- Inland by Téa Obreht
Inland, Téa Obreht’s new novel, is an expansive, epic portrait of the American West in the late nineteenth century. There is little in this portrait that is expected. Lurie, one of two central characters with alternating narratives, is making his observations to his camel. His travels across Mexico and much of the United States take place over a period of years and show the era’s intolerance for diversity. Juxtaposed against this panorama is our other central character, [End Page 110] Nora, whose many chapters recount a single difficult day in her life. Readers of course expect that the lives of the two characters will intersect in some way but are hardly prepared for a single, brief, brutal encounter.
Obreht looks at a little-known chapter in American history, the existence of the Camel Corps. The US military brought thirty-three camels to Texas in 1856 with the belief that they could be beasts of burden in the Southwest, whose climate and topography bear some similarity to Egypt’s. Lurie, a Muslim taken by others to have various Middle Eastern roots, is wanted for manslaughter and joins the Camel Corps in hopes of eluding the lawman who doggedly pursues him. Lurie’s thoughts on America and on his life are spoken to Burke— Lurie’s beloved camel, his confidante and only friend. The cameleer’s stories show a nineteenth-century American contempt for difference: camels are seen not as exotic or useful but as “monstrosities,” and Lurie’s Middle Eastern appearance makes him the victim of violence at the hands of many.
Even though Lurie is a criminal, he is more likeable, or even more lovable, than the obstinate, prickly Nora. She affirms that “hard living is for hard people,” and her difficult circumstances have most definitely lessened her capacity for compassion or even for decency: she has wrecked her best friend’s reputation, has damaged her relationship with her two older sons, and her hard heart gets two people physically injured. The stunning, violent climax of the book could be read as a statement of the intolerance of the dominant class for anything or anyone unlike itself: Nora might have reacted quite differently had she been confronted not by a camel but by a horse.
The history of the American West in the nineteenth century as it is known to most people is devoid of Middle Eastern influence. Obreht’s book engagingly and vividly allows us to return an otherwise erased influence back into the tapestry of our vision of America. [End Page 111]