“Dear Son! I am being honest but not honest enough. Once up in Minnesota I saw a three-legged bobcat, a not quite whole bobcat with one leg lost to a trap. There is the saw about cutting the horse’s legs off to get him in a box. The year it happened to me the moon was never quite full. Is the story always how we tried to continue our lives as if we had once lived in Eden? Eden is the childhood still in the garden, or at least the part of it we try to keep there. Maybe childhood is a myth of survival for us. I was a child until fifteen, but most others are far more truncated.”
At forty-five years of age Dalva Northridge has lived a life of privilege and riches yet is constantly reminded of the shame she has for her physical attributes. With all of the typical attention that comes from being a distinct cultural beauty, Dalva has an undeniable need to be properly seduced, not coerced due to birthright and other sociological factors. Dalva has never been a woman deprived of lovers, she would tell you unapologetically that she has had her share; she would not allow her cumbersome environment deny her one of life’s great pleasures. Dalva makes her way north on horseback to rediscover something transcendent in order to assist in solving her existential crisis and ultimately allow her to flourish. Dalva sets out on a quest from her home in California to that of her childhood home in Nebraska to find the son she has never known, and make amends with a past far gone, but never forgotten. This is a story of a grown woman reminiscing about her youth, her family, and rediscovering a heritage she steadfastly denied ever making a lasting imprint on who she was, but one that will show her who she could thrive to be.
Throughout her life Dalva has lived in many cities, has had countless jobs, and has left many bedfellows reaching for a cold and empty side of the bed. Dalva has worked in Michigan for the Department of the Interior, in New York for a fashion magazine, in Minneapolis as an addiction’s counselor, for a documentary film maker in Florida, a liason for the Organization of American States in Washington, a social worker in Michigan, and finally a youth worker in Santa Monica. In and between all of her career changes, her life is filled with affairs, drugs, alcohol, and food. Parting is never a sweet sorrow for Dalva because she knows there is another ‘Romeo’ just around the way. A very dominant, yet tormented character, she seems to be in control in every situation, making her an honest, mature, and a dependable protagonist that you want to cheer on.
“Once when Emilia and I were plucking quail for dinner I asked her if she was Paul’s lover. ‘Sometimes,’ She said. I continued the line of questioning until she became embarrassed and changed the subject by saying the doctor was coming in the morning. I disliked the doctor who was puffy white and wore too much cologne. ‘Who was the lucky boy?’ he asked during the first examination when I lay with my legs up I told him I didn’t know because I had been drunk and there were several. A wave of disgust passed across his face and further examinations were without conversation.”
While Dalva is the titular character and therefore the most prominent, the men also become a focal point at various points throughout the novel. Dalva’s father John Wesley Northridge III fought for America in WW2 and was killed when Dalva was nine-years-old during the forgotten Korean War when the plane he was piloting was shot down. Her memory of him is quite unclear; limited for the most part to events and not a continuation of days. Dalva’s uncle Paul Northridge is an eccentric free-spirit who travels the world and becomes a steady presence and spiritual influence in Dalva’s life after the death of his father and her grandfather. Paul is a wayward traveler who finally settles down when the time calls. Duane Stonehouse is part-Sioux, but lives a life of a Caucasian cowboy. Strong and silent, Duane doesn’t react to Dalva the typical way that other men Dalva normally encounters do. This makes Duane an intriguing and mysterious character that impresses upon Dalva a fascination that must be further investigated. For the reader he is also a man that has more significance in his absence then he does in his presence which heightens his mystique. Kind of a ghostly figure, with limited knowledge you wonder why Dalva wants him so bad, but you gradually learn that for Dalva, Duane’s spirit guides her, serving as a Star of Wonder that helps steer her to the answer to her questions.
Michael is a history professor at Stanford University that is working on making tenure and needs Dalva to address a family history that she would rather forget. They may be able to help each other reach their respective end games. What makes Michael interesting is that he is a man of indulgences. Whether it be a fine wine, delicacies, or a young impressionable local girl, Michael is easily distracted along his travels and during the assembly of his important work. What makes him amusing is the fun that can be had when putting a city boy in the country, just use your imagination. Dalva’s great-grandfather John Wesley Northridge was a religious outsider, but became a pioneer for the Sioux nation in Nebraska. He kept journals of the tribes plight, their excavation from their grounds, and their ultimate demise. He served as the preserver of an invaluable piece of American history and a restorer of the consequence of Native Americans across the land.
“In the cab on the way to the lawyer’s I reconsidered my involvement with the miserable son of a bitch. He simply in some classic sense didn’t know any better. The idea that a man or a woman could be incisively brilliant in one area, and a grotesque fuck-up in another was scarcely limited to the academic profession. Most of the bright and energetic people I had known in my life had closeted away secrets that were far too vivid to be referred to as skeletons.”
Naturally, like any historical western this book was truly difficult to get a handle on. Jumping from places in time and various perspectives, the non-linear approach to narrative will place an emphasis on supreme focus and concentration. What I appreciated about Dalva was the author’s ability to include some humour in a rather weighted novel filled with depression and personal regret. For instance, Dalva’s sister Ruth is a Protestant Methodist who at forty-years-of-age is desperately trying to get a Catholic priest to impregnate her in order to keep the land in her family. To say she is burdened would be an understatement, when you consider her privileged lifestyle, it makes it that much more entertaining. I also enjoyed the way the author was able to describe the vastness of the environment, the dangers that lurk in the dark, and the uncertainty that waits in the distance.A story that travels through prairies, spans generations, and crosses narratives; Dalva by Jim Harrison is the prototypical epic that demands a reading once in a lifetime.