“The world doesn’t care if you die. He won’t hear your screams. If you bleed on the ground, the ground will drink it up.” -Elsa Dutton in 1883
There isn’t a way to overturn destiny other than the more difficult way to fight it. James Dutton, protagonist of 1883, knows this well. His old life was beginning to feel close to him and so he decided to turn the page, leaving Tennessee forever to head for Texas. Montana is its half and ideal destination, that dream you cling to with ferocity not only at night but also during the day, in the blinding light of the sun. That dream, then, doesn’t just show up between the covers of the bed but becomes hour after hour a pure obsession. James Dutton understands that he has been cornered by a petty and poor world, just emerging from the terrible oblivion of the War of Succession: either run elsewhere or sink into the hole of your house and the ground will drink your blood. But James Dutton doesn’t want to sink and so he sets off towards a place where he can shake hands with freedom.
The petty journey in 1883
But the other part is far away. To reach their destination, the protagonists of 1883 have to cross places destined to perish together with the people who have contracted the most subtle diseases. Yes, because in 1883, in America devastated by social problems, diseases are more numerous than hugs. This hellish condition is only one side of the coin. The other, dramatic at the same time, does not know the economic well-being to which Americans of the Gilded Age will be accustomed, the era which roughly coincides with the second half of the Victorian age in Great Britain and the first half of the Belle Époque in France. The protagonists have no raw materials and often end up starving until a new animal is on their trail. Camped near polluted water, prey to bandits in search of money and food, James Dutton and family do not have the privilege of sleeping peacefully. They don’t have the privilege of looking at a star without taking their eyes off its light.
The scarcity of food reflects the few who resist natural disasters, such as the force with which water currents and tornadoes rout the protagonists’ caravans. Four steps from hell, if you lose anything, even a simple hat, you lose everything. Even yourself. In 1883 nature remains impassive, it seems like a friend you can’t ask for a hand in times of greatest need. Then the hope of survival passes only through the fortitude of the protagonists. In a stormy sea the only form of resistance guides those who are not afraid of drowning. Sheriff Shea Brennan is a prime example of this, a person whose wife and daughter were taken away before his eyes. The latter breathed their last as the cholera burned away the last cells left alive. And then looking back is useless. Shea Brennan must now lead a starving immigrant population across the river and his journey becomes the pretext for demonstrating to God and his wife that the world, however immature, cannot erase the power of hope.
The phenomenology of the conquest of Montana does not spare the lives of the protagonists, not even the youngest ones. In America flooded with bandits and starving, Elsa is killed as she was about to pet that idea of freedom to which she has always aspired. She had that freedom in her grasp. She had promised to become a sister of that freedom. But if freedom always presupposes a consequence, to overcome the repugnance of poverty, it is not enough to accept the role that has been assigned to you at the starting line. You have to do more. James Dutton knew it from the start: from the moment he set foot in a tavern where they tried to steal his money, to the moment he traded his feelings for the protection of his family, to the moment he he had to close his dying daughter’s eyes in the midst of arrows and fire. James Dutton continued to ride his horse as if the world had never stopped and run aground. James Dutton has always known that inside the circles of hell there are no shortcuts other than the one dictated by your determination.
Heroes with extraordinary fortitude
Here then is that at the end of the race he won. The protagonist of 1883 has managed to complete his journey, arriving in Montana, in the place where the rich Yellowstone ranch will be born. In his spiritual odyssey he lost his loved ones, he came close to death more than once but, in the end, with tenacity and self-sacrifice, he embraced that dream that had tormented him since his farewell to Tennessee. Next to him another fortitude in the midst of poor America: that old sheriff who had promised his wife he would get to see the ocean. Now the waves are less comfortable than usual. By the time Montana appears with the two lonely expanses, the protagonists of 1883 have become heroes without knowing it.
“Freedom. For the most part, it’s an idea, an abstract thought about control. That’s not freedom. This is independence. Freedom is riding wild on a savage land without a clue that there is a moment beyond what you are experiencing.” Elsa Dutton in 1883.