I’m quite fascinated with the method Jim Harrison has used to tell “Dalva” and “The Road Home”, and I’m wondering what other people think about it.
The books are a study in the depth of time, of the similarities between the patriarch, a man involved with the Lakota in the Sand Hills of Nebraska during the time they were being pressed back onto reservations, and his son and his sons and their children down to the fourth generation. We hear, in internal monologue, members of four of these generations and understand the fury that drives them. The books are wonderful, but I do have some questions.
The narrative allows the characters to reach back and let their memories wash over them at any time. Nothing happens at the time you are reading about it. It is simply the palimpsest of things that happened to the character speaking, going back as far as 60 years, if the character, Paul or Naomi, is that old. This allows for current happenings to trigger all the old emotions, for current associations to rise up, and for the characters to delineate, in what obsesses them, who they really are. Not many things do happen in the books. They mostly revolve around the summer in 1986 that Nelse, a son given up for adoption, arrives. Because we see it from so many points of view, and because his birth was such a traumatic thing for all of them, his arrival reverberates through all the characters. His mother especially sees in him the great love of her life, his father, Duane Stonehorse.
As Paul, Dalva’s uncle, says “The best photographs succeed as art, but it certainly isn’t the way anyone sees.” Thus, the reality of events in the book could be described as it happened, but none of the characters would actually see it that way. Each gives it his own particular slant, based on his position with relation to it. It seems to me the book takes this internal monologue method as far as any I have ever read. Even though they take place in the characters’ minds, the books are not cerebral. They are filled with sensuality, daily details, stories of meals, of walks, of camping out, of the memorabilia in the houses, of what the dogs do when their owners return. The images that fuel each person’s sleepless nights are shown to be the contents of their lives and loves.
My questions involve the similarities between the narratives. The patriarch, J.W. Northridge, writes at the end of the 19th Century in a notebook which his son John, and the researcher interested in this period, read much later. He sounds like a contemporary. The reminiscences of John, who is born at the turn of the century, sound similar. We don’t hear from Dalva’s father, as he died in the Korean War, but Dalva, his grand-daughter, and her son Nelse also sound similar, though each have their own pursuits. It is hard not to wonder whether the author has taken his own experiences of camping, of wildlife, of mornings waking up in various places, and retooled them into these characters. He’s been careful. Each is consistent with the character given to the speaker.
I believe, with Christopher Alexander (the architect who recently completed the four volumes of “The Nature of Order: An Essay on the Art of Building and the Nature of the Universe”), that as humans we are probably 90% alike. That if one wants to concentrate on the 10% of the differences we have from each other, that is fine, but the similarities are probably more interesting. (May we please get past post-modernism, with its obsessive involvement with the edges of humanity, and get back to our commonality?!) Thus, I’m not too bothered by this narrative attempt by Jim Harrison, except that maybe it is just too easy. Otherwise, the books fascinate me. The characters are indelible and I don’t mind the people stirring around in the ashes of time, as they do. I would happily begin reading them all over again now that I have finished them.