First Comics News Review - Swedes' Ferry

Reviewed by: Calvin Daniels

A western is like an old pair of cowboy boots, familiar and comfortable to get into, at least for this reader.

So when a new western comes out, one with a strong Saskatchewan element, I immediately put it on the personal ‘must read’ list.

Such was the case with Swedes’ Ferry by Allan Safarik.

“In May 1894, a solitary rider robs the First National Bank in Bismark, N.D. of the Great Northern Railway payroll, and in the process kills the bank manager. These events trigger a chain reaction when the Railway’s owner, James J. Hill, the financial mogul known as the Empire Builder, calls in the notorious Pinkerton Detective Agency. William Pinkerton unleashes his sleazy henchman Jiggs Dubois to recover the money and bring in the head of the varmint who took it.

“The outlaw’s trail eventually leads Dubois across the border to the North-West Mounted Police headquarters in Regina. The territory is policed by the imperious NWMP Commissioner Lawrence W. Herchmer, who has no time for any farfetched theory that one of his mounties might have gone rogue.

“Caught in the middles of this international manhunt is humble horse-trader Bud Quigley. Bud lives alone on the southern Manitoba prairie near Bottineau, N>D>but has a whole slew of survival skills. A host of other characters, both historical and invented, all play a part in this picaresque tale that unfolds on the stark landscape along the dangerous Canada/US prairie border at the end of the 19th Century,” details the book cover.

I was drooling after reading that, especially as a fan of the likes of Luke Short, Max Brand, and Louis L’Amour, an interest from my father I suspect, or too many hours watching Gunsmoke, Bonanza and The Lone Ranger as a kid.

And so when Swedes’ Ferry arrived I was quick to dive in.

“He came into the country on a stolen horse. Ridden hard and lathered up. The sun seemed to shine from its foaming mouth.

The old man, Bud Quigley, walked out from his dirt floor cabin and spat brown juice into the dust. He looked at the horse and shook his head.

“Bugger’s been pushed to the edge.”

Heat from the sun was intense in the middle of the afternoon. Sweat stained the saddle leather. The lanky young rider the old man had named Tall Bob when he first arrived in these parts a couple of weeks earlier, dismounted, handing the reins to the old man while he dipped a ladle into the rain barrel and sucked in as much water as he could handle. The clothes on his body were crusted with salt and faded by the weather.

The old man ran his finger down the long, raw wound on the horse’s rump while the young man stood squinting in the sun. The rider’s mind was on other matters – a gunshot in the street, a bank manager lying dead in the doorway having made the mistake of sounding the alarm, the result being that he caught a bullet in the fat part of his balding forehead. Like the dot below an exclamation point. The very nature of that punctuation had torn him apart – a red dot in the middle of his wrinkled brow, a bullet rattling around making soup of the brain in his skull,” begins the book.

I was so hooked at that point, that I tore through Swedes’ Ferry in a couple of days.

It was a great read, made better by the familiar locales Safarik employed, which is not surprising given his background.

“Allan Safarik is a poet, non-fiction writer and novelist. He lives in the historic Jacoby house in Dundurn, Saskatchewan on the Louis Riel Trail. Born and raised in Vancouver, British Columbia, Safarik’s work is located in two different regions – the West Coast of Canada and the Canadian prairies,” notes the book.

I was curious why Safarik chose to write a western, his first fiction work, at this point in a rather long career?

“I have written a number of books over the past decades in different genre,” he said. “For a long time my late wife, Dolores Reimer, was encouraging me to try and write a novel. I have always been interested in reading non-fiction books about the nineteenth century in North America.

“Basically I got the first line of the book “He came into the country on a stolen horse.”

“From then on it was as simple as asking myself a number of questions and answering them. Such as who was he? why? where? when? Once I started answering those questions I began to fill in the details.”

Of course filling in details against a somewhat historically accurate backdrop does mean added work.

“Yes it did require quite a lot of research time in order to figure how I could set the book in both time and place,” offered Safarik. “I did a lot of research about the NWMP (North West Mounted Police) at the time, mostly on the internet.

“But I also have an extensive library on the era that I have accumulated over the years. I tried to stay as close to possible as to the tenure of the times.

“I also looked at the history of the North West Plains in 1890’s and once I got a fix on the activities of the James J. Hill who was known as ‘the Empire Builder’, I pretty well knew what direction I was going in. I did a lot of looking at old maps and I plotted out the geography and the terrain and by tweeking, and by trial and error, I eventually established the fabric of the story. Basically I researched the book on the internet as I wrote it.”

Safarik said he has been surprised by the response to one character in the book in particular.

“I have been astounded by the number of people who want to talk to me about my character Bud Quigley who is a main cog in the story,” he said. “People identify with him and some were appalled that I killed him off. I just tell them look I had to do it. But don’t despair. He might live again. I might write another novel about him in an earlier period of his life. That seems to settle them down.”

That said the author said mixing fictional characters with historic ones did mean a few bumps on the road.

“I had a problem with this book,” said Safarik. “Some of my characters were living people in history while others were fictional characters I created to tell the story.

“The trick was to create interesting dialogue. In the end the characters really took me over and actually just began to write the book on their own, I just wrote down the words and moved them around on the page.”

So as his first fiction, where does Swedes’ Ferry rate for the author himself?

“I am a professional writer. I have written over 20 books,” said Safarik. “They are all important to me for different reasons. They reflect different periods of my life. ‘Swedes’ Ferry’ is important in my canon because it allowed me to go somewhere I had never gone before.

“And it opened up a whole new world for me. It also helped me find a new audience that has been building as the book as gathered momentum and shows no sign of dying back. A number of booksellers have informed me that it will always have a life because it has become a kind of ‘classic’ in its genre and I have been astounded by the fact it also has Indie life in alternate outlets around the country.”

It helps too that fans have liked the book, which I understand as a huge fan myself. Certainly Swedes’ Ferry would be among the top-five books I read in 2014 (out of 78 is someone is wondering).

“The book has been really well received,” said Safarik. “Obviously it came out at a very sad period in my life. My wife who was my inspiration, my editor, my agent and my business partner as well as being the mother of our three children (who were still in high school) and my best friend died in the spring of 2013. She was editing on Swedes’ Ferry right up until the end. When the book came out in the following fall I was too broken up to really do much about it. Much to my shock it took off and sold out within the first six months.

“Subsequently it has been reprinted and is now available in the U.S. as well as in Canada. It shows no sign of slowing down and I have been getting numerous invitations to appear at events and festivals.

“It has crossed over from being a literary novel to becoming a popular novel that has found a kind of cult following with the cowboy and western audience although it is not a traditional, “western”. It has also been getting great reviews and I have been getting a lot of cards and letters and phone calls from the general public about it.”

Certainly this reviewer loved it, and I recommend it to lovers of western, Canadian Prairie history, or just a fine read.

Check it out at www.coteaubooks.com

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