Let Him Go

Let Him Go

by Larry Watson


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The celebrated author of Montana 1948 returns to the American West in this riveting tale of familial love and its unexpected consequences.

Dalton, North Dakota. It’s September 1951: years since George and Margaret Blackledge lost their son James when he was thrown from a horse; months since his widow Lorna took off with their only grandson and married Donnie Weboy. Margaret is steadfast, resolved to find and retrieve her grandson Jimmy — the one person in this world keeping James’s memory alive — while George, a retired sheriff, is none too eager to stir up trouble. Unable to sway his wife from her mission, George takes to the road with Margaret by his side, traveling through the Dakota badlands to Gladstone, Montana. When Margaret tries to convince Lorna to return home to North Dakota and bring little Jimmy with her, the Blackledges find themselves entangled with the entire Weboy clan, who are determined not to give up the boy without a fight. From the author who brought us Montana 1948, Let Him Go is pitch-perfect, gutsy, and unwavering. Larry Watson is at his storytelling finest in this unforgettable return to the American West.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781571311023
Publisher: Milkweed Editions
Publication date: 08/27/2013
Pages: 256
Product dimensions: 5.70(w) x 8.50(h) x 1.00(d)

About the Author

Larry Watson is the author of Montana 1948, American Boy, Justice, White Crosses, and several other novels. He is the recipient of the Milkweed National Fiction Prize, the Friends of American Writers award, two fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts, and many other prizes and awards. He teaches writing and literature at Marquette University in Milwaukee, where he lives with this wife, Susan.

Read an Excerpt


A Novel

By Larry Watson

Milkweek Editions

Copyright © 2013 Larry Watson
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-57131-102-3


September 1951

The siren on top of the Dalton, North Dakota, fire station howls, as it does five days a week at this hour. Its wail frightens into flight the starlings that roost on the station roof every day yet never learn how fixed and foreseeable are human lives. The siren tells the town's working citizens and students what they already know. It's twelve o'clock, time for you to fly too. Put down your hammer, your pencil; close your books, cover your typewriter. Go home. Your wives and mothers are opening cans of soup and slicing bread and last night's roast beef for sandwiches. Come back in an hour, ready to put your shoulder to it, to add the figures, parse the sentences, calm the patients, please the customers.

Most drive to their homes, but a man with the width of the town to travel, from Ott's Livestock Sales out on Highway 41 to Teton Avenue in the town's northeast corner, walks. The sun is warm on George Blackledge's back, and he carries his blanket-lined denim coat over his shoulder. But on his way to work that morning in the predawn dark he followed the plumes of his own breath and passed signs of the season's first hard freeze. Blankets and rugs covering the late tomatoes and squash. Windshields needing to be scraped. Thin spirals of smoke rising from chimneys. Now only in a house or building's western shade or in the shadow of a shed or tree does any white remain. Grass blades and weed stalks that earlier were frost-bent and flattened rise again. Ice skins that grew over gutter pools and alley puddles have melted away. When George enters his house, he notices the lingering smell of hot dust and fuel oil, the stale breath of the furnace that came on during the night for the first time in the season.

But on the kitchen table are not the bowl of tomato soup and the summer sausage sandwich that George has rightly come to expect. Instead on the oilcloth are open cardboard boxes filled with the food that recently has been in their cupboards, bread box, and refrigerator. The house's windows are closed and the curtains drawn, banishing sunlight and, so it seems, sufficient air to breathe.

Into the kitchen comes Margaret Blackledge, about whom people invariably say, Still a handsome woman. Her steel-gray hair is plaited and pinned up. Her chambray shirt is tucked into snug-fitting, faded Levi's. She's wearing boots that have been patched, resoled, and re-heeled so many times they'd rebel at any foot but hers. Those heels make her taller than most women. Draped over one kitchen chair is her wool mackinaw, and on the spindle of another chair her hat hangs by the leather loop that she used to tighten under her chin when she was ready to mount up and ride.

George tilts back his own hat. So this is why you wanted the car today.

You said you didn't mind the exercise.

I don't. But Jesus, Margaret. You really mean to do this?

I do. Margaret Blackledge's eyes have not lost their power to startle—large, liquid, deep blue, and set in a face whose planes and angles could be sculpted from marble.

With me or without me?

With you or without you. It's your choice. Margaret thrusts her fingers into the back pockets of her jeans and leans against the cupboard. She's waiting, but she doesn't have to say it. She won't wait long.

She nods in the direction of their bedroom. I packed a bag for you, she says. Depending on what you decide.

Nothing fills the silence between them. The Philco on the kitchen counter, which usually squawks livestock prices at this hour, sits mute. The coffeepot whose glass top usually rattles with a percolating fresh brew is emptied, washed, and stored in one of the boxes.

On his way to the bedroom George passes through the living room and he steps over the blankets Margaret has wrapped and tied into tubes to serve as bedrolls.

In the bedroom doorway he pauses, his gaze lingering on both what is there and what is not.

The white chenille bedspread rises over the mound of one pillow but then slopes down to flatness on the other side. The alarm clock ticks on the bedside table. If he stays he'll need reminders of hours and obligations, while she'll be traveling to where time obeys human need and not the other way around. On the top of the bureau the perfume bottle sits, as full as the day she took it out of its gift box. Her brush is gone. So is the framed photograph that often made him pause. His son or his grandson? Did they really look so alike as two-year-olds? Or did they confuse him because they occupied the same space in his heart? Did Margaret even hesitate before she packed the photo? Did she ask herself, Who needs this more, the one who goes or the one who stays?

His suitcase yawns open on the bed, and he walks over to paw through its contents. Clean socks. A few shirts. Two pair of dungarees. Underwear. That old plaid wool railroader's vest. A bandanna. The bottom layers are cold-weather wear—a wool scarf and knit cap, gloves. His sheepskin-lined coat. Long underwear. He leaves the suitcase open and turns back toward the kitchen, a distance that suddenly seems more exhausting than the miles he's already walked today.

In the kitchen he looks over the contents of the boxes. Canned goods, flour, beans—dry and canned—oatmeal, evaporated milk, sugar, coffee, potatoes, apples, carrots. Two cans of Spam and a box of Velveeta. Cups, bowls, plates, forks, knives, and spoons, and that all these are in pairs tells him that she's made all the provisions for him to go. And not much left for him if he decides to stay—she's packed the cast-iron frying pan and the coffeepot, and George Blackledge loves his coffee. A washbasin. Kitchen matches. A can of lard.

What do you mean to cook on? George asks.

Margaret shrugs. An open campfire, if need be. I've got a few camping things set out back. Including that old wire grill you used to set up on rocks over a fire.

With this speech her voice quavers but not with emotion. For years Margaret Blackledge has had a tremor that causes her head to nod and her words to wobble. Harmless, a doctor has called it, but it's unsettling in a woman who seems in every other regard as steady as steel.

George pushes the kitchen window curtain aside. Yes, she's backed their car, an old humpbacked Hudson Commodore, out of the garage, and a few more supplies for her journey lie in the grass.

You pulled out that old tent, George says. You find the poles and stakes too?

I believe all the pieces are there.

I could set it up, he says. Let the sun burn some of the mildew smell out of the canvas.

I'd just as soon get going.

George walks back over to the chair where her coat and hat wait. He lifts the collar of her mackinaw and rubs the wool between his fingers. I see you've got the long underwear packed too. You planning on being gone right through the winter?

I'm not planning on any length of time. I plan to go, that's all. And stay gone as long as it takes.

What if Lorna says no? George asks. Any mother would.

Margaret says nothing.

You have money?

I went to the bank this morning.

Leave any in there?

A little. Not much.

There wasn't much to begin with.

Margaret's suitcase is waiting by the back door. When she glances in its direction, George feels his eyes smart and his throat tighten.

Think this through, Margaret. What you're aiming to do—

I'll do. You ought to know that by now.

What finally made up your mind, if you don't object to my asking?

Not only can I tell you what but when and right down to the minute. July 27. I know it like it's marked on the calendar. I was coming out of LaVeer's Butcher Shop, and I spied Jimmy over across the street right outside the drugstore. With Donnie and Lorna. In the middle of the day. And neither of them on the job, in spite of their promises and good intentions. Anyway. Jimmy was licking away at an ice cream cone like it was a race whether he or the sun would finish it first. $en he must have licked a little too hard because that scoop of ice cream toppled off the cone. He gave out a little yelp. Donnie saw right away what happened, and so quick the ice cream didn't melt—and this on a day when the sidewalk was hot enough to fry an egg—he reached down and grabbed up that glob of chocolate ice cream. And did he put it back on the cone? He did not. He pushed it right into Jimmy's face. Wait. It gets worse. $en he laughed. Donnie laughed. By this time Jimmy's wailing like his little heart is breaking. And what do you suppose Lorna did? Pick him up and wipe his face and his tears like any mother would? She did not. She kept right on walking. And she was wearing a smile, George. A smile. To do a child that way? A child that bears my son's name? It was all I could do not to cross the street and snatch that little boy and run like hell. But I had my pork chops damn near cooking in my arms, and I suppose I was hearing your cautions so I continued on my way. But I knew, George; I knew. That boy did not belong with those people. So even with all you said—it's wrong, it's useless, it might even be against the law—my mind was made up. It wasn't more than a week later when I got my resolve screwed down tight, and I went to that little basement apartment they'd been renting. But they were gone. Bound for Montana, I learned. And owing three months' rent. So because I held my tongue on that July day they got a couple months' head start. But I'm heading out now, George, and you have to choose. Go or stay. But decide. Now.

I have to piss.

In the bathroom the matching towels and washcloth are no longer hanging on the rack. Only a threadbare towel is suspended from the bar over the tub—his to use in her absence. This morning's sliver of soap is no longer stuck to the sink's porcelain. In the medicine cabinet only George's shaving supplies still rest on the shelf, but his empty toilet kit waits open-mouthed on the tub for his razor, shaving cream, toothbrush, and aspirin.

Her things might be packed up but the room's very air remains hers. The smell of her shampoo, her cold cream. The steam that rose from her bathwater. And then from her as she stepped dripping from the tub. Could he ever stop breathing these, no matter how long she'd been gone?

He stands over the toilet. If there is a moment, an instant, when George Blackledge isn't sure what he'll do, by the time he's opened his trousers and pulled out his cock, that moment has passed. He sighs, the deep breath and exhalation of a man about to follow someone onto a narrow ledge. Such a man is often cautioned not to look down. He might well be advised not to look forward or backward either.

Back in the kitchen he asks, Did you call Janie? Does she know about this plan of yours?

I mailed her a letter this morning.

You don't even give your daughter a chance to talk you out of this?

She has no say in this. None. But I told her you'd let her know if you decide to stay home.

Did you gas up the car?

I thought I'd do that on the way out of town.

Why don't I do it now? I need to swing by Ott's and give Barlow the word.

I don't suppose he'll be too happy.

You can be damn sure of that. I leave now, that's probably over for good.

I'm sorry.

But not sorry enough to cast this goddamn idea of yours aside.

Margaret reaches under the sink and brings out a can of Ajax. When she shakes its powder into the sink, a chalky ammoniac odor fills the room. If you're coming with me, George, that'll have to be the end of it. No dragging your heels. No second-guessing. No what ifs. If you're with me, you're with me.

She turns back to the sink and begins to scour its porcelain. Soon she's scrubbing so hard even her ass is in motion. Nothing but two hard mounds of muscle and fat bunching under denim faded almost to white. No, there was never any doubt what George would do.

Should I shut off the water? he asks.

Might as well. We don't want to come home to busted pipes.

Excerpted from LET HIM GO by Larry Watson. Copyright © 2013 Larry Watson. Excerpted by permission of Milkweek Editions.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Let Him Go 3.8 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 6 reviews.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Very well written - and proud to support an author from Wisconsin and a publisher in Minnesota!
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Bookworm_Babblings More than 1 year ago
Margaret Blackledge lost her son after he was tragically thrown from a horse. Now her grandson has been taken away by her former daughter-in-law and her new husband. She's seen the interaction between little Jimmy and his new stepfather many times and she could see that Donnie Weboy was cruel to Jimmy. Now Margaret has decided that she wants to raise the little boy herself. This places her and her husband George on a journey from North Dakota to Montana. With it comes the memories that brought them together and things that could have torn them apart. What they encounter in Montana is far more than they expected and much more trouble than they bargained for. Literary Fiction isn't something I read often. But when I do, it has to be as wonderfully written as Larry Watson's Let Him Go. The story starts a little slow as the stage is set for what is to come, and gradually picks up the pace right up to the shocking end. This was a beautiful story of love, loss, and letting go. It was hauntingly suspenseful and will have you thinking about this book for days after you've finished reading it.
susan568SW More than 1 year ago
This book sucked me in from the very first page!!!!
Anonymous More than 1 year ago