Novel of the 19thcentury American West

Heart of the Country, by Greg Matthews. New York: W. W. Norton. New York. 532 pp. $17.95. ``Heart of the Country'' is a novel about Joe Cobden, the illegitimate son of a farmer who is the self-proclaimed mayor and builder of a Kansas town settlement called Valley Forge. Joe's mother, Millie, is a Native American who is rejected by Joe's father (who is unaware that she is pregnant) because she is considered, in the eyes of the town bigots, a ``squaw.'' But this is Kansas in 1854, and Millie brings Joe into the world at the cost of her own life. The story is set during the opening and closing of the American West and the beginnings of American industrial society, but it is mainly concerned with Joe's search for his name and his quest for a spiritual self.

Greg Matthews, author of ``The Further Adventures of Huckleberry Finn,'' has created a hero that Dickens and Fielding would admire, and has written a novel containing harsh, vivid depictions of children and parents which may remind some readers of the opening chapters of John Irving's ``The World According to Garp.'' It is also, however, a bittersweet portrait of long-suffering relationships between generations of men and women and children and their parents. Matthews has an understanding of how 19th-century America was shaped in a way which nearly destroyed ethnic society and the nuclear family.

``Heart of the Country'' contains a variety of settings, scenes, and characters, some of which are familiar (brothels, saloons, Western boom towns), and some of which are not (free blacks, morticians, school teachers, artists, doctors, and early feminists). Matthews presents all his people and landscapes so as to extend the conventions of historical fiction, and ``Heart of the Country'' succeeds in a way in which few novels of the American West have done.

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