Book review: ‘The High Divide,’ by Lin Enger, 2017 One Book One Valley selection
Special to the Daily
One Book One Valley events
• 6:30 p.m. Monday, Feb. 13 — Indian Wars lecture, Colorado Mountain College
• 5:30 p.m. Wednesday, Feb. 15 — Horseshoe art with Alpine Arts Center, Vail Public Library, RSVP required
• 5:30 p.m. Wednesday, Feb. 22 — Ute Native Americans & The History of the Slopes, Vail Public Library
• 5 p.m. Wednesday, March 8 — Book discussion, Vail Public Library
• 3:30 p.m. Friday, March 10 — Storyteller, Leon Littlebird, Vail Public Library
• 6 p.m. Thursday, March 23 — Author event, Colorado Mountain College
Visit onebookonevalley.com for more details about these events as they become available.
Those who have spent any amount of time in the American West can appreciate the diverse palette of light, color and historical depth that the boundless landscape can provide to artists and writers in their imaginings and explorations of the complexities of the human condition.
“The High Divide,” a recent novel by Lin Enger and this year’s One Book One Valley Community Read selection for Eagle County, is a fine example of the classic mythos of the “hero’s journey” that sets itself beautifully against the vast backdrop of the American plains during the age of westward expansion.
In what seems to be an unmistakable but evocative retelling of “The Odyssey,” Enger’s tale is atmospheric and filled with fog and mystery, set as it is against the stark and hostile beauty of 19th century Americana. The poignancy of what could have been a commonplace story of frontier life is elevated as Enger explores the universal notions of loneliness and isolation, human connections and personal redemption.
On an ordinary morning one man walks off of his farm with an old rooster tucked under his arm showing every sign that he will be back — except for the note left behind that says everything without saying anything. The reinforcement of the literary analogy is embodied in this man’s name — Ulysses — but it quickly becomes clear that there are multiple “hero’s journeys” within Enger’s undressed narrative, which reads, at times, with the unadorned directness of a Steinbeck novel.
Ulysses leaves behind a disquieted wife and two sons, each of whom must also undergo a metamorphosis of self in order to discover the meaning of personal identity within a family. Decisions and choices have a ripple effect, and past burdens can isolate a person, even in the midst of loved ones. The book encompasses a journey of discovery that envelops both time and space, lighting on monumental historical events that devastated the cultures of North America’s native peoples.
Ulysses’ past is tied to the events that made Gen. George Armstrong Custer infamous, and the shadow of that past life surrounds him, though his family is ignorant of its origin. Eli, the eldest son, is the first to learn the truth, as he and his younger and more sickly brother, Danny, set out on their own journey to find their father and bring him home. Left to fend off a lecherous landlord who offers his bed in exchange for the rent, the mother is forced to strike out in pursuit of her wayward family.
The narrative takes on a fragmented quality, with the four members of the family unit each searching for his or her own path, which gives the book the sense that it is composed of many stories that are linked, with new chapters and new beginnings tumbling together. The story, at times, brings to mind the movie “O’ Brother Where Art Thou,” with its quirky timbre and the juxtaposition of clashing worlds — the past and the future.
Past, present and future
The title “The High Divide” refers to the space that grows up between people, but it is also a reference to a physical place, the high plains of Wyoming, the final holdout for the beleaguered and threatened bison, and it is here that the book’s many tangents converge. The reckoning of the past, present and future of both beast and man — white and native — coalesce against Enger’s tactile exploration of the grandness of the West, with vibrant imagery of nature — “lightning, each flash beginning at the center of heaven and following a complex geometry to earth, again and again, the booms jarring the ground before they arrived as thunder in the air.”
The rumbles of Enger’s fine writing will resonate, too, with its jarring imagery and soulful examination of man’s moral compass. The odyssey that Ulysses undertakes is simply one version of what each of us must endeavor to have “a chance to make good,” and thus bring balance to our lives and the lives of others.