The Road to Reckoning by Robert Lautner is a crime novel, taking place in 1837. At its very basic, this is a story of a twelve-year-old boy who is thrown into the West, having never left New York – more precisely, rarely having left his aunt’s home. Thomas Walker leaves the big city behind to accompany his father, a traveling salesman who is desperate to make money in the face of a financial crisis. From selling spectacles, Thomas’ father goes on to sell Samuel Colt’s latest invention; America’s first commercially available revolving gun.
A foretelling statement from the narrator hints towards the point of change within the novel.
“I, to this day, hold to only one truth: if a man chooses to carry a gun he will get shot. My father agreed to carry twelve.”
Thomas’ father is murdered by thieves and yet Colt’s gun is depicted as an emblem of hope throughout much of this Western story; the hope of protection, hope for money and the hope to find a path home. His father’s death is a maturing point for Thomas, who has to find his way home with nothing but his charm and a wooden model of Colt’s revolver.
While Lautner tries to deliver a character that is courageous, quick-witted and independent, I actually feel that the opposite was accomplished. Thomas Walker – although rightfully emotional after his loss – is too reliant on people’s sympathies towards his tears and his young age. Achieving very little by himself, he is carried through the story by other characters; many of whom receive little acknowledgment throughout the story. Although many readers will feel this sympathy is deserved as he is too young to battle through Western America alone, the character of Thomas Walker actually comes across as manipulative and callous, using the help of adults to his advantage.
This is particularly the case in the unlikely friendship young Thomas strikes up with Henry Stands, a roguish ex-militant ranger. The two set on a journey across the changing landscape of America together, each searching for his own vengeance. Henry Stands fills the absence of a father figure for Thomas, saving him from many perilous occurrences. Meanwhile, Thomas Walker helps Henry to gain money from selling Colt’s revolving gun. Again, I feel that Thomas’ character is not only complimented by another figure, but also made more coherent through the existence of an adult who eventually attends to the boy’s every need.
Perhaps these mannerisms are apparent due to the way in which Thomas’ adventures are narrated; through his elderly self. As an aged Thomas delivers the story of boyhood throughout The Road to Reckoning, many places in the novel are over wrought with hyperbole, while at other times there is a complete lack of closeness – as if the narrator’s memories have faded past comprehension.
Aside from my dislike of the narrative method and the protagonists’ demeanour in general, Robert Lautner has created a textured story. While an unlikely friendship and a journey home tie together one side of the story, The Road to Reckoning by Robert Lautner simultaneously explores how guns changed the course of violence in America, how the industry changed the West, the slowing of trade and the economic downturn experienced by America as a whole.
There are startling points of social critique embedded throughout the narrative; many that hold true today. These points particularly surround capitalism, the homeless and in part, the role of women. Unfortunately, there’s not enough of this cutting insight throughout the story and Lautner’s literary device of using an elderly narrator retelling his past life really lets the story down.
Overall, the underlying observation of the role of guns in America could have added a solid grounding to a story that is too choppy and imbalanced. The Road to Reckoning by Robert Lautner could have been so much more, had it been lengthier and more consistent in its narrative approach. If you’re after a typical and clichéd Western story, however, then this is probably the book for you; and if you have an appreciation for art, you’re likely to enjoy the front cover illustration just as much as I did.
Originally written for and posted on NUBI Magazine