The Trackers by Charles Frazier has a dual personality – the story’s beginning is slow as a young, ambivalent protagonist arrives in Dawes, Wyoming, in 1937 to paint a WPA mural for the post office. The artist, Valentine Welch, stays on the expansive ranch of John Long and his wife, Eve. John holds ambitions for a US Senate seat, though soon after Val’s arrival, Eve takes off, presumably to take up her old life of singing with traveling Western bands. John asks Val to pause the mural project and discreetly track Eve to figure out whether she is still married to a previous husband and if she plans to return.
The search goes from Seattle to Florida to San Francisco. The three major characters are unlikable and impulsive, each oscillating between fascination and disdain for wealth and power while accusing the others of holding similar motives. The men make assumptions that hinder the search.
Eve relishes her background, having left home as a teen, riding the rails, surviving and keeping old secrets with a network of loose connections. She knows what it's like "Being pushed out of the house as a teenager.... to be a burden to your family, more trouble than they think you're worth."
Val questions one of her old friends who advises, “On the road one of the things you learn to do without is certainty.” John warns that Eve lies whenever it’s convenient. “She tells whatever story suits her at that minute. I don’t know whether she convinces herself it’s the truth or not.” Still, the wealthy rancher wants her back.
John, uncertain if Eve ever married or divorced, does not want embarrassing disclosures disrupting his Senate bid. Val travels to FL to question her threatening and ignorant in-laws. Val worries whether “Estafa County might be the bellwether of the entire country. If the Depression never ends, if everything keeps falling apart, crumbling like watching the geometry of the Pyramids dissolve grain by grain into smooth humps of sand dune, then maybe Estafa is already one step further into the future than the rest of us. Maybe its purpose is to demonstrate how foolish we’ve been to put so much effort into all the [WPA] physical work and the airy ideas of building the nation, all the swat and science and poetry and philosophy gone back to dust and mud.”
Over the course of his travels, Val falls for Eve and loses interest in the mural. “With creative work, surely doubt and disappoint are inevitable. If you have ambitions, the thing you create will always fall short of what you intended.”
The end of the book picks up pace once Val finds Eve and gradually secures more answers. He readily agrees after Eve asks if Val wants to join her for a brief love story, despite the warning that “Every love story has an end.”
Still, dialogue throughout is evasive and cryptic, as the characters withhold details and tell outright lies. One ranch hand points out that people regularly make up stuff, expecting others to take their words for truth.
The characters stoically embrace a tough, lonely form of realism. When an optimistic immigrant cab driver describes his goals in life, Val goes off on a rant. “Part of me wanted to press on, to set him straight about his land of dreams, but the other part of me decided against it. After all, the nation’s big, beautiful strength had always been dreaming forward against the brutal, ugly undertow of reality, the violence in the heart of the human animal, the gluttony and greed.”
A cowboy who works on Long’s ranch rescues Val and Eve from two violent husbands and helps preserve Eve’s new secrets. During the Depression, many had good reason to doubt whether others told the truth. Even more had no desire to hear the truth.
Paintings capture a moment while stories shift with time.