Fencing the Sky by James Galvin: Summary and Analysis

James Galvin's novel Fencing the Sky shows the side-by-side eradication of both the open landscape and the cowboy, illustrating how the loss of the former leads to the death of the latter.

The traditional ideal of the Western landscape, untamed, unfettered, and free, has been depicted in countless books and movies. But as Fencing the Sky shows, this ideal could not hold up under increasing settlement, development, and regulation of western lands. As open spaces quickly became developed and land once untouched became claimed, divided into parcels, and sullied by roads and fences, the idea of the West as a vast wilderness came to an end, and so with it came the death of that most uniquely American icon, the cowboy.


James Galvin's Fencing the Sky depicts the end of an era in the American West.
James Galvin's Fencing the Sky depicts the end of an era in the American West. | Source

The Fence as Symbol

The characters of Fencing the Sky face an intrusion into the land that they loved through the shady dealings of Merriweather Snipes, who begins selling the land into small parcels for tourists and retirees.

The newcomers have torn up the land to build roads, polluted it with litter, hounded the ranchers cattle and destroyed the fauna with Jeeps and ATV’s, and attempted to bring about the end of ranching in open spaces through their insistence that the ranchers ought to fence in their cattle, instead of allowing it to roam free.

The fences are a symbol of an overall loss of wild, which, with or without fences, is occurring at a quite rapid rate. This is seen either in the lines of fence stretching across the countryside, or the new roads and highways that ensured one could not travel for long in the wilderness without soon witnessing the intrusion of concrete into natural soil.

Cowboys vs. Outlaws

The main character, Mike, finds himself pressed into a situation in which his way of life is fast disappearing. Unfortunately for Mike, living by the rules means making a considerable sacrifice. For Mike to live in the way he has chosen, his only choice is to become an outlaw.

Alone with his horse, Mike makes a run for freedom after he break the law, or the rules of the new game. As he retreats into the remaining wilderness, modern technology proves unable to continue the hunt, and the traditional methods of tracking were employed to catch the fugitives.

Somewhat ironically, the fences that had so plagued him and provoked his flight proves to be his downfall. Although skilled at leaving no trail behind, Mike is forced to betray his whereabouts through the necessity of cutting fences to get their horse through.

Mike seems to express the sentiment that if he can’t be a cowboy, he would rather be an outlaw. Yet perhaps as a sign of the times, the story shows that it is no longer possible to be an outlaw, either. Mike risks his life rather than capitulate to the society that is stealing his life and livelihood along with the wild.

However, he is able to keep the persevering spirit that will not renounce a way of life even under threat of death. In true cowboy fashion, and in an ultimate expression of the power and value in hi beliefs, Mike is willing to lose their life rather than their way of life.

Spoiler Alert!

In the end, Mike is not called on to make the sacrifice. He survives, though badly injured, and in a surprising twist, is let go by the man who has been hunting him. It is implied that the would-be captor is so impressed by Mike’s bravery and conviction, representing the last of an era, that he cannot bring themselves to imprison this iconic American figure.

However in Mike’s survival, and his ensuing freedom, there is a sense that hes still hasn’t won. Instead of dying as a cowboy, or captured as an outlaw, Mike must now begin a new life in which he will be forced into a sort of conformity with the new order and changing lay of the land. It is as if with Mike’s final survival, we are witnessing the death of the character he plays, right along with the ruin of the open landscape. Mike, the cowboy outlaw, exits the stage not in a blaze of glory, but in a quiet assimilation and acceptance of changing times.

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