A Run Through Fire: CJ Box's Savage Run Review by Darren Nguyen

3 years after the events of Open Season, Joe Pickett, our friendly neighborhood game warden, finds himself in the middle of a brewing conflict between environmentalists and ranchers. This war all started with a bang, a very big bang.


Stewie Woods, founder of One Globe and notorious “ecoterrorist,” is spiking (putting metal rods inside trees to destroy chainsaws that aim to chop down) trees with his new wife Annabel, when he and his wife see a cow. Upon inspection, Stewie noticed that the cow is behaving suspiciously. The bovine is not feeding nor with the herd. What makes matters worse is what is behind the cow. Before Woods and his wife can react, the cow explodes creating a crater of blood and ash.


While Joe, Deputy Kyle McLanahan and Sheriff Bud Barnum investigate the explosion, another perspective is introduced: The Old Man. Leaving the chaos in Saddlestring behind, The Old Man and another assassin travel throughout the country killing prominent environmentalist in the most humiliating ways possible. First Woods, then a congressman, then a fiery activist, the body count grows higher and higher as the two assassins roam the country. However, sometime after his last kill, The Old Man has a dream which will put into question the morality of his actions to a cause he passionately fights for.


After the explosion and Sheriff’s Barnum final report, Saddlestring laughs at the ironic and humiliating deaths of environmentalists around the country. The very people who attacked their lifestyles and campaigned hard to forcefully take away their land and rights from the locals are now dead in comical fashion. The people of Saddlestring have never been happier, but Joe couldn’t be more upset. Failing to find proper evidence against a suspected poacher named Jim Finotta, Joe finds himself questioning his capabilities as a game warden. His friends and superiors all tells Joe to let it all go. This poacher that Joe is going after is too politically intertwined to be prosecuted. However, Joe’s naivety (or passion) along with the help of his wife, Marybeth, pushes Joe to continue investigating this poacher.


This investigation puts Joe at the epicenter of the crater, and he discovers a truth which would endanger him greatly. A series of mysterious phone calls to Marybeth from a man who claims to know her personally, along with strings pulled by the people who hired The Old Man, forces Joe to go on the run. Stranded in unknown territory with no backup and one gun, Joe find himself reliving the legendary chase between the Cherokees and the Pawnee through a canyon known as Savage Run.


Joe’s Search (Minor Spoilers)

“I hate to say this, but usually the bad guys win.”

“Seems like, in this county, they do,” said Joe.

(Box, p.132)


The main theme of this book is the struggle between idealism and pragmatism. For the much of the book, Joe desperately tries to find evidence against Jim Finotta for allegedly poaching an elk. However, Jim Finotta is a big figure in Wyoming with connections to the Sheriff, the Governor, and other key political figures in the state. Convicting and jailing Finotta seems like an impossible task, as Robey Hersig (County Attorney) points out. Joe, being Joe, decides to ignore Hersig’s warnings and continue his investigation against Finotta, which as mentioned earlier puts Joe in a dangerous situation. So, did Joe make the right decision?


As a law enforcement officer, it is Joe’s duty to uphold the law no matter the circumstances so it would make sense for Joe to investigate a suspected poacher. However, Joe is all alone in his investigation. His superiors and co-workers refuse to assist and even the county judge is friendly with Finotta. Why would Joe continue his investigation, with the intent of prosecution, with all the odds against him? Commitment. Joe, as a character, is defined solely by his desire to enforce the law no matter the cost. A simple character trait, but one that puts Joe in many impossible situations.


When I was reading this section of the book, I was frustrated that Joe would continue engaging in a lost cause. I found it hard to read all of Joe’s failed attempts and wondered how long Box would continue to rail on Joe. However, thinking about Joe’s investigation now, I realize that I would have been more frustrated with Joe if he had given up. Giving up would pretty much have me lose respect for Joe. After all, Joe literally arrested the Governor of Wyoming for violating fishing laws. Joe, as a naïve idealist who believes that good will triumph in the end, is part of the reason why I like him. He definitely represents youthful idealism, thinking he could change the world (in this case Wyoming) by just being good.


Overall, Joe’s conflict is not just between him and Finotta but with himself. Failure after failure, puts a lot of doubt into Joe. Joe’s talk with his wife about his failures to convict Finotta is definitely one of my favorites scenes. Joe opens up about his doubts and his desire to be less naïve in his job. He becomes very relatable in this scene and it turned my frustration into sympathy. I really like how Joe is tested in this book and has to overcome trials to reach his goal. Reading Joe’s idealistic commitment to upholding the law is very entertaining and I look forward to seeing Joe’s struggles to enforce the law in a chaotic Wyoming.


Ends Justify the Means (Minor Spoilers)

“The Old Man had literally felt himself cross over a line and truly become evil”

(Box, p.167)


Another character worth looking at is the Old Man. He, along with another assassin, travels around the country killing environmentalists. During the early killings, the Old Man takes pleasure in killing the environmentalists but as body count grows the Old Man starts to have a crisis. Politically, the Old Man is a virulent anti-environmentalist and when he was hired to kill environmentalists around the country he was glad to do so. In one scene he goes on a page long rant on why he hates environmentalists, and another he and his partner talk about how righteous was their work. Eventually he regrets his barbarity, and compares himself to “animals”.


Incivility in politics is a very hot topic in American society. At the time this review was written, explosive devices, sent by a Trump supporter, were sent to prominent Democrats. On the Democratic side, mobs of protesters heckled GOP politicians at restaurants and sent death threats to many Republican politicians. 2018 marks a low point in American politics since the Pre-Civil War Era. The two biggest difference between 2018 and pre-1861 are slavery and a civil war. One of these differences should not change.


In CJ Box’s Wyoming, this political incivility turns very violent. Assassins are hired to kill political opponents in brutal, yet humiliating, ways. When I reread the Old Man’s perspective, I almost understand what drives the Old Man and his partner. They have reached a point in incivility where the opponent is no longer human. Their opponents are simply evil things sent to destroy them for the sake of being evil, nothing more, nothing less. The assassins take pleasure in killing their targets and moved on as if nothing happened. They truly feel like they are on the right side of history, or so the Old Man thought.


The Old Man’s eventual guilt of his murders demonstrates the flaw in political incivility and the need to restore civility back into politics. Treating those with differing opinions as evil things is inherently bigoted. Disagreement is the embodiment of American politics and reason-driven debate is what moves America forward. Dismissing ideas from the other side as evil without considering their merits is wrong and wanting to kill those with differing opinions is immoral. Why should someone die for their political ideas? If your friend has differing political opinions, should you still be his/her friend? How should clashing ideas be resolved? Is there even a middle ground?


The Old Man symbolizes the innate bigotry that most Americans have. While I believe most people do truly want to bridge the gap between both political parties. The intense rhetoric from both sides just adds fuel to the fire. In chemistry, the hotter the system the more violent the system becomes-eliminating any chance for the reactants to form a permanent and stable bond. Violent political rhetoric and actions should not be tolerated and both sides need to acknowledge the incivility within their own parties. For years, Americans have been crying for unity but fail to acknowledge their own problems within their groups.


In the end, the people the Old Man has killed were human beings, his fellow American citizens. If politics, skin color, or creed does not tie the Old Man and his victims together, then fundamental American values of freedom and democracy should. The Old Man’s dream world free of environmentalist, where ranchers can roam free and businesses are left to grow does not justify the amount of blood he has on his hands. The Old Man is blinded by his hatred of environmentalists that he could not see that they are human, his fellow countrymen and women. His dream world built with the blood of his enemies, will only crumble once established. Blood does not build civilizations. What built America was not spilling British blood, throwing tea, or protesting, but the common goal the Founding Fathers and the Colonists shared: to be free of British tyranny.


So I encourage you to reflect on these questions: What commonalities do Americans in 2018 have? and What do we want out of this country?


Final Word

I will be reviewing Winterkill which introduces my favorite character in the series. I mentioned how I “liked” Joe a lot in the two review I have done. Well, I absolutely love this new character. I will also mention that he will be featured as the main character for two books down series, which I will get to. Very excited!

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