Author of One Book One Valley selection to speak in Edwards, March 23
Special to the Daily
If you go …
What: An evening with Lin Enger, author of the 2017 One Book One Valley Community Read selection “The High Divide.”
When: 6 p.m. Thursday, March 23.
Where: Colorado Mountain College, 150 Miller Ranch Road, Edwards.
More information: Visit onebookonevalley.com.
Writers are often told the best place to begin exploring an idea for a novel is to start with something familiar, a rich kernel from one’s life or family history which can inspire inventiveness and trigger a fluency of prose.
This year’s One Book, One Valley Community Read selection, “The High Divide,” by Lin Enger, grew out of a veritable garden of seeded musings.
“The germ was, on the one hand, this historical incident that I stumbled upon — it’s not very well-known — the Hornaday bison hunt of 1886. It really fascinated me, and I knew I wanted to write about that,” he said.
“On the other hand, I do have family history that starts in southern North Dakota. My great-grandfather was a pioneer from Norway, and in 1884, he ended up shooting a bison on his property, and that story was told to me when I was very young and from that point on, I was always really interested in bison. So, the novel grew organically out of my own curiosity of the bison, and the Hornaday story sparked the writer in me.”
Enger was very keen on not making the novel a retelling of the life of William Temple Hornaday, who, in 1886, conducted this real-world hunt of the last remaining bison, with the intention of delivering the beasts to the museum he curated — the future Smithsonian — so they could be stuffed and displayed for posterity. Enger saw the anecdote from history as a tantalizing tableau for much more.
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“I’ve always been interested in writing a book in which children are forced to go off to search for a missing parent,” he said. “I knew that would be a powerful motif for a novel. It occurred to me that I could use that real generic plot idea and wed it to the Hornaday story.
“Hornaday is a fascinating character, but he wasn’t that interesting to the novelist in me. What was more interesting to me was to write about an ordinary family for whom these historical incidences provide a backdrop for their own family crisis. So, then I invented the Pope family. Once I had those elements in place — the history of the father, for instance — then I had a novel to write and it actually came pretty quickly.”
Enger is a writer’s writer, a person deeply dedicated to the craft. But there is no pretentiousness present in his literary voice; there is only a thoughtful consideration of all the characters within his narrative and a respectful exploration of where those individuals intersect with a fascinating period in this nation’s history.
To incorporate real-world moments from history into a novel takes finesse and Enger paid careful attention to the details of the time period and the events he was blending into his story.
“I did quite a lot of research, more reading than traveling,” he said. “I read a lot. I read a lot about Custer. I read a lot about the Ouachita tribe — what I could find — a lot of it being oral stories from the native peoples who were involved. I did try to go to the place where the bison hunt happened.”
If you go northwest of Miles City, Montana, he said, then there is nothing there. It is unfenced cattle ranches and vast stretches of undeveloped lands.
“It is gorgeous,” he said. “I drove out there with my four-wheel drive, and I spent a couple days just driving around, trying to figure out about where this hunt happened … and, of course, there are no markings.
“I drove all over the area, and I walked it, and whether I actually found the place, who can say? But I had the maps, and of course, there are the Big Dry and Little Dry rivers, which are really more dry than they are wet. I spent time there and it was invaluable.”
Enger also spent time at the Little Bighorn battle site, which didn’t figure into the scenes of his novel, but one of his character’s, Magpie, had been there.
“There was an actual Cheyenne man named Magpie who as a child survived the Ouachita massacre and as a young man, was involved in Little Bighorn,” he said. “That was real, so I used that name, too. But, of course, I changed his story quite a lot.”
Enger’s invented Pope family bumps up against this powerful reality of the indigenous peoples’ struggles against the forces of America’s frontier ideal of Manifest Destiny.
Not only did the author have to navigate the tricky and nuanced realm of cultural sensitivity, he also needed to make the thread of his narrative shine, which he did by selecting which moment would be the climax for each family member’s personal journey and which singular event would ultimately act as the juncture where his characters’ often divergent paths would once more coalesce into the matter and circumstances of family and sacrifice, which were the enduring threads which ran throughout the novel.
That instance of exceptional familial devotion arrives like a classic capstone of literature, and the denouement which follows provides the reader a satisfying sense of completion.
“When I start a novel, I have to kind of know where I am going to end up,” Enger said. “I don’t have a plot or map, per say, but I know where I am going to end up. And that scene, that moment, where Eli essentially does for his father what his father can’t do himself, was what I was writing toward when I started writing the novel.
“I knew that was going to happen. I didn’t know how exactly it was going to work. I just knew in my bones that that moment was going to be the climax of the novel, and to me, that was the thematic, emotional and psychological pulse of the novel. Right there. It’s kind of a hard thing to explain. … A novel is only going to succeed or fail based on those moments.”
Enger’s clear vision for “The High Divide” is at the heart of its essence. The book is generous to any reader who loves to explore the intricacies of a novel’s structure and design, and its author clearly enjoys discussing the methodology of his craft, which will make the upcoming One Book One Valley evening with Enger a real treat.