Alan Geoffrion’s 2006 novel, “Broken Trail,” is an absolutely terrific book — one in which he invested more than five years of doing research to prepare for, focusing on and then combining two separate, but historically accurate, stories. The first was about the forced prostitution of young Chinese girls who were taken from the Far West and brought into the interior of the U.S., in this case, Wyoming. The second was about the sale of western horses to the British Army.
In the book, an uncle, Prentice “Prent” Ritter, and his nephew, Tom Harte, embark on a trip from Oregon to South Dakota to deliver 500-plus horses, make a little money and hopefully mend some family issues. Along the way, they become stewards of five stolen young Chinese girls who were destined for forced prostitution. Ritter and Harte try to save the girls – and the horse herd – from those who would steal one or both. It’s a wide-open story, taking place in the wide-open plains of middle America and with a bit more moral complexity than many of our standard Westerns.
Prent is a man who is comfortable with the life decisions he’s made and is clear on what he wants and needs to do. Tom is still wrestling with his demons, as many internal as external. Both men change over the course of the trip, hopefully for the better.
Alan Geoffrion spent most of his life in the horse business, as co-owner of Campbell House Stables in Virginia. He always loved reading and writing, and after dropping out of the University of Tennessee, where he was an English major, and serving two tours in Vietnam, he held an occasional job in the publishing industry.
“Broken Trail,” remarkably, was his first book, published when Geoffrion was 59 years old, and was started when he shared a real-life story with neighbor and friend Robert Duvall about Harry Haythornwaite, a Brit who, in the 1880s, drove 700 horses from Oregon to the Rosebud Indian Reservation in South Dakota. Duvall loved the story and encouraged Geoffrion to write it, which he did starting the next day. The resulting book won a Spur Award for Best First Novel.
Alan Geoffrion and Robert Duvall became friends in the early ’90s when Geoffrion took tango lessons at Duvall’s horse farm. They shared an interest in dance and a passion for horses, and years later when Geoffrion published “Broken Trail,” he and Duvall partnered up to turn the book, which naturally had a huge focus on horses, into a movie.
Robert Duvall is my favorite actor, in large part because of his work in what he has called his “Western trilogy” — “Lonesome Dove,” “Broken Trail” and “Open Range.” I saw the movie, “Broken Trail,” before I read the book, so during the entire reading, even where the book and the movie were different, I heard Duvall in my head, saw him moving as the action unfolded.
The balance between books and the movies inspired by them is always challenging and difficult to achieve. Many — I would argue most — people who see the movie will not have read the book, so the movie has to stand alone, and yet, there should be an effort to be as true as possible to the book. For me, I am not looking to the movie version to be a literal interpretation of the book, but at least recognizable. “Broken Trail” did that, with each the book and movie standing on their own, and both being enjoyable.
“Thing is, sometimes even a bald-headed whore wants to keep living. Your hair grows out. Life goes on. But, time’s against you.”