Book Review: ‘High Divide’ a beautiful historical fiction
January 17, 2015
“The High Divide”
By Lin Enger
“The High Divide” tells the story of an American family and the rift — or divide — that threatens to break their bonds and their lives. This is a modern, literary Western: beautiful, sweeping historical fiction, set in the post-Civil War West, when railways sliced across the plains, when Custer was king and the vast herds of bison nearly had been decimated.
This is the story of Ulysses, who disappears one morning, inexplicably leaving his family behind at their home on the harsh, high plains of Minnesota. Eli, Ulysses' teenage son, sets out on an epic journey to track down his father, with his younger, sickly brother, Danny, in tow. Suddenly left alone by her husband and two sons, Gretta feels obligated to take care of the home and somehow dig her family out of debt. Yet Gretta quickly sets off on her own journey west for answers about her husband's business and whereabouts, and more pressingly, the safety of her young sons.
The first section of the novel left me catching my breath, with each character in dire pursuit: Ulysses in pursuit of redemption for the atrocities he was responsible for while serving in Custer's cavalry during the era of the "Indian Problem;" Eli and Danny in pursuit of their father in the interest of keeping their family intact; and Gretta in pursuit of her sons, but also her own honor and the truth her husband kept from her for years.
The chase takes readers into boxcars crossing the windy plains, through saloons and opium dens, to the buttes and badlands of Montana, where the characters' interests collide.
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The sons’ chapters are most compelling. Eli and Danny are forced to grow into men during their journeys, especially as they grapple with the failures and ugly weaknesses of their father and as they develop ideas of the men they want to become.
Although subtle, the dichotomy between gender roles of Gretta and Ulysses was interesting and another strength of Enger's storytelling. I found myself feeling sorry for Gretta, who seems trapped, her movement and choices restricted by her husband's, sons’ and neighbors' expectations of her as a woman. In contrast, Ulysses' seemingly careless sense of freedom allows him to shirk his familial responsibilities to embark on a fool's errand, leaving his family without explanation. Ultimately, Ulysses quest for redemption causes his family to pay for his own past sins.
I appreciate the care and precision Enger exercises in his descriptions of real historical events, like the Washita Massacre. This is rich historical fiction strongly rooted in place — the desolation of the plains is palpable, the dusty dry winds chilling and the smell of bison musk almost perceptible.
Well-paced and captivating, “The High Divide” is the kind of book that makes you want to stay up just a little bit later so you can read ahead one more chapter.
Emily Katzman is a bookseller at Off the Beaten Path Bookstore in downtown Steamboat Springs.
This book is available at the Bud Werner Memorial Library and at Off the Beaten Path Bookstore; e-book can be found at http://www.steamboatbooks.com.
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