Despite a rather slow start and Gabriel being a pretty unlikable character in the beginning, this ended up being a coming-of-age Western novel that I really liked.
It begins with Gabriel, his brother Ben, and their mother traveling to the Kansas plains to meet up with the boys’ new step-father. Gabriel resents his mother remarrying and the move west. When his father was alive, Gabriel believed he was on track to become a rare thing, a black doctor. Now he’s facing a life of busting sod to grow crops. Things get even worse when he learns that his mom had a thing for Solomon before marrying Gabe’s father. When slick-talking Marshall rides into town to sell (stolen) horses, Gabe and his friend sign on for what they think are jobs as ranch hands.
Marshall turns out to be an evil SOB with no land and no possessions other than what he’s carrying with him. When he learns that the old enemy who owned the horses he stole called in the law, he takes his followers on a rampage of murder, rape, and kidnapping that forces Gabe to re-evaluate his own values.
One of the things I liked most about this novel was Durham’s use of race. Gabriel and his family are black, and it figures into all their interactions with neighbors, companions, and strangers. But Durham doesn’t make his story about race. Gabe’s race is simply one more layer of problems he has to learn to deal with as he becomes a young man. The word “nigger” is used enough to remind the reader of its ugliness, but not so much as to be off-putting. What bother me more was the use of the terms “Native American” and Mexican-American” describe those people. For the time, I just don’t buy that Gabe or just about anyone else would have used those modern politically correct descriptors.
Gabriel’s Story is a familiar one, but Durham adds enough unique flavoring to make it an interesting, entertaining, and often riveting story. If you like Westerns, coming-of-age stories, or non-preachy books that feature racism as a theme, you’ll like it.