Mountain Man by Vardis Fisher is the story of Sam Minard, a young man who leaves the settled parts of America to make his way as a free trapper in the West. Borrowing from both fact and legend of the era, Minard is loosely based on John “Liver-Eating” Johnston, and Fisher includes the disturbed widow for whom Crazy Woman Creek was named in the story.
Minard takes a Flathead woman for a wife and fathers a child, but while he is away trapping, Crow Indian warriors kill his family. The mountain man turns Crow hunter, tracking down and killing every man of the tribe he finds, which results in his being hunted by his Crow foes in an ongoing and bloody feud.
All that is well and good, and for the most part the story the book tells is not much different from other mountain man and fur trapper tales. What I like best about Mountain Man is Fisher’s lyrical language and rich imagery. I get cold and hungry every time I read the book; at other times I feel well fed and comfortable. He writes a romantic version of life in the Old West, but he romanticizes it beautifully.
The book was the basis (along with other sources) for a fine movie, Jeremiah Johnson, starring Robert Redford.
It’s a good movie. But, as is usually the case, it’s a better book.