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Téa Obreht’s ‘Inland’ Is a Western for People Who Don’t Like Westerns
cover: Random House; background: the_burtons/getty images

Podcasts can be many things: A way to avoid talking to people on the train, a way to sound smarter at cocktail parties and a way to expand your knowledge on serial killers. They can also be the inspiration for an entire novel. Such was the case with Téa Obreht’s latest, Inland.

Obreht (The Tiger’s Wife) was listening to a podcast about the United States Camel Corps—a short-lived army experiment that used camels as pack animals—when she stumbled on the seed for Inland, a novel that’s part Western and part ghost story. Set in the Arizona territory at the end of the 1800s, it tracks the eventually converging lives of two protagonists.

The first, Nora, is a homesteader in the town of Amargo, waiting for her husband and two older sons to return with much-needed water for their house. Hardened by years of living on the frontier, she’s dealing with the stress of a drought compounded by a cattle baron who wants her family and their neighbors to abandon Amargo, negating years of back-breaking work. The second, Lurie, is an outlaw and immigrant from Yugoslavia who, hoping to evade authorities (he's wanted for a murder), pretends to be a member of the Camel Corps, blending in and traveling to Texas, Montana, Wyoming and more. 

But back to that ghost story. See, both Nora and Lurie have experience with the supernatural. For her part, Nora is in constant contact with Evelyn, her daughter who died as an infant but would have been a teenager. Evelyn is a sounding board for Nora’s concerns, but also provides commentary and guidance. Lurie, meanwhile, can talk to just about any dead person, which could be the result of the time he spent as a grave robber. “It’s not as cold as you would expect, the touch of the dead,” he explains. “The skin prickles like a dreaming limb. It’s not the strangeness of the feeling that terrifies—it’s their want. It blows you open.”

But their versions of the American West are hardly consistent. Nora’s is one of harsh, incessant struggle, while Lurie’s takes on an almost mystical air (aided by the fact that his sections are narrated to his beloved traveling companion who—it takes a while to realize—is a camel named Burke).

With nods toward Gabriel García Márquez and George Saunders, Inland blurs the past and present and the living and dead in a way that’s oddly satisfying. One thing’s for sure: This ain’t your grandma’s Western.  

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