Saturday, February 27, 2010

Book 21, 2010: The Farmer's Daughter by Jim Harrison

" . . . and the three of them drove over to a stream a few miles away and went swimming. Marcia had a boom box that worked off the cigarette lighter, a couple of six-packs on ice, and some baloney sandwiches, a regular Montana picnic."

The theme that links the three novellas in this newest work from Jim Harrison may well lie in the Patsy Cline song, The Last Word in Lonesome is Me.

References to the song, written by Roger Miller, appear in all three novellas collected in The Farmer's Daughter, which is the title of the book and the first and finest of this trio of stories.

Alienation, a craving for the solitary life and the restorative value of wilderness are attributes linked to the three main characters; that and a line from the song: "My heart is as lonely as a heart can be lonely. The last word in lonesome is me."

The farmer's daughter is Sarah Holcomb, who, according to the first line of the story, "was born peculiar, or so she thought." Peculiar, she may be. Certainly, Sarah is a fiercely independent young woman, who cares deeply for her horse, her dog -- that she inherited from a grizzled old ranch hand -- and the ranch hand, whom she shamelessly flirts with, despite their difference in age. Sarah is also endearing and one of Harrison's most vivid characters.

Sarah is high school age through most of the story, which is largely concerned with her efforts at self-discovery, taking revenge for a rather clumsy sexual assault and finding a way to flee Montana, although she isn't going anywhere without her horse and dog.

Brown Dog Redux is the story of Brown Dog, a mixed race man who, to put it simply, is a mess. Brown Dog is a hound dog. He loves women. Fat or skinny. Tall or short. Young or old. When women are in his vicinity, Brown Dog has only one thing on his mind.

Despite this proclivity, Brown Dog manages to be a pretty good father to his adopted daughter Berry, who suffers from fetal alcohol syndrome. Brown Dog is wise enough to know that Berry does more good for him than he does for her; protecting him from the worst of his impulses, which -- if it's not women -- is booze.

Like Berry, the wilderness offers Brown Dog protection from himself. He literally flees to the wilds of the Upper Peninsula to fish and meditate, although that is not a concept known to Brown Dog.

The Games of Night is the oddest of the three stories. Harrison suggests that the protagonist, who is attacked by a wolf cub and carnivorous hummingbirds while a child, is some sort of werewolf, transformed by the viruses dancing in his blood.

It is this transformation, brought on by the full moon, that leads to the games of the night. The character has only a hazy memory of these "games," but they include lust as well as excessive physical appetite and exertion.

The Games of the Night contains a surprise appearance by novelist Louise Erdrich and her sister, Lise. Our werewolf is camping along the Bois de Sioux River near Wapheton, North Dakota, where the sisters grew up.

"Heard chattering on small gravel road. Two girls bird-watching on their old bikes. They looked Indiana or at least half-breed, from local Chippewa reserve. Said their names were Lise and Louise . . . I was sideways to them and when I turned they screamed, "Rougarou, rougarou, rougarou' and raced off on their bikes."
Harrison, now in his early 70s, has written some marvelous stuff in recent years. First, there was the The English Major and now The Farmer's Daughter. Each subsequent book is a literary treat that may not come our way again.

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