Exploring the Old West with author Robert James Russell
Ann Arbor author Robert James Russell is celebrating the release of his newest book, Mesilla, this week.
Mesilla is a Western that follows Everett Root, a wounded Civil War deserter haunted by his past, into 1863 New Mexico Territory.
Root is being pursued through the desert and can't stop to remove the bullet from his leg, but he is driven forward to the town of Mesilla by the hope of redemption.
“The idea that he could possibly start over and be atoned for his sins is so strong that it’s pushing him on,” Russell says.
Russell says he’s always been drawn to Westerns as a genre.
“They’re so uniquely American,” he says. “My writing tends to deal a lot with landscape, and to me there is no other genre that deals with landscape the way Westerns do. Film, TV, books, you name it.”
He considers Mesilla to be a revisionist Western, distinct from the classic style of Western, which he says tended to take a more shallow approach to story and character development.
“Pre-1960s I think the Westerns were good. They were good, but I think they made cartoonish characters out of native peoples and women and, you know, the bad guys always wore black and the good guys always wore white, and it was very easy to tell who to root for,” Russell tells us.
“And then in the ‘60s it changed, and people realized that there is a lot of gray area with people, and you start having the rise of the anti-hero, which is much more fascinating to write and read and view I think.”
Russell says Westerns represent a fundamental understanding of humanity, and speak to our need to tame the wilderness and find our place alongside nature.
Looking to Mesilla for an example, he explains that New Mexico is just as much a character as Root. Root is pushing through the desert trying to survive, but New Mexico is constantly pushing back, “pushing him down, so to speak.”
“Talking about our relation to nature and our place in the world, I think Westerns do it better than anything else,” he says. “I think Westerns could help remind us that there’s a whole world out there [and] that we’re not necessarily meant to tame the world but we can live in harmony with the world.”
Russell says he looks forward to writing about and exploring the West further, and wants to do so through different perspectives.
“It wasn’t a great time for native peoples, it wasn’t a great time for women, but they still deserve their own point of view. They deserve their own stories. And I think having more of that is incredibly necessary."
Robert James Russell will be at Literati in Ann Arbor on September 25 to launch Mesilla.
-Ryan Grimes, Stateside