouldn’t allow a few such intellectual liberties if they produce a book as rich and haunting as Snowbound?