The Road Homeby Jim Harrison
The Road Home lies in the shadows of Manifest Destiny and Wounded Knee; it is etched into the landscape of an old man's memory and into the stubborn dreams of a young man's heart. In one of Jim Harrison’s greatest works, five members of the Northridge family narrate the tangled epic of their history on the expanses of the Nebraska plains. They strive/i>… See more details below
The Road Home lies in the shadows of Manifest Destiny and Wounded Knee; it is etched into the landscape of an old man's memory and into the stubborn dreams of a young man's heart. In one of Jim Harrison’s greatest works, five members of the Northridge family narrate the tangled epic of their history on the expanses of the Nebraska plains. They strive to understand their fates, to reconcile with demons of the past, to live in accordance with the land and to die with grace. As the family grapples with the mysterious forces that both pull them apart and draw them inextricably back together, they must come to term with life's greatest and hardest lessons: the deception of passion, the pain of love, the vitality of art, and the supplication to nature's generosity and fury.
"The Road Home confirms what his longtime fans already know: Harrison is on the short list of American literary masters."
"Demonstrates why [Harrison] is considered one of the best storytellers around."
"The Road Home is Harrison at the peak of his powers, a splendid combined prequel and sequel...very much alive and probably his best novel."
"The Road Home is a rapturous but unsentimental hymn of praise for the wonderous strangeness of life."
"Wins our hearts and minds with its thoughtful meditation on the cyclical nature of life."
"Each Northridge family member stitches in a piece of the family history. They are such good company you forget they exist nowhere but in Harrison's imagination."
"Harrison gives us characters with heart and soul; keen-eyed and rarely sentimental, they are the sorts of people we'd like to be.".
"Rich in character, complex in theme, dazzling in scope....The cumulative effect is overwhelming."
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Read an Excerpt
From Chapter 1, "John Wesley Northridge II"
October 21st, 1952
It is easy to forget that in the main we die only seven times more slowly than our dogs. The simplicity of this law of proportion came to me early in life, growing up as I did so remotely that dogs were my closest childhood friends. It is for this reason I've always been a slow talker, though if my vocal cords had been otherwise constructed I may have done well at a growl or bark or howl at scented but unseen dangers beyond the light we think surrounds us, but more often enshrouds us. My mother was an Oglala Sioux (they call themselves Lakota), my father was an orphan from the East, grayish white like March snow, under which you don't count on spring, intermittently mad as he was over a life largely spent on helping the Natives accommodate themselves to their conquerors. After his release from the Civil War (sic!) until December of 1890 he burned up body and soul in these efforts, fixing on botany as the tool of liberation and this is in an area, the Great Plains, that is ill disposed to the cultivation of fruit-bearing trees, or berry-bearing bushes of an Eastern nature. The fact that he failed utterly in his life's mission only increases my reverence for him, though he was much easier to live with dead than alive, so powerful were the spates of irrationality that came upon him in the last twenty years of his life.
I have always collected my thoughts on Sunday, a habit enforced in my childhood when my father gave up on the church and turned to my own education with an energy that must be called unpleasant. He had gradually come over to the Native religious view that every day should be Sunday in terms of piety, and the lack of an immediate target for religious impulses made me the likeliest of prey. What young boy would truly wish to have Emerson on "Self-Reliance" read to him on long winter evenings before the fire, or in summer when the last light comes late, to sit there listening when one could still be in the hills on the far side of the Niobrara River looking for arrowheads with the dogs? One female Airedale, Kate, even supposed she could find them herself, when not looking for something to kill and eat, barking insistently at any peculiar, small sharp-edged stone. And each Sunday evening I was seated at the kitchen table to make sense of the preceding week, the very first slate-blue-covered notebook reading, in infantile scrawl, "I dont wan be hear."
Yesterday morning when I began this I had been startled from sleep thinking I heard my son John Wesley's car coming up the long two-track to the house, but then he's been dead two years and it was only the milk truck rattling on the section road a mile to the east. Nonetheless, I had rolled from my bed, my heart thumping with hope, before his face in the photo on the dresser spoke more loudly than he had ever in life. Panmunjom. But his daughter, my granddaughter, had asked me the day before why my parents had died within three days of each other back in February in 1910. Dalva is a scant eleven years of age and was curious I suppose because an October storm had threshed off the leaves of the lilac grove wherein we had our family cemetery, and she became mindful again, of those buried including her father though there is no body there, the remains of which still rest on a snowy mountain hillside in South Korea. In any event, when I thrust myself out of bed so violently, my heart became tremulous, literally shaking in its sac, and I had the direst sense of mortality I have ever experienced, short of my youthful scrapes with physical violence in Arizona, Mexico and France, not to speak of two drunken louts I pitched into the East River in New York back in 1913 after a nasty struggle. Brushes with death are so memorable you can still see the pores in the face of the immediate enemy decades later.
Now, no one asks a more serious question than an eleven-year-old, and they deserve to be answered in kind, inasmuch as they are attentive to a painful degree, waiting for an answer rather than mentally concocting their next question. Usually she asked the same or similar questions about the horses of the past, liking familiar stories: how in 1934 did Lundquist and I feed up a Belgian stallion until he weighed twenty-eight hundred pounds, purportedly the largest in the country, if not the world at that time. But why my parents died within three days of each other could not be answered with, "Because they were sick and heartbroken with age and illness." The event had to be encapsulated in a story and not a simple one at that; at eleven she was already reading Dickens and the Brontë sisters and a reality painted in careless pastels would not be sufficient.
Another event, albeit strange, had occurred the week before and deeply unsettled me. Lundquist and I had made a three-hour drive to the west and north to hunt my remaining English setter, Tess, very likely the last bird hunt for both of us, she being twelve, and my knowing for a year that when Tess was gone, this game would be over in this life. We had left before dawn and reached our first spot near Parmelee across the border in South Dakota, from whence we intended to travel onward to Gordon to visit some coverts where the dog had had her best day many years before. Bird dogs are fond of revisiting scenes of early happiness just as we are. Lundquist grumbled about the Parmelee area as expected; three members of his family, or so he maintained, had lost their lives in the New Ulm Massacre in Minnesota nearly a hundred years before and he was fearful of the Lakota. Tess pointed a sharp-tailed grouse that I flushed, shot but only crippled, and then we floundered in sedge and spike rush for a half hour, damning Lundquist who had wandered off as if following a distant star at midmorning. Tess repointed the wounded bird, unwilling to dispose of it, so gentle was her disposition. I grasped it by the neck and broke it, feeling the fragile vertebrae crush beneath my thumb. For some reason I kissed the bird, then dizzied and stooped to my haunches long enough to concern the dog. An old man half-kneeling in a bog saying good-bye to the hunt after a half century is a melancholy portrait indeed. Bringing the bird back to life was a casual and sentimental impulse, not the less absurd for being so heart-felt. In this grim world there is more sentimentality about killing than motherhood.
When I stood up and headed back to the car the day that had begun sunny and warmish for mid-October had turned gray and cool with the wind beginning to bluster out of the northwest. My heart that had been so eager for this last hunt now labored to get me back to the car which seemed to grow more distant, and the legs that had carried me as far as thirty miles in a single day now stumbled over blades of short-stemmed grama, tripped over dead flowers. I reminded myself that I had made love with a specific vigor only a week before, but that was thin fuel to get me to the car which had become a shiny dot on a far hillock. In this sea of grass you always park on a hillock for visibility so that you don't lose your way in the sere and undulating landscape, a color painters used to call "burnt sienna."
I had two stiff gulps from the whiskey bottle to the disapproval of Lundquist who had the heater running and was eating a peanut butter, onion and mustard sandwich, an enthusiasm, I daresay, he shared only with himself. He had worked for me since 1919, and his life was organized into peculiar rites. He always drank his water before the whiskey. We never quarreled but, as is usual of old friends, commented on each other's beliefs and habits in the most sidelong manner. "You're drinking the whiskey first?" No matter that I had done so hundreds of times in his company.
I dozed while Lundquist drove off for home, abandoning our plan for a full day's hunt. I awoke when the car stopped and Lundquist got out, sensing that we hadn't gone all that far. The engine was still running, the windshield wipers were on, my shins too hot from the heater. He was fumbling in the trunk and my eyes opened to watch him walk off with a gunny sack, perhaps fifty yards, where perhaps two dozen or so men, women and children were picking potatoes in a mixture of light rain and sleet. Most of them were Lakota, both pure and mixed breed. Three little boys, impervious to the weather, were having a fine potato fight. In my youth I had picked a lot of potatoes in nasty weather and checked myself short of sympathy: it was work and in this case, it was what one did to keep alive. Neihardt, the scholar and poet, had told me that even the legendary Lakota medicine man Black Elk picked potatoes in the fall, though with a great deal more humor than anyone else but the children.
It was then that my attention was caught by an old man in especially ragged clothing who had a stiff left arm that made him pick more slowly than the others. Even at a distance I caught the peculiar and pronounced hook in the bridge of his nose, the sag in a cheekbone, that had been caused by a cow's kick when we were scarcely ten years old. There was no doubt that it was Smith, a name adopted in humor because so many white men were named Smith and the name offered the ultimate in gentle concealment. He was from the family of Samuel American Horse and though I knew his real name I could not bring myself to utter his secret over fifty years later. I had bid him good-bye in 1906 when we were both about eighteen and he was off to Europe as a trick rider with a troupe of cowboys and warriors, one of the last of the touring Wild West shows.
I fairly bolted from the car, stumbling in the ditch, but my legs regained their strength as I made my way toward him. When I was only halfway there and still thirty yards away he turned and recognized me, then looked away blankly which gave me some anxiety but I continued on, calling out his name and saying, "It's good to see you" in my pidgin Lakota, cursing that my father had kept me as far as possible from the language. His own voice was soft and firm as ever, lacking the slightest of quavers I had begun to discover in my own. I wanted to embrace him but his words were utterly punishing: it was good to see that I was alive and he thanked me for the kindness that MY family had shown him so long ago, kindness that had ill prepared him for the life ahead which had been brutal. He was a wicasan wanka now, a medicine man, and he no longer spoke to white people, and though I was half Lakota I lived as a white man and that's what mattered. Now he wished that I would go away, but said that he would visit me in the last year of my life when he had risen above all the differences his life had caused. He bowed slightly and returned to his potato picking. There was a childish, perhaps natural, urge to ask him just when the last year of my life would be, but I knew it to be wrong so I left, my legs slow again with the thought that this was the man I had considered to be the best friend of my life.
This morning when I woke at the first, faint light, merely a blur, I could see that my world was covered by a thick frost. I had slept fitfully, driving myself half daft with Dalva's question about my parents' death. My desire for a wise answer kept dissembling with memories in the darkness so that I kept turning on the lights to return myself to what we think of as the actual world, a pleasant enough fiction. I put on my wool robe but forgot my slippers, passing through the den where the Airedales lay sprawled on a buffalo robe. Only the smallish female, Sonia, got up to greet me. The others settled for a collective rumble at this interruption of schedule when no danger was sensed. I stubbed my toe, catching myself by hand against the door jamb, fearing that my fingers wouldn't miss a Maynard Dixon painting, a small one I cherished from his last years.
Sonia stayed on the porch steps as I wandered out on the bright frozen grass. The cold quickly penetrated my feet and I hopped a bit but not very high. I got close enough to the lilac grove to see the gravestones, then turned back, noting with delight how my feet had partially melted the frost, the choreography of my hops, remembering the hopscotch we played before I was withdrawn permanently from school. It was awkward to precisely retrace my steps but I did so, hopping right and left on numb feet until I laughed at my clumsiness, my wobbling frost dance.
I soaked my feet in a big dutch oven full of hot water, drinking my coffee and watching the frost slowly disappear in the none too strong October sun. Paul, the elder of my two sons, had traveled to South America several winters. His training was in geology though I suspect his main intent was for longer days. As a boy he told me he preferred it to be summer solstice every day if that could be arranged. He would travel with his mother to Arizona in the winters while John Wesley would stay on the farm with me. It's certainly more ranch than farm but I like the latter out of habit so engrained is the popular misunderstanding of rancher. I once told a churlish woman in Kentucky that I operated a spa for cows to gain weight. That was at the 1947 Derby when I was staying with some hardboot horse friends and I sensed this woman wishing I were a captain of industry rather than a failed painter with a modest knack for land. Greed has always struck me as one of the most readily identifiable human vices and I'd spent far too long as its victim. My father, to whom God was more real than the milk cow in the barnyard, was also guilty on this count, though more excusably as he saw the Lakota suffer horribly for want of good land. Even that arch-enemy of the Natives, General Philip Sheridan, admitted that "a reservation is a worthless piece of land surrounded by scoundrels." Very late in his life my father was delighted with Henry Adams's radically low opinion of the "Western movement" while I found the book (The Education of Henry Adams) too long on the ironies and short on the primary colors that life can offer to those who are energetically curious. I suppose poor Adams never recovered from the suicide of his wife, though it is arguable whether anyone ever truly recovers from anything. I still twitch at ancient rifle shots, and an errant memory of Adelle, dead now forty-one years, can still make my body rigid with anguish. But then at other times, mostly when I am walking, her voice can become as musical as the May warblers in the thickets along the Niobrara. The dead do not offer themselves up as a consoling study when we loved them so.
Naomi has called from the country school where she teaches to see if Dalva can come for dinner. Naomi has to take Ruth to her piano recital, an event that Dalva loathes because they keep playing the same pieces over and over. This child is not sharp for the grace of repetition, nor was I, though there are penalties for this restlessness. I will cook myself as my housekeeper, Lundquist's wife, is off at a Lutheran conference down in the capital, Lincoln. This woman is forever in a state of spiritual high dudgeon, and a list of her dislikes is as long as the Omaha phone book. She is called Frieda and has given her daughter the same name though Lundquist told me he wished it otherwise, preferring Victoria for reasons of his own. Frieda has the conformation of a Hampshire sow and speaks in an irritatingly wee voice, and despite all of this, is on rare occasions endearing, being a master flower gardener, and I love flowers.
I judge that there's time to thaw last week's lone sharp-tailed grouse as Dalva likes what she calls "Indian food," which she doesn't get at her home, what with Naomi being a devout amateur naturalist who doesn't want wild things in her kitchen. I've asked her teasingly if her God loves deer over cows, but she is so truehearted that I'm gentle on the subject. At one time I raised the best beef in the state and I would be unwilling to give up either. A few years back Dalva came running into the house from Lundquist's pickup with the heart and liver of a deer in a small bloody paper sack. "It's just like our own and now we can eat it for lunch," she fairly screeched. Lundquist would pick her up on weekends on his way to work and at least once or twice a year would discover a fresh road kill in a ditch, the product of some late-night speeding drunk out on the country road who would outdrive his headlights and hit a deer.
Not very far back in my mind I am now begging the question of the day, the ends of my parents' lives. She knows the end of her father's story and wishes to know the end of mine. It won't be comfortable dinner talk but children lack interest in these distinctions.
It is now lunchtime and I have skipped breakfast watching the frost thaw. I'm still wearing my old wool navy blue robe, the hem tattered where Sonia used to pull on it as a puppy, then hang there to be dragged from bedroom to kitchen for morning coffee, a habit that sent Frieda into a dither of spleen. I can't very well sit here watching a sharp-tailed grouse thaw, though it's tempting as if I were some Chinese ancient in Jade Mountain. I have come very late to the pleasure of sitting still with little or nothing on my mind.
In the den, from the safe behind the bookcase with its difficult combination 1-2-3 I draw out the appropriate notebook. On the way out of the room I pause at a Burchfield and a Charley Russell, both bought for songs when my world was young and so was theirs. With age I need not make judgments about their comparative merits, having lost the impulse to be right. One is one, and the other is another. With age one loses all sense of the supposed inevitability of art and life. Vivid moments are no longer strung together by imagined fate. The sense of proportion in good and bad experience loses its appeal. Bad is bad and you let it go. Good you cherish as it whizzes by. Mental struggles become lucid and muted with particular visual images attached to them, somewhat irrationally or beyond ordinary logic. Money shrinks to money. Fear is always recognizable rather than generalized. It is sharp and its aim is very good indeed. If there is wisdom as such, it is boiled down by fatigue. On the very rare occasion that I check out an old notebook as I am doing how, the sweat rises in my hair roots and I wonder, What is this fool going to do next? There is a double melancholy in my notebooks up until I entered World War I at the comparatively ripe age of thirty-one. Until that time the notebooks are thick with sketches, nearly every page in fact, more drawings than prose, the world as seen rather than thought. It would be nearly pleasant to think that the war made me abandon what I thought was my calling to be an artist, but the truth is that my talent wasn't strong or obsessive enough to overcome my disappointments. My soul was frozen for a long time and when it regathered its heat I was otherwise occupied.
Feb. 7, 1910 Coming up from well south of Magdalena in Sonora and headed for Nogales. At twilight it turned damnably cold so I used the horse blanket over the bed roll, having gathered a cushion of grass, for underneath. Firewood scarce near the road so went well up a canyon & managed three sketches before sunset. I will leave this horse with regret as in a lifetime of horses this is the most intelligent I've owned. A roan gelding, he looks over my shoulder as I sketch and he chews his grass. I judge that he could be trained to fetch firewood but my security is in his hobbles. He did not shy at the troop of coatimundi (called "chulos" down here) that scurried off a side canyon as we approached. Odd creatures as if crossbred between an otter and a raccoon. Stopped at a hacienda around noon to replenish my water and met an interesting young Mexican rancher about my age who had been at University of Kansas for two years. He tells me it is a good time to leave Mexico as the refusal of Diaz to leave office will mean trouble, if not revolution. He admires my horse and is startled to hear that I have traveled on him all the way up from Mazatlan since September. I cannot give him a good answer other than to say I wander and sketch when it's cool, and paint and trade horses during the hot summer months. There is enough of a far-off look in his eye for me to know he'd like to ride over the horizon from his big hacienda. Both his parents and wife live in Hermosillo, preferring society life to that of a ranch. He beckons a servant girl to bring me something to eat, and then embarrasses himself to admit that when he was a boy he wished to be a poet. The servant girl had put her baby down on a pillow in the shade, the days have been as warm as the nights are cold, and I glance over at it, itching to make a sketch The baby begins to cry and I get up to tend it but he holds my arm. He tells me that the baby's deformed and the girl thinks this is so because it was born out of wedlock. The girl comes back and she is of surpassing loveliness. She gives me lemonade and a bowl of stew, then moves over to tend the baby and in a brief glimpse I see that the baby's face is twisted askew. He senses that I know his secret and looks away. Now the girl is looking at me rather boldly and I hold out my arms. She carries the baby over and places it in my arms and I hold it to my breast. We are all lost in the silence until she asks him a question in Spanish and he turns to me saying she wishes I would sing it a lucky song. I can think of nothing appropriate, then remember the Stevenson my Lakota mother read to me, which was her favorite:
"Whenever the moon and stars are set,
whenever the wind is high,
All night long in the dark and wet,
a man goes riding by."
I put the notebook down and got dressed for equilibrium. In 1921 when I was again in the area I found the hacienda but it was in ruin, its stucco pocked with bullet holes. I wandered around Hermosillo a bit, thinking I might run into them, but it was not to be. I had no names to work with but it seemed that afternoon when they had asked me to stay I should have done so. We think of life as a solid and are haunted when time tells us it is a fluid. Old Heraclitus couldn't have stepped in the same river once, let alone twice.
Feb. 10,1910 I am in the Moctezuma Hotel in Nogales, Arizona, where I stepped off into this other world five months before. There are a number of doleful letters from home including too much money, then a telegram from Walgren, our neighbor, one of the original Swede carpenters who built our house and later had become a lawyer to the large immigrant community in the area. He was a grumpy, stem old bastard who could never resist an occasion for an homily. My parents are quite ill and I note the telegram is over a month old, having been sent shortly after the New Year. I make the short walk to the train station to book my passage, looking back across the border with regret to the distant hillside farm where I left my horse. I paid a year's board and told them to ride it which delighted a boy of about ten years who was already brushing the horse down. If there's a revolution what's to become of my horse? Neither Walgren or my parents have a phone, they being rare in our area. I send both Walgren and the county sheriff, who dislikes me, a wire saying that I am on my way home.
Back at the hotel I sort and pack my sketches, then have my first hot bath in a month. There's a lump in my throat and beneath my breastbone over my parents, but also a troubling image of a girl I saw that morning mounting a horse Apache style in one fluid leap. She smiled at me as I watched, then reined off at a good speed, her hair flowing out in the wind, toward the top of a hill where she decidedly did not turn around for another glance. One is enough. Dying parents and the specter of sex. My father somewhat opposed my art obsession especially early on, while happy with my evident talent as a horse, also a land trader, from which I've made a livelihood since fourteen. The two, art and money, didn't go together in his mind. When I was but a snooping boy and he was gone I looked at his locked up papers concerning his tree nursery business he began after the Civil War. The key was under the rug beneath his chair, and he was forever secretive perhaps thinking business was a bad mix with his devoutness. Since I was early set in my ways in ambition to be an artist he made it his mission to comment from the peripheries about "graven images," Edison's possible blasphemy in recreating the human voice, the deceptiveness of the photographic arts, the error in the attempt to make "moving" pictures, and the profound dangers of the auto itself which was radically changing the sense of time, which before had depended so much on distance. Or so he insisted...
I chop an onion and put it in a pan with butter, then pluck a few leaves of fresh sage from Frieda's herb pots in the window. She also chums the butter, the likes of which you can't get in Chicago or New York, but must travel to far-off Normandy. I mince the bird's gizzard in the pan with the onion, then tear some bread in pieces. Dalva likes the dressing roasted, not "gummy" from inside the bird. She will only eat rutabaga if it's mashed with the potatoes, and brussels sprouts are out of the question unless halved and fried in butter rather than boiled. There is little in her life that lacks her full attention. She has Sonia swimming in the Niobrara while I have trouble getting her to cross a creek. Lundquist carried Sonia around too much as a puppy, to protect her from the barnyard geese. When she grew she killed a single goose in vengeance. My thoughts turn to my friend Davis who was an excellent camp cook but died on my first trip to Mexico in 1909. He was from Omaha and much more talented at his sketchbook than I, but utterly foolhardy and captious. We were near El Salto west of Durango, camped in a canyon near precipitous mountains, two flatlanders but I was long on caution and he wasn't. It was late spring and there were too many rattlers to make exploring comfortable except in the cool of the morning. In the noon heat I was sketching and Davis swigging tequila for a toothache when he said he was going to climb a mountain to catch the breeze. This irritated me and I said, "Go ahead you fool, you'll break your neck" and he did, and more than that. He called out from a cliff a half mile up, or so I thought, and I looked up to see him teeter then teeter forward, shooting and pitching down a "couloir." Oddly, there was a large snake near his body, which was fairly peeled with remnants of his clothing in blood-soaked tatters. He said no last words so crushed was his face but his eyes still moved for a moment or two after I reached him.
Feb. 25, 1910 Back home for a week now, the last seventeen miles in an ugly blizzard on a borrowed horse, but then late in the afternoon, when I could see all the trees we planted perhaps three miles distant, the wind turned suddenly around to the south as if to ask me why all the concern, with the temperature rising from twenty to over forty.
They are both dead and I have buried them myself, making myself quite ill from exhaustion and the terror of attempting to keep them alive when they wished not to be. It was transparent that they were holding on for my arrival and I was ashamed and begged forgiveness but he hushed me, making a biblical joke, "Let the dead bury the dead but you will have to do it." It struck me that neither had eaten in several days though the larder was full. They drank quantities of Lakota tea which made them a bit dreamy but did nothing to still my father's pain. I was always made to call my mother Margaret though he used her Lakota name, "Small Bird." It occurred to me that though she was a full twenty years younger than his seventy-five she did not intend to be with us much longer after he went, so I vowed to keep a close watch on her. Other than Walgren his only friend in the area was the youngish doctor, an amateur scholar of Indian affairs, who had left pain medicine father refused, wanting to be "fully conscious" when he entered "the kingdom." I don't know if this was courageous or foolhardy. It went with the extremities the man had reached in his life. I got him to take a glass of whiskey which helped and at the same time made him more ill. He was to become a ghost before my eyes that evening. He said that though he knew I would take care of myself, I was well taken care of, and that the sin of his life was greed. I assured him that certainly this was not noticeable to anyone else, that though the house and property were fine and solid we had lived simply. He would have none of this and wept. We prayed before the fireplace with Margaret between us. It was plain that there was no time to summon any of his old friends from up on the Reservation, the dozens who had stopped by over the years in their secretive wanderings. He fell asleep during his prayer and I caught him before he, could fall into the fire and carried him into his bed. Afterwards Margaret gave me a stone in a small leather pouch. We sat up late so she could hear about Mexico and look at my sketchbook. It was all quite peaceful until she shook me at dawn and cried out, pointing out the window where my father was dancing around the barnyard in his long underwear. I rushed out in my own and he was all howling, bloody and incontinent, having danced a circle in the snow. I could barely restrain him at first then by gesture, also by cries through his bloody beard, I understood he wanted me to dance around the circle which I did once before I hauled him indoors, startled at how light he was and still how brutally strong. I forced some medicine down him then held his nose so he swallowed involuntarily. I rode only a few miles toward Walgren's before I was met by the doctor and Walgren coming toward me. By the time we got back home he was laying back out in the snow, quite dead, his head in Small Bird's lap. The doctor couldn't help but asked me what she was singing and I said I didn't know. I was a white man, whatever the hell that was.
I laid my journal aside, the repressed tears a poor preparation for dinner. My image of my father had become so strange that when I thought of him I also saw in my mind's eye a mountain goat up on a ledge down in the Pinacates. His blood was cold and Davis's warm, growing warmer in the afternoon heat as I carried him to the horse, then packed him into El Salto.
I poured myself my daily drink of Canadian whiskey, stared at it long and hard, then dumped it out in the sink and opened a bottle of good red wine. Ducru-Beaucaillou, bought in Chicago because I liked the sound of the name though it was more than palatable. My father made godawful rhubarb wine which put me off the beverage for years.
Walgren had tried to help me dig the grave but was arthritic and the temperature had dropped well below freezing. The ground had frozen before the snow came so I had to use a pick-ax for the first foot or two, with Walgren admiring the quality of the topsoil through chattering teeth until I sent him inside. The doctor came for the burial, the four of us standing there in the blustery twilight. They looked to me to say something but I was unable so we merely bowed. Walgren went inside and Margaret stood there singing in her native tongue while the doctor and I filled the grave.
Two nights later after tucking me into bed as if I were still a child she slipped out of the house after I fell asleep. At first light I tracked her the three miles to a spring beside a creek that flows into the Niobrara. She sat upright against a tree in a thicket, thinly dressed and quite dead. There was a bit of humor on her part in this as when I was a boy I bothered her incessantly to go here, our favorite camping spot, and now she was leading me where I wanted to go. We kept a tipi in this place until I was about eighteen and some trespassing hunters desecrated it. My father was quick to forgive everyone except the U.S. Government, but I searched them out in a country tavern and they paid dearly for their crime.
I put the grouse in the oven, now eager for the arrival of my granddaughter. Out the kitchen window, in the cool autumn breeze between where I sat and our family burial ground, I felt for an instant I could see time moving in the air. I knew I was being foolish but it struck me as odd that time never went backward except in the fragile structure of memory. Everyone wanted to "get on with it," whatever that meant, other than a distaste for what they had already done. At the "time" that I buried my parents I would have given anything, a meaningless gesture as we have nothing to propitiate these gods, to be an artist or even a writer, but I was to be neither, perhaps caught in the netherworld between the two, the space itself creating a hopelessly restive spirit. For a brief period I sought to blame it on the mixed genes of white and Native, but that configuration meant nothing to the living touch, except to fall through the thin ice of its making into a comic bath of self-pity, certainly the most destructive of human emotions.
The doctor helped me begin to dig my mother's grave, though he was a poor shovel man and couldn't help but ask questions that were inappropriate to what we were doing. Could he read the journals my father mentioned keeping? Shouldn't the collection of artifacts be given to a museum? That sort of thing. It has always amazed me how people dither away the most sacred occasions. I sent him home in a huff, and before I tossed out the last shovelful, Walgren stopped by to ask when we might discuss my father's will and he too was dismissed. Thus it was that I buried my mother alone and far from her own people, though with full knowledge that her spirit would wish to visit them had it not already done so.
I had barely made it back into the house just before dark after kneeling on the fresh earth and once again caught short of anything to say when an illness struck which was later determined to be a form of malaria I had caught well down into Mexico. I was half delirious for several days and my mind and dreams took such odd turns that twice I tried to sketch the visions. Smith's young sister whom I had loved a great deal when we were both fourteen kept visiting me. She was called Willow and her parents were traditional people, our fathers close friends for many years. They discovered our affection and she was sent over to Manderson, some two hundred miles away, to live with an aunt, or so they said. When I went off to look I found no trace. That was in the late spring of 1900 and I didn't speak to my parents until winter, building my own quarters out beside the barn and taking up horse-trading in earnest for my support. It was the first mortal blow of my life. Her parents did not wish me near her because I was half white, and later on, another set of parents with equal determination would cast me out because I was half "savage," a word they mouthed with enthusiastic terror.
Feb. 27, 1910 Odd sights, quite frightening, as if I could ever paint, or anyone could, the landscape of this fever. Inside the thresher. First the cow guts were pulled at in tug-of-war up on the reservation when I was three or four when they butchered the allotment. Men ate raw slices of heart. The women took the guts away from us after the dogs dragged us, holding onto the intestines. Waking I drink water that seems hot though I know it's cold because the house is freezing with no fire. I'm too hot for a fire I think, breaking the ice in the pail. Now I am half-way up Harney Peak when I was ten where father hoped to show me a bear which we only saw through his glass far off at the edge of the meadow and forest. Willow wakes me by the spring. We are naked, having swum. The sand is hot at mid-day with ten million cicadas droning in the air. She said I heard them say they are taking me away to Manderson. I fall down the stairs to catch her and wake at the bottom wet and finally cold...
Dalva arrives in the yard on her dun gelding, greeted in a uproar by the dogs. I had dozed at the bottom of my ancient stairs and thought for an instant it might be Willow in the same yard fifty years before. At Dalva's insistence Lundquist had built a tether rail in front of the porch. She bursts in and we embrace and I ask what happened to the school bus which she doesn't answer, but announces she's spending the night. What she thinks so becomes so, which stops a bit short of fibbing. She races back out to put her horse away, fetching her satchel on hearing I'm not up for a ride in the cold October wind.
Last evening I got my comeuppance halfway through dinner where she ate far more than I did. She asked, "When you tell me stories about your life why do you always pretend you were such a nice person? Naomi says you weren't. Everyone in town says you were the scariest man in the county. Old people at church say you were even worse than your father. They say you're not even a Christian person. So I wish you wouldn't just tell the good parts about yourself. I'm not some little kid, I'm eleven."
This struck me as more interesting than upsetting. Have I ever met a man who didn't wish his daughter or granddaughter would stay unspoiled by the likes of us and a substantially evil world? But what is behind this wish aside from hoping that a living being will stay a porcelain figurine of our mind which she bears no resemblance to except in our minds, and in societal deceit in the first place? I've yet to know a woman who carries any true resemblance to what society seems to wish her to be. They are not constructed thusly, any more than we are.
Instead of telling her of the deaths of my parents, her original question, I painted a tale of the aftermath of Willow being taken from me. I shot my father's best bull as it drank from the Niobrara. It trusted me and let me come close and I put my Iver Johnson revolver to its ear, shooting three times before the bull dropped to its knees in the water, then floundered further into the river, roaring and bawling, shooting gouts of blood from its nose and mouth before it tipped sideways and floated off.
I plotted the deaths of Willow's father and my own but what stopped me, sensibly enough, is that I'd never find her if I was in prison. It took me but five days to ride to Manderson and when her I relatives would tell me nothing I again drew my revolver but was subdued by an old man and he and several other ancient Lakota warriors bound me hand and foot and took me home. Among them was He Dog, a friend of both Crazy Horse and my father. These were not tame souls but bore the full weight of battles from Little Bighorn to Twin Buttes. To say that they frightened me was the mildest of euphemisms. One of them who was Willow's uncle said that if he saw me again in Manderson he'd feed my balls to the crows. He waved a knife the others said had taken a hundred cavalry scalps. He be came so overwrought in his threats that he leapt from his horse, though I judged him to be seventy, and danced madly around my own, howling and yelping so I nearly peed my trousers. These were not Methodist Indians but warriors with a lineage that owed nothing to the white man. We did not live upon the same earth that they did and we flatter ourselves when we think we understand them. To pity these men is to pity the gods.
The group of old warriors, I seemed to remember there were five, stayed three days. Like others before them they gave my father parcels wrapped in deer hide for safekeeping. They camped out in the barnyard, doubtless giving my father counsel on my behavior, also discussing the old days after Wounded Knee when my father had suffered a nervous disorder and was encamped with these friends up in the Badlands. To my later regret I stayed well clear of the others, sulking out at the spring but reappearing at dinner for fear they would track me down which was their sure intention. To my further regret my father had been out on a ride that day and had heard the shots and had seen the floating bull, dragging it out of the river with our Belgian draft horse Tom. He never pointed the finger at me but the last evening when we feasted on the meat Willow's uncle thanked me for being a good shot, following the comment with wild laughter.
After they left I set about building my shack, part of which is now one end of the bunkhouse. Smith tried to help but had even less talent for carpentry than myself. He wisely suggested bringing up my parents' tipi from the spring but I wanted nothing from them. I'd have to filch some of last year's potatoes, cabbage, and rutabagas from the root cellar but other than that I'd live on game that I shot. Smith brought up the question of heat but since it was late spring I said I'd worry about it when the first snowflakes fell. It rained hard for a week and we struggled in the mud with our inept carpentry, studying from the pages of a shed booklet I'd ordered from Nebraska Farmer, a magazine guaranteed to fill an adventuresome lad with the direst boredom possible. I horribly missed the pies my mother made from dried fruit and when the wind was right from the east I could smell their odor wafting across from the farmhouse a hundred yards in the distance. Smith missed the pies, too, and suggested with Native wisdom that my mother had probably had nothing to do with the decision over Willow and I could forgive her by asking for pie. Smith soon abandoned our mutual tipi camp in favor of his parents' shack on a far comer of our land on the banks of the Niobrara. There was a grace note in a good dinner every evening, though he'd arrive at dawn punctually with a wedge of cornbread for me.
One June morning when my miserable shack was nearly erect Smith had arrived with what he thought was a solid clue to Willow's location. He had left his place at dawn then returned having forgotten my cornbread and had overheard his parents talking about a mixed-breed cousin who worked far to the east in an iron mine in Ishpeming, Michigan. This was Chippewa country (anishinabe, they called themselves) so the cousin could scarcely admit that he was part Lakota because of ancient enmity. He was a daring fellow, Smith said, and had once bought them a milk cow on a visit, and had married a white woman from Finland.
I straightaway rode to town to get some tar paper for my roof, but also to check out the location of Ishpeming. It was certainly too far for horseback and anyway my prolonged disappearance might alert Smith's parents and my own that I was again on the track of Willow. I must strike quick, I thought, while checking the atlas and train schedule at the county library. I judged that I'd have to sell three of the eleven horses I'd accumulated to afford the journey, a trifling price for a young Romeo hell-bent for his lost love.
At this point it was Dalva's bedtime and I stopped my woeful tale. She was teary and dabbed her eyes with a handkerchief I gave her. Her first comment was, "It all makes you want to be a dog." She knelt on the rug and kissed the Airedales good night, then was startled by her own thoughts. "If you had married Willow when you were fourteen then I wouldn't exist," she said. I had noted before that young people were struck by the fragility of their existence but this seemed premature for a little girl. "It is always good to know how the story ends," I teased her, but she was already off on another tangent. "Why wouldn't your father let you love an Indian girl? He was married to one." I told her I'd think that one over, although all my thinking on the matter had long since finished itself by exhaustion. I sent her upstairs to her grandmother's bedroom which she adored for its ornate dollhouse qualities, so unlike the rest of the house. My long since departed wife hadn't slept there the last ten years of her life, having left me for Omaha and Chicago in 1930. "You'll be much happier," she had said. "You've been a bachelor since you were a child."
I had a Hine cognac and listened to the scratchy and plaintive strains of "You Can't Be True, Dear" ("There's nothing more to say"), through the den's ceiling, picking up a phrase now and then that I already knew. Dalva always played the song on an old crank-up Victrola before going to bed because it was "romantic," unlike her mother's steady diet of Brahms and Dvorák since losing her husband, my beloved son John Wesley. How irreparably changed the world becomes when the loves of one's life are dead. It is always the last day of Indian summer. We are caught out in the cold and there's no door to get back in.
I chided myself for my sentiment, remembering the great ladles of Dickens my father would pass my way to ensure that I developed a proper compassion. My captious nostrum for Copperfield and Cratchit was to shoot their tormentors or beat them into the ground, an idea that made no headway with my father. The last draught of cognac sent me coughing and I considered something so adventuresome as a visit to the doctor, feeling my heart wobbling, but then I remembered Maynard Dixon and his courageous wheezing. I had also noted in others that life largely passes while they are still making grand plans for it. I had certainly committed no sins of omission but this was less virtue than obsession. I could not help myself. My mother liked to stare at the map while I described the specifics of places I'd been on MY early sketching trips, and then I'd wait for her soft questions. What did they eat? What kind of horse did they ride? Were there Indians and were they treated well? With the latter I didn't want to be honest, but was so out of obligation to her own lucid, albeit limited, sense of history of other people: Seri, Tarahumara, the Yaqui sold into slavery from their native southern Sonora down into the Yucatán where they died of the weather; the greatest proportion of the Seri (thousands) butchered by vaqueros and the Mexican army over a cattle- stealing incident. The Tarahumara seemed safe in their mountain fastness but one doubted this to be a permanent arrangement. I remember the three of us sitting at the kitchen table before the atlas and her wondering why the invaders of our own country had bothered crossing a dangerous ocean, when we could have traveled east to the vast bare stretches her brown finger pointed out in Russian Siberia. I was perhaps ten at the time and my father looked to me for help, a unique gesture on his part. I piped in that people liked to ride on boats to which she disagreed. At the grand Trans-Mississippi Exposition in 1897 in Omaha we had gone to as a family she had felt unpleasant on a Missouri steamer, and crossing the bridge into Iowa for my boyish sake had been nightmarish for her. She wouldn't get in the small johnboat we used when we wanted to float or cross the Niobrara, but she did take pleasure in swimming across in late summer, whereupon she'd call out childishly, "I'm on the other side."
The most poignant moment for her at the grandiose Exposition had been a meal at a Chinese restaurant where she didn't eat the food but thought the Chinese resembled the Cheyenne. My father kept her clear of the mock battles being performed by the gathering of tribes for fear of further strengthening the melancholy of her nature. The trip had been for my own benefit so I could see what was to become of the modem world in order that I might adjust to the change, but what had impressed me most as a bumpkin was not the immense, absurdity of the filigreed architecture, but the sight at the French exhibition of a lovely Frenchwoman speaking French. She looked exactly like a woman in a Courbet reproduction some thirty feet from where she was speaking. I drew close enough to the platform from which she spoke to scent her lilac odor and admire her skin and trim figure, which even a ten-year-old notices. For less than a second she glanced down at me and smiled, and thus by happenstance began my obsession with art.
Copyright © 1998 by Jim Harrison
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This book is a bit slow at time, but the richness of the interwoven story gets you invested heavily in the characters. Without realizing it, soon you can't put it down. It ends up heartbreaking and uplifting all within the same story.
One of the best books ever written. A perfect followup to Dalva (the second best book ever written).
I have read several of Jim Harrison's books including his memoir Off to the Side and novels Farmer, True North, Dalva, and now The Road Home. Harrison wrote The Road Home nine years after his novel Dalva. The Road Home cannot correctly be characterized as a prequel or a sequel to Dalva, but rather a more in depth look at the Northridge family, a Nebraska ranching dynasty. The novel takes us back, always in the form of first person narrative, three generations. It may be fare to characterize Harrison's style as time mosaic, since any given paragraph may jump to several moments in time according to the free association of the narrator's memory. The story of the Northridge family, to some extent, reflects the growth of the nation in that it weds the exploitation of opportunity with the destruction of the environment and, most clearly noted in this novel, the destruction and subjugation of American Indian culture. What I found wearing about this novel was the stalwart virtue of the Northridge family. Its members are incorruptible, arrogant, and larger than life. The narrative of John Wesley Northridge II is the best because his character is the most flawed. The character of Naomi comes across as the most sympathetic. The character of Nelse, the great grandson, practically becomes irksome. He rejects the trappings of contemporary culture in favor of a nomadic life that keeps him close to nature. His virtue is numbing and flawless. He champions the plight of the American Indian and can name the genus and species of just about every plant and critter he comes across. And he responds with heroic violence when he sees a wrong committed. All of these traits are admirable, of course, it's just that Harrison bludgeons us with them. And as with other Harrison characters, you wonder who is bankrolling this wonderful existence. Reading this novel, I felt like an outsider in the world Jim Harrison has created, and an object of the author's derision. I am a European American, the result of westward expansion. I live within our civilization and am largely ignorant of what goes on in the natural world, although I live in Juneau, Alaska, a city surrounded by roadless wilderness. I perceived smugness in the Northridge family, and had the sense that my life can never live up to theirs. Having said all this, let me conclude by adding that The Road Home, as well as Harrison's other novels that deal with family histories, caused me to pause and consider my place in the world. Yes, it is good to study nature and it is good to understand the horrific damage our culture has visited on Native Americans. It is good to find things to love in life that can't be purchased. It is the germination of this awareness that makes Jim Harrison a great American novelist who will always be welcome on my bookshelf.