The Earthy Appeal Of 'The Farmer's Daughter' Heller McAlpin reviews Jim Harrison's latest book, a trio of novellas connected by the song "The Last Word in Lonesome Is Me" by Patsy Cline. McAlpin says Harrison's fiction is rooted in a deep connection with nature and respect for the disenfranchised.
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The Earthy Appeal Of 'The Farmer's Daughter'

'The Farmer's Daughter'
The Farmer's Daughter
By Jim Harrison
Hardcover, 384 pages
Grove Press
List price: $24

Read An Excerpt

Patsy Cline's "The Last Word in Lonesome Is Me" is the soulful thread that runs through and connects all three novellas in Jim Harrison's robust 16th volume of fiction. His characters — the sympathetic, self-reliant 15-year-old farmer's daughter of the title novella who has been brought up in isolation in rural Montana, "a puppet of her parents' daffy ideals"; the endearing, incorrigible half-Chippewa free spirit named Brown Dog (B.D.) first introduced in Harrison's 1990 story collection, The Woman Lit by Fireflies; and a man infected with incurable avian and canine viruses who retreats from society during full moons because his behavior becomes bestial — are all people whose "loneliness was as big as the landscape."

And what a landscape it is. Harrison's fiction, which includes Legends of the Fall, True North and, most recently, The English Major, is rooted in a deep connection with nature and infused with passion for the vast wilds of America and respect for its disenfranchised. Ranging freely in Michigan's Upper Peninsula or the Montana mountains, Harrison's characters feel "lucky to live inside beauty."

A new episode in the life of B.D., a charming, guileless hound dog who lives to fish for trout and hook women, is always cause for joy. (One hopes that someday they'll be collected in a single volume.) "Brown Dog Redux" finds him homesick in Toronto — where he fled in Harrison's 2005 novella, The Summer He Didn't Die — with his bird-obsessed, mentally disabled stepdaughter, Berry, born with fetal alcohol syndrome, rather than turn her over to state authorities to be institutionalized.

After five months in relatively sober exile, B.D. and Berry return to the States the way they came — illegally. Released from guardian duties when a better home is found for Berry, B.D. hits the booze and heads straight for his beloved trout streams. He moons over "the most hopeless love of his life," the lesbian social worker who wants him to donate sperm so she can have a child. Harrison relays all this in exuberant, often hilarious detail.

Since 1965, Jim Harrison has published nearly 50 books of fiction, nonfiction and poetry. Wyatt McSpadden hide caption

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Wyatt McSpadden

Since 1965, Jim Harrison has published nearly 50 books of fiction, nonfiction and poetry.

Wyatt McSpadden

Along with hunting, fishing and literature, sex is a central focus of Harrison's earthy, lusty fiction. In the strong title novella, a sensitive tale about a bright girl coming to terms with both her nascent sexuality and a nasty assault, Harrison writes incisively: "Sarah took to rating men and few could pass through the eye of her cultural needle." Rounding out the trio, "The Games of the Night," a strange, less coherent tale, paints adolescent pawing against a backdrop of "the animality of people."

In addition to a visceral need for the great outdoors, Harrison's protagonists thrive on less activity rather than more. Speaking from B.D.'s perspective, Harrison writes, "In his view far too much had been happening and he craved the nothingness of the Upper Peninsula, a feeling he shared with the ancient Chinese that the best life was an uneventful one." In our often overpacked lives, this isn't a bad lesson to take away from Harrison's fiction, always as exhilarating as a breath of fresh air.

Excerpt: 'The Farmer's Daughter'

'The Farmer's Daughter'
The Farmer's Daughter
By Jim Harrison
Hardcover, 384 pages
Grove Press
List price: $24

The Farmer's Daughter
Part I
Chapter 1

She was born peculiar, or so she thought. Her parents had put some ice in her soul, not a rare thing, and when things went well the ice seemed to melt a bit, and when things went poorly the ice enlarged. Her name was Sarah Anitra Holcomb.

She was without self-pity never having learned how to administer it. Things were as they were. A certain loneliness was an overwhelming fact of her life. Her family had moved to Montana in 1980 when she was nine years old. They felt like pioneers striking out from Findlay, Ohio, but without the young man called Brother, then eighteen and the son of her father's first marriage, who chose to stay behind but then up and joined the marines, an insult because the marines were the core of her father Frank's unhappiness. Frank had seen no combat in Vietnam but as a graduate of Purdue had been in the Competitive Strategies (all unsuccessful) Office in Saigon. His very best friend Willy, also from Findlay, had died from friendly fire in Khe Sanh. The death of Willy, a friend since childhood, was the poisonous goad that finally sent Frank out to Montana where he proposed to forget the world thirteen years after mustering out. The dissolving of the first marriage had put quite a crimp in saving a grubstake, and the second marriage and the arrival of Sarah further delayed his somewhat heroic plans. Frank was a pure ideologue and had planned a future that wouldn't include our culture and its murderous politics. As a mechanical engineering graduate of Purdue (magna cum laude), Frank was confident of making a living in Montana beyond the amount of the savings which he estimated would last three years.

In February 1980 Frank announced that they would make the big move in late April. He had just returned from Montana where he had closed a land deal for 180 acres. He made the statement with a military tinge as if saying, "We move out at dawn."

"Great! We're heading for God's country," said Frank's wife and Sarah's mother, who was nicknamed Peppy.

"There must be a hundred places in the U.S. that call themselves God's country," Frank muttered over his goulash made with super-lean beef. Peppy had been a home economics teacher when Frank met her at the Ohio State Fair where he had been manning his engineering firm's extensive display booth. One reason that he married Peppy was that his ex-wife had been an alcoholic and Peppy came from an evangelical family and didn't drink.

"I'm going to stay here and live with Grandma unless I can have a horse and dog on our ranch."

This brought dinner to a stop as Sarah's rare ultimatums always did. Her mother had never allowed her a dog because she thought of dog poop as satanic. Frank sat there waiting for his wife's lead.

"You know how I feel about dog fecal matter," Peppy said properly.

"I'll teach the dog to poop a hundred yards from the house. If we're living twenty miles from the town we need a dog to guard our chickens, cows, and horses on the ranch."

"It's not a ranch. It's a farm," Frank said irrelevantly.

"We'll think about it, sweetheart," Peppy said.

"No we won't think about it. It's a dog and a horse or I'm staying in Ohio with Grandma." Sarah's grandma was a piano teacher, a Swede who had married an Italian truck farmer, not necessarily the best ethnic mix. Every day after school Sarah stopped at her grandmother's to play the piano. She had been given her middle name, Anitra, from the composer Edvard Grieg's "Anitra's Dance" at ironhard Grandma's insistence.

"Well, all the kids in the Montana countryside seem to have a horse and a dog," Frank offered.

"I'll pray about it," Peppy said in resignation.

Sarah had to pray with her mother every morning but she had her own eccentric versions of prayer including imaginary animals, the moon and stars, and music, horses, and dogs. Her grandmother disliked Peppy's evangelical beliefs thinking her son had traded in a drunk for a nitwit. Grandmother taught little Sarah that music was the speech of the gods while Peppy insisted that Sarah learn to play some hymns to counterbalance the sinful effects of the classics. Sarah would play the lugubrious "Old Rugged Cross" poorly because it was no more than barbed wire set to music.

Packing up was hard. Sarah wanted to take along their big backyard with its maples and oaks, its coverts of viburnum, honeysuckle, and barberry, the ornamental crab-apple trees and flowering almond, the tiny playhouse you had to crawl into, even the path out the unused back gate, and the back alley where she fed stray cats and where she walked to visit her few friends. Her best friend Maria who was a year older and prematurely pubescent absolutely guaranteed Sarah that cowboys would rape her in Montana and that she best get herself a pistol to defend herself, a matter over which Sarah spent a good deal of time brooding.

One Friday afternoon in mid-April her father showed up with a huge three-quarter-ton black pickup and a long trailer. Two neighbor men helped load the trailer and on Sunday there was a yard sale for what had to be left behind including Sarah's ancient piano. What would she do without a piano? Her parents, of course, hadn't thought of that. Her piano in a real sense was her speech, her only viable conversation with the world. Her father talked sparsely and her mother didn't listen in her busyness of figuring out what she was going to say next. Sarah stayed back in a thicket during the yard sale watching people paw over her bedroom furniture and beloved piano. So much had to be left behind to make room for Frank's tools and equipment, including a large floor tent they would live in while Frank built them a log cabin. She wept behind the honeysuckle bush when a man bought the piano for thirty bucks announcing loudly that he would tear it apart for its hardwood lumber. This man was going to murder her piano and it reminded her of when she and Maria would ride their bikes over to the Humane Society to visit the lovely dogs and pick out which ones they'd like to own should they ever be permitted a dog. Only after several trips did they learn from a brusque docent lady that most of the dogs would be euthanized because no one wanted them. They would kill the dogs like the man would kill her piano. Brushing her tears with a shirtsleeve she had the idea that children like herself were kennel dogs.

The jump from the piano to man to herself to dog wasn't difficult. Unlike most people, she knew her own story while she kept on making up a new one. She had figured out that it was the big gaps that were the problem so she tried to keep busy. Did her father love her? Off and on. Did her mother love her? She doubted it. Her mother loved the certainty of her own religion. She had only an obligatory, perfunctory love for her daughter. Peppy always reminded Sarah of that grinning, porcelain cat on the windowsill near Grandma's piano.

From The Farmer's Daughter by Jim Harrison. Copyright 2010 by Jim Harrison. By permission of Grove Press.

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