The Revenant: A Novel of Revenge strikes a perfect balance between history and ficiton

Chuck Wickenhofer
Chuck Wickenhofer and Chuck Wickenhofer, Jr.

Former history professor and correspondent for the Montana Quarterly, Michael Punke, would like the readers of The Revenant: A Novel of Revenge to know that his book, written in 2003 and recently made into a movie starring Leonardo DiCaprio, is a work of fiction.

This might raise alarm bells for fans of literature, as most historians are at their best when sticking to works that are planted firmly in the nonfiction genre. However, Punke does what many historians who have delved into the realm of fiction have not been able to pull off: write a stirring, though linear, novel that more than satisfies expectations and holds the reader's interest throughout.

The main character, Hugh Glass, was a real man, a fur trapper who, after being mauled by a grizzly while on a scouting mission, was left for dead by two of his fellows while on a trapping expedition with the Rocky Mountain Fur Company. Punke is skilled at telling the story without belaboring the adventure with exhaustive historical points. The characters are well-drawn, the story is tight and moves at the right pace, and there is a verisimilitude about the work that illustrates Punke's familiarity with the history of the era without wearing the reader down with a classroom lecture.

The novel is balanced properly, which allows the fascinating story to be told without distraction. An unexpected look at life as a pirate in the fleet of Jean Lafitte is part of the tale, and is arguably as interesting as the primary narrative. Punke's imagination is as important to The Revenant as his mastery of the history of the era. After all, how would we know exactly, moment by moment, the methods by which Glass managed the dire situation he was presented with after his abandonment?

Without giving away the story (the bear attack and the treachery happen very early in the book), Punke provides a blow by blow survival narrative from Glass's point of view that is historically undocumented. That Punke is able to craft a compelling narrative that animates Glass as a character, while staying true to the known history of his life, allows the reader to trust his guiding hand throughout the novel.

The Revenant claims to be a novel of revenge, but it as at least as much an ode to the hard men who explored the country for reasons of pride and treasure in the post-Lewis and Clark era, and the ever present danger that the life of these fur trappers entailed. One can imagine other fur trappers in similar circumstances to the predicament that Hugh Glass found himself in. The fact that Glass's story is largely verified historically, and that Punke is able to fill in the rest with a graceful touch, makes The Revenant special in the realm of historical fiction.