Johnson’s prose is beautiful, and the character of Walt is one that you just want to spend some time with. This is not quite the Walt I remember since Johnson takes him into mystical territory. He has strayed there in previous books but not to the extent shown in this novel.
Hell and Back opens with Walt waking up snow-covered in a street. He is also covered in blood and doesn’t know his name or where he is. He sets off for the nearest lights in a diner just beginning to close. Despite an advancing blizzard, the pretty waitress (who looks somewhat familiar) still makes a meal for him. She also helps him with his name on the hatband inside his cowboy hat. He is in Fort Pratt, Montana. Fort Pratt was the home of an Indian Training School that burned to the ground over a hundred years ago, killing thirty boys. The waitress tells him there haven’t been any good stories in Fort Pratt since.
The fact that Walt is missing is not lost on Vic Moretti, his under-sheriff, and his longtime friend, Henry Standing Bear. Both, along with Walt’s giant indeterminately bred hound “Dog,” have set off to find him in the teeth of the blizzard, and the story switches between them and Walt. Walt’s wanderings feature meetings with all sorts of characters in the snowy landscape, both natural and possibly imagined. The gates of the training school are still standing. When Walt crosses onto the grounds, he thinks he is back in time to when the school was still operating, to the very day it burned at 8:17 pm.
This departure may throw longtime readers of the series, but Johnson gives us the twists in plotting and robust character building that we expect. I am decidedly not a fan of Westerns, probably because I watched too many bad ones on TV in my childhood. Johnson has taken a risk with Hell and Back but succeeds in all ways.