THE ROAD HOME
By Jim Harrison
Atlantic Monthly Press
432 pp., $25
Good fiction, like Jim Harrison's latest novel, "The Road Home," reaffirms that our separate and private lives reflect patterns of a larger humanity. By offering narratives from five family members spread over three generations, Harrison dramatizes with sage sensibility the lesson that no one is an island apart from the rest of us.
In a strongly elegiac sense, "The Road Home" is a series of mini-memoirs of what life means in the face of death and how beautiful life is.
Although home becomes a metaphor for death in this novel spanning a century, for the Northridge family, home more literally is Nebraska and the family farmland in the Niobrara valley. The lessons here point to the profound ways the land determines a people, and the reciprocal ways a people determines the land.
As with any regional novel worth its own particular grain of local color and ambiance, "The Road Home" transcends the particularities of place in demonstrating, in the most poignant ways, how the maps of home are etched into our lives.
A prolific poet, Harrison was also the food columnist at Esquire magazine for many years. In 1994, Brad Pitt starred in the movie made from Harrison's novella "Legends of the Fall."
Readers who know his novel, "Dalva," written a decade ago, will find special sequel pleasure in meeting this strong, independent, willful woman again. Dalva is a character beyond the expectations and prescriptions of political correctness and au courant identity politics. Now middle-aged and back home after college and the illusions of California, Dalva faces an illness that threatens her life.
And just as all of us know the yearning to be where we belong, the primary motive of "The Road Home" is Dalva's need to find and reclaim her son, Nelse, and Nelse's similar compulsion to know his birth mother and his larger blood family.
Much of what we read here is her journal: thoughts about Nelse, her aunt, Naomi, her late half-breed Lakota grandfather and family patriarch, John Northridge, her war-dead father, John Wesley, and her eternally young Sioux lover, Duane Stone Horse.
Notwithstanding the final prognosis of her illness and her plan for coping with it, Dalva's list of things she cherishes is an affirmation - not just of her life and family but of this novel as well.
Read for itself, "The Road Home" is a fine novel, crafted with great passion, gusto, and empathy. Read for its wisdom and its application to all our lives, particularly at this moment of national and cultural conundrums about what makes acts right, Harrison's art and rage for order bring the strong and abiding truths of fiction to our search for family values, for old verities.
As one might expect, that road home leads us much beyond canned codes and clichs such as Manifest Destiny to our own individual and human attempts at redemption.
* Robert F. Gish is the author, most recently, of 'Dreams of Quivira: Stories in Search of the Golden West' (Clear Light).