The New York Times
Returning to Earthby Jim Harrison
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In the universally-praised Returning to Earth, Jim Harrison has delivered a masterpiecea tender, profound, and magnificent novel about life, death, and the possibility of finding redemption in unlikely places. Donald is a middle-aged Chippewa-Finnish man slowly dying of Lou Gehrig’s disease. His condition deteriorating, he realizes no one will be able to pass on to his children their family history once he is gone. He begins dictating to his wife, Cynthia, stories he has never shared with anyoneas around him, his family struggles to lay him to rest with the same dignity with which he has lived. Over the course of the year following Donald’s death, his daughter begins studying Chippewa ideas of death for clues about her father’s religion, while Cynthia, bereft of the family she created to escape the malevolent influence of her own father, finds that redeeming the past is not a lost cause. Returning to Earth is a deeply moving book about origins and endings, making sense of loss, and living with honor for the dead. It is among the finest novels of Harrison’s long, storied career, and confirms his standing as one of the most important American writers now working.
The New York Times
“[Harrison’s] books glisten with love of the world, and are as grounded as Thoreau’s in the particulars of American placeits rivers and thickets, its highways and taverns. Bawdily and with unrelenting gusto, Harrison’s 40 years of writing explores what constitutes a good life, both aesthetically and morally, on this planet. . . . Quietly magnificent . . . A luminous, sad calm pervades this novel. . . . [An] extraordinary valediction to mourning. It sharpens one’s appetite for life even at its darkest.” Will Blythe, The New York Times Book Review
“Time, memory, and the land all play key roles in Harrison's remarkable new novel. . . . A deeply felt meditation on life and death, nature and God, this is one of Harrison's finest works.”Library Journal (starred review)
“Jim Harrison is a writer with a bear in him. Fearless, a top predator, omnivorous, he consumes all manner of literature and history and philosophy while walking the North Woods, fishing in streams or driving the back roads of North America He is one of the great writers of our age for the muscularity of his prose; his strong, declarative sentences boom one after the other like waves pounding a Lake Superior shore, each carrying some new flotsam from the conscious or unconscious worlds.” Jim Lenfestey, Minneapolis Star-Tribune
“Wrenchingly sad ” Charles McGrath, The New York Times
“[Harrison] offers roomy definition of integrity endlessly open to interpretation and based on relationships with the earth, with one’s family, with oneself. Locating ourselves in the four directions, in the march of ancestors, in the web of species, Harrison means to tell us, might help us feel safer, which would make us kinder and less destructive . Although these characters share a common heritage and interests, they remain so distinct, so memorable, that you would recognize their voices in a crowded bar, even if you had your back to them. As for the places they love and inhabit, the chokecherry and dogwood and porcupine-quill baskets and feathers and stones well, let’s just say that all five senses were used to re-create them.” Susan Salter Reynolds, The Los Angeles Times
“Beautifully written ” Ashley Simpson Shires, Rocky Mountain News
“Beautiful, complex and heart-wrenching . Really really, Harrison is one of the most remarkable writers on the planet. He is one of the few who can write a book about death and dying that is at once dignified, uplifting and hilarious, without a trace of mawkishness or sentimentality . On every page of a Harrison novel are revelatory gems of seemingly off-handed wisdom . It is useless to catalog the wisdom on every page of ‘Returning to Earth,’ except to say that like great poetry, Harrison’s prose has the power to stop the eye and the mind at the same time, to suspend a reader in an absolute moment of contemplation, and to tear away the junk of the world, revealing only what our deepest nature desires, peace and contentment . Redemption and courage flow from Harrison’s heart to ours. We’re lucky to have him. He’s a genuine treasure, an American writer who deserves the Nobel Prize for Literature.” Gaylord Dold, The Wichita Eagle
“For more than four decades his sinewy prose and poetry have been exhorting us without timidity to embrace life in all its sensuality. Now, with his splendid new novel, [Harrison] delivers a treatise on love, loss, and longing, and reminds us that such embarrassment can compromise our lives while we yet live . This should not be mistaken as an endorsement of ‘closure’ that false sedative to which we, in our instant-gratification society, seem addicted. Harrison fairly thumbs his nose at that hollow concept. He knows that yearning outlives acceptance. His point is more profound.” Craig L. Smith, Santa Fe New Mexican
“Mr. Harrison [is] one of the finest American writers of the last half-century . Mr. Harrison writes with great beauty and power about nature and the outdoors . This is a major book by a major writer working at the top of his powers. Don’t miss it.” John Greenya, The Washington Times
“Harrison is a companionable writer whose best work reads like a long conversation with an eccentric friend. In Returning to Earth, the anecdotes within the larger narrative have the drift of oral language and the texture of the oft-repeated tales good buddies exchange when they reconnect after a long absence . The sort of speaker most people can listen to for hours.” Joe Campana, The Missoula Independent
“At the center of the novel, the irreducible conundrum: What matters after life is stripped away? That is the question. It is not an easy question and it is the question we most often look away from, in a culture swept up in the distractions of the everyday. Be kind, Harrison might say by way of a sideways answer. Be true and be kind.” Ft. Lauderdale Sun-Sentinel
Harrison offers a view of death and redemption that is as earthbound and humble as it is spiritual and profound.” Tim McNulty, The Seattle Times
“[Jim Harrison] has become a major figure in American literature, and nowhere are the reasons for that more clear than in his newest novel, ‘Returning to Earth.’ ‘Returning to Earth’ is a prodigious achievement. It is both familiar and strange, rooted and rootless, endlessly dark and occasionally hilarious. It is above all human: raucous, literary, bawdy, goofy and wise. It is heartbreakingly sad. And it registers the redemption of love, the power of the word to speak the truth, the peace that comes to those who live even when it is time to die.” Bart Thurber, San Diego Union-Tribune
“Harrison's characters speak with a gripping frankness and intimacy about their own shortcomings, and delve into their grief with keen sympathy.”Publishers Weekly
“‘Returning to Earth’ is a poignant and powerful reflection of how all stories become one in the end a story told with bare-bones honesty and simple eloquence.” David Nolt, Livingston Weekly
“[Jim Harrison’s] fiction is rooted in primitive feelings of earthy connectedness and the mystical bonds shared by human beings and nature, or that could be shared were not our innocence corrupted by greed and unholy aspiration.” Fredric Koeppel, The Commercial Appeal
“Readers will find Returning to Earth both substantial and nourishing Robust, soulful, satisfying, Returning to Earth is a reminder of the death-defying power of deep and abiding love.” Kathleen Johnson, Kansas City Star
“Each section of this brilliant novel set in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan is told from the perspective of a different character dealing with loss and love. I think this is one of the best novels I've read in months, and if you're discovering Jim Harrison for the first time, this is a great book to get you started on his work.”Gayle Shanks, Changing Hands Bookstore, Tempe, AZ, Book Sense quote
“Harrison’s newest novel, ‘Returning to Earth,’ contains some of the most poignant moments he has ever imagined.” Daniel Dyer, Cleveland Plain Dealer
“Grade: A. Returning to Earth is a beautifully written account of one man’s passing and the effect on his multifaceted and multicultural family.” Ashley Simpson Shires, Rocky Mountain News
“[Returning to Earth] is told in a prose so pure and scraped of excess that a paragraph can seem a novel, a sentence a poem. Breathtaking.” Ted Roelofs, The Grand Rapids Press
“Deeply moving ” Book Passage
“A wise and moving story about life, death, and letting go.” The Octavian
“Returning to Earth (another wonderful title from an author who understands their importance) is best at the level of the sentence and the paragraph, which is where Harrison’s prose most shines. As a poet, he is especially attentive to the power of single words there is much to be said in praise of this quiet reflective work that presents an ordinary life in its final state of repose. Here we will all go in the end, and Jim Harrison has traveled that future length of the trail for us. The novel reaffirms his dedication to the craft and the persistence and clarity of his vision.”The Bloomsbury Review
“Jim Harrison is a rare find. His characters are so skillfully rendered that they become real to the reader self-conscious, spontaneous and imperfect. Harrison’s voice is direct and brutal, bringing to light the parts of ourselves that we try to keep hidden, and the tiniest thought we leave unsaid.”Bridget Randles, Albuquerque Journal
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Read an Excerpt
Returning to Earth
By JIM HARRISON
Grove PressCopyright © 2007 Jim Harrison
All right reserved.
I'm laying here talking to Cynthia because that's about all I can do with my infirmity. We're living in Cynthia's old house in Marquette in order to be close to the doctors. Her brother David usually lives here but he's off taking a look at different parts of the world but mostly Mexico. Cynthia and I ran away in our teens and got married and now she's back where she started. My dad, Clarence, did the yard work for her family for about thirty years. My bed is in her father's den because it's too hard for me to get upstairs. One wall of the den is full of books with a moving ladder to get to the top shelves. Cynthia says her brother lives inside these books and never really got out. I'm forty-five and it seems I'm to leave the earth early but these things happen to people.
I don't have the right language to keep up with my thinking or my memory or all of my emotions over being sick so I'm speaking this to Cynthia [I'm interfering as little as possible Cynthia] because she wants our two children to know something about the history of their father's family.
Starting a long time ago there have been three Clarences but when they got to me my father thought there hadn't been all that much luck in the name so they called me Donald in honor of a young friend of his who died in a mining accident over near Ishpeming. The first Clarence, named after a Jesuit priest who was a missionary toIndians out in Minnesota, waited until he was fifty to father children because he wasn't too sure about the world. He had tried to come east in 1871 because his mother had told him about the great forests of the Upper Peninsula. Some of her family had moved west to Minnesota from the U.P. because the white men were moving in for the copper up in the Keweenaw Peninsula. Her people were Chippewa (Anishinabe) but she slept with an immigrant who had come over to the Pipestone area of southwest Minnesota. This man was from the country of Iceland and a bunch of them had come over to farm that real good soil down that way. It was hard on Indians then because the Sioux had killed a bunch of farmers near New Ulm and the settlers were leery of any kind of Indian. So the first Clarence's mother died when he was about twelve and he had never met his father in person. He was real big for his age and he ran off and worked for a farmer near Morris for a year but they made him sleep in the root cellar beneath their pump shed. He was a good worker and they didn't want him to get away. They kept him locked down there a whole winter week for stealing a pie. Who is to say how angry a young man would get trapped in a root cellar for a week? By and by he got loose and walked down to Taunton near Minneota and found his father, whose name he had memorized, a farmer named Lagerquist. It was a Saturday morning when farmers come to town but the man was with a wife and two kids so that young Clarence wasn't sure what to do. The story goes that the man came up to him and said, "What do you want, son?" Clarence was real glad the man recognized him. So Clarence said, "I'd like a horse to ride to Michigan if you can spare one?" The man got him a horse but it was a draft horse so it was slow going. That's how the first Clarence started out for Michigan. It's hard to think of a thirteen-year-old doing such a thing nowadays.
Here I am on the sofa at age forty-five and I have Lou Gehrig's disease. [Donald has had amyotrophic lateral sclerosis for nearly a year now. His case is especially aggressive and it appears he will fall short of the three years of the disease that fifty percent of patients last. Cynthia.] I never knew much about Lou Gehrig though my dad, Clarence, used to talk about him. Gehrig played baseball, which I never had any time for because the coaches at Marquette decided they needed me for track where I could be counted on to win the 100, 220, and the shot put, though my true love was for football where I was the quarterback, and a linebacker on defense.
The children are both in California where Herald is taking advanced degrees at Caltech and Clare is an apprentice for wardrobe in the movie business. We talk on the phone to them for about an hour every Sunday.
You wonder how a girl from the Upper Peninsula could end up working on movies but that's the way the world goes these days. Clare got this interest from her stepcousin Kenneth, who doesn't like his name and just goes by the letter "K." He's Polly's son and is a crazy bastard but I like him. Years ago K would ride his bicycle all the way two hundred miles from Marquette to Sault Ste. Marie for a visit. Herald is more like his uncle David. Mathematics is enough for Herald though he's also interested in botany. He's a big strong young man but finds people confusing. Herald and Clare have an apartment together in Los Angeles and look after each other like a brother and sister should. Why I say Herald takes after David is because when I read David's rundown of what his family did in the Upper Peninsula for a hundred years I was puzzled. It was published in the Sault Ste. Marie newspaper among others and I was proud that a relative knew so much but there weren't any real people in it. I like the stories with people myself. I mean he told the story of the bad details of the logging and mining his ancestors were involved in but not the actual story of the people who owned the logging companies and mines and the working people. I'm not being critical; I just prefer stories.
Of course I've got a foot in both worlds. My dad figured I'm over half Chippewa. In fact I'm due benefits from the tribe for my sickness but Cynthia has some money salted away and we figure tribal money should go to the folks who really need it.
Let's go back to the first Clarence. I remember when I first heard the story from my dad when I was a kid and I worried about the hardship. Here was this boy only thirteen being kept in a root cellar who after he escapes sees his real father only half an hour and then he's gone to the northeast riding a big draft horse toward a future. The story goes that he only had seven dollars and a letter that said the horse was his because he looked pretty Indian and people were liable to take the horse from him claiming it was stolen. I said all these worries to my dad and he said, "Life is real hard for some folks," but then he added that riding off on that horse was likely a good feeling for his grandfather compared to losing his mother and being trapped in a root cellar. So maybe it wasn't too bad to be him on a draft horse riding east. For instance I'm real sick right now but I've been able to live with it except for a few times when it got out of hand. Back in high school when I ran track or played football you were likely to get a cramp. With this disease at times you are a cramp, your whole body seizes up so that even your mind seems inside a cramp. You're all cramp, pure and simple. That's why K goes with me when I feel good enough to take a walk. I'm too big for anyone to carry but K can go for help.
When I was a kid of eight or nine years and first listened carefully to the story of the first Clarence I was upset when Dad said that he rode his horse through fields so wide out on the prairie that you couldn't see across them. This fact upset me for a few weeks because I couldn't imagine such a landscape. In most places in the Upper Peninsula you can't see very far because of the thickness of the forest and that's why it's a relief to be in the hills along the coast of Lake Superior, where you can see a long ways. When I finally questioned my dad about these fields with no end to them he said they were something like Lake Superior, which you can't see across to the other side in Canada. This all became clear to me when Cynthia and I took the kids on a camping trip out west years ago. Cynthia explained that in 1871 when Clarence began his trip there weren't many trees in western Minnesota and the eastern Dakotas except for cottonwoods along the creeks and rivers. At that time the trees the settlers had planted hadn't grown up much to speak of.
The upshot was that it took the original Clarence thirty-five years to reach the Marquette area, in 1906. His first try heading east frightened him because by late September in 1871 and early October every morning the sun rose red and the world was full of smoke. It had been a real dry season in the northern Midwest and there were fires everywhere, mostly the tops of trees and limbs left behind by logging. This was the year of the great Peshtigo fire in northeast Wisconsin that killed over a thousand people. Clarence heard from travelers that rivers boiled, and birds high in the air caught fire, and the wind everywhere was a hundred miles an hour, more than the worst November gales on Lake Superior.
So he turned around near Bad River and never saw the great uncut forests his mother had told him about. He had some bad luck and then some good luck. He was camped on the Red River north of Grand Forks and two outlaws tried to steal his horse. He threw them in the river and one drowned. He moved his camp north and one day a rich farmer up that way saw him riding the horse, which was a sorrel mare by the name of Sally. The farmer wanted to buy the horse and Clarence explained that the horse was all he had of his father and needed to keep it. The farmer hired Clarence to take care of his twelve teams of draft horses and work on his farm. Clarence got to live in a small log cabin, which was good after many months of camping and besides it was November and getting pretty cold that far north. The farm was so big that there was a cook to make food for the many hired hands so he got to eat regular. Snared rabbits, muskrat, and beaver can be pretty tasty but anyone hankers for some beef, cabbage, and potatoes.
The horses were how Clarence got to see his father again. The farmer was impressed by Sally and wrote off to Clarence's father to see if he might have any other horses of Sally's breeding. By and by his father showed up by railroad in Grand Forks with two fine teams, which the farmer bought. Clarence was right there in Grand Forks with the farmer and they had a steak dinner together so it was a real good experience to be acknowledged by your dad. Cynthia tells me that the Icelandic on their remote island don't grow up with much in the way of prejudice. I've always had an urge to go to this island but I've had this problem of not wanting to get on a plane. I've never been on one and now it's not likely I will. I've always loved winter and ice and snow. I've been on a helicopter twice a year ago when K took me up to western Canada to see a glacier. After I got diagnosed with this disease Cynthia said to me that if I had any special wishes for travel I better jump on them. I had always wanted to see a glacier and K figured out the whole trip with his computer. K told me that a helicopter was more like a huge metal hummingbird than a plane. I'll tell about this trip at some point because it got me over wanting to murder a man.
It's hard to understand your fears. For instance I don't fear death. As far as I know every living creature dies but as a boy after they took my mother off to the asylum in Newberry I had to stay with my dad's cousin back in the woods over near Au Train. I cried about a month over my mother. [She was diagnosed with schizophrenia I learned from the records. Cynthia.] I also cried because I was scared of my dad's cousin. I couldn't stop crying so they sent me home from the third grade. The principal tried to tease me out of it by saying here I was a foot taller than any other boy in the class and crying like a baby. The principal was a nice man from down in Ann Arbor and took me for a walk way out to Presque Isle but that didn't stop me from crying. Anyway I lived for about two months with my dad's cousin that early summer when I wanted to be back in Marquette playing football with other kids. Such is the nature of athletes that I was already being watched when I was ten. It was the accident of me being big and fast, which is what coaches look for.
My dad's cousin was named Flower, her white name anyway, but she was a pure-blood and traditional. For all practical purposes my dad and I weren't the least bit Indian but were just among the ordinary tens of thousands of mixed bloods in the Upper Peninsula. Of course we had a bunch of relatives, especially on my mother's side, who were more like real Indians but we thought of ourselves as city people with Marquette being the biggest city in the Upper Peninsula with a population of 20,000 in the mid-1950s. All our relatives were such a mixture of Finn, some Cornish, a few Italian, and Chippewa. A lot of these nationalities turned up to get work as miners and loggers. Take my Great-Uncle Bertie for instance. He worked on the ore boats out of Duluth and could be gone for years at a time. Both Bertie and his wife were half Chippewa and had three of their own children but three more came along fathered by a Finn miner when Bertie was gone so much. Once when he was in the merchant marines sailing out of Los Angeles and he was gone for seven years, he wrote a card that said, "I am in the country of Chile. Say hello to the kids." The upshot of this is that of my dad's six cousins in Bertie's family three look like Chippewa and three look more like Finns.
So I didn't know anything to speak of about Indian life when I went to live with Flower for those two months, but then what can a ten-year-old know? Quite a lot, says Cynthia, though they don't have the language to express what they know. That's like me. Anyway, Flower shook my brain like one of her many rattles hanging from the rafters of her tarpaper shack. To make a living she cleaned cabins and did laundry for cottagers, sold her wild berry pies, collected herbs with some like wild ginseng bringing good money. In winter she trapped and was pretty good at it my dad said. She wouldn't take any money from the state, county, or federal government because she wouldn't sign papers. Her grandpa had lost a lot of land by signing timber leases for white lumbermen. Her grandpa couldn't read and they slipped land-sale papers past him and then had him kicked off his land down toward Trenary. These things happened in those days with evil men for whom everything is money.
So I tagged along with Flower in the woods while she was finding herbs, or picking berries for pies, or cleaning cottages when I would sit out in the car though twice I got invited to go swimming with the kids of the cottage owners. I mostly swam with Flower in the Au Train River or in Lake Superior when it was warm enough. Flower had an old rickety '47 Plymouth that wouldn't go very fast and this is how I started getting scared. We drove over to Grand Marais to see a friend of hers and to catch some pike in early June. We were out in the rowboat on Au Sable Lake and this old woman friend of Flower's pointed toward the huge sand dunes to the north along Lake Superior and said that long ago there was a bad tribe that lived up in the dunes. They could become beasts and fly down in the night and cannibalize the peace-loving Indians that lived near the Grand Marais harbor though there was no town back in those days. Up to the point of this story I was happy because I had caught two nice pike, which pleased Flower because pike were her favorite dish. Well, after the story I could imagine these bad Indians becoming bears with huge wings and flying down to the harbor in the moonlight and eating Indian children like myself. I almost peed my pants right there in the boat.
Excerpted from Returning to Earth by JIM HARRISON Copyright © 2007 by Jim Harrison. Excerpted by permission.
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Most Helpful Customer Reviews
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Jim Harrison is a masterful storyteller. I instantly cared about Donald and Cynthia and the plight they were in. Their family history was fascinating; the characters real and colorful. However, I wasn't crazy about the style that was used in this book, the direct storytelling of the narrator. Still a compelling read.
Listening to the quartet of talented actors who read this moving book is very much like having producer's seats at a stellar Broadway production. The rendering is intimate, compelling, and completely sweeps you away. Traci Svendsgaard is a versatile performer, narrating such diverse titles as The New Rules to College Admissions and this touching reflection upon life by a dying man. Ray Porter is a consummate ensemble player with numerous TV and film appearances to his credit. His diction is clear, concise. British-American actor Tom Weiner is also a producer, director and writer - experiences that add to the luster of his narrations. Active with the Oregon Shakespeare Festival Paul Michael Garcia's stage trained voice is very much like music to the ears. With Returning to Earth, Jim Harrison's sequel to the acclaimed True North (2004), we return to Upper Michigan and again meet Donald Burkett who is now an adult in middle age and dying of Lou Gehrig's disease. As he tells us at the onset he didn't know too much about Lou Gehrig as his sports were track and football. But that was then and this is now when he feels compelled to tell his family history, untold stories from the past that his children have not heard. Cynthia, his wife, and their two grown children, are with their father for his last days. Half Finnish and half Chippewa, Donald has pretty much come to terms with his impending death. The same cannot be said for his family, especially daughter Claire who adores him. As the narrative continues each contributes to the weaving of their family's story, recognizing their roots, being grateful for what is and has been good in their lives, and coming to terms with acceptance. Recognized as one of the foremost authors of our time Harrison has again crafted an unforgettable novel that will strike chords within all of us. - Gail Cooke
This book has so much going on and is told by four separate voices and perspectives conveying the raw yet tender, tawdry yet intimate, real yet mystical story of an extended family finding their way through life on MIchigan's Upper Peninsula. Harrison tells a butt honest story sometimes riddled with dicey language and situations that in another context could be offensive, but in the context of the characters he created and especially the bigger story he is telling about finding our ways through living and dying, it all works. If you haven't read any of his works this is a good place to dive in.
This book is weird it doesn't seem like a good book to read. Dumb book.