Last fall at the South Dakota Festival of Books in Deadwood, a new writer friend Ann Weisgarber invited me to join her and some friends for dinner at an outdoor spot. I sat down next to Lin Enger, but had no idea who I was with.
I was in a rush, for some reason I can’t remember now. I chatted briefly with Lin and skipped off.
Months later, I picked up The High Divide and realized, based on how good it is, that I could have talked for hours.
Anyway, Lin was kind enough to answer a few questions by email and a full review of The High Divide follows:
Question: What is it about the frontier that makes it such a compelling place to tell a story? Will we will ever outlive our fascination with how the west was first settled?
Lin Enger: Movement west defined our history through the first century and in some respects continues to do so. And no, I don’t think we’ll outlive our fascination with how we stole the land and tried to make ourselves rich on it, because the story is so wild and terrible and full of outlandish events; there is much about it that many still don’t want to acknowledge. Also, of course, the grandeur of the west—the appeal of so much beauty and so much space—creates a constant pull on our collective sense of potential and adventure.
Question: So many of the characters in The High Divide find themselves in situations where they are required to barter and trade, whether it’s to improve their means of transportation or to pay off debts. Was this a conscious theme going in or just the way it was?
Lin Enger: I didn’t really think about it as I wrote, but I guess you’re right. I simply tried to imagine how my characters, money-poor as they were, would manage to move across the vast landscape of the northern plains, and doing so, feed themselves and stay alive while trying to find who and what they were looking for.
Question: Did you know when you started how this would end? Do you plot things out or just follow the characters?
Lin Enger: Yes, I did know how the story would end when I started. When I write a novel, that’s how I work. I figure out where the characters will be when the story is finished, and especially, what specific act of courage, sacrifice, or discovery will come to define their experience and change their perspective. Only when I can see that act in my imagination, and understand its significance, do I feel brave enough to set off on the journey of living the novel, scene by scene.
Question: How much did you draw on your own experience as a brother in writing the relationship between Danny and Eli?
Lin Enger: I have two brothers and a sister. I also have a wife, a daughter, and a son. What I’ve learned from all of them is woven into everything I write. That said, my fiction does seem to obsess on father-son and brother-brother connections. Maybe some day I’ll know why.
Question: How did you set the moral compass for Ulysses and what lessons he would learn? How did you deal with the role religion would play? And what lessons the sons would learn? Can a man learn to live with blood on his hands?
Lin Enger: A moral dilemma is at the heart of every good story, according to John Gardner. Not surprising, since human beings are moral creatures, and most of our important decisions have an element of morality. In The High Divide, Ulysses has committed an act that he can’t forgive himself for, and his need to find some kind of redemption is what powers the story. Surely some people are able to live with blood on their hands, but Ulysses, after nearly twenty years, has reached a point of saturation. His conscience, as it happens, is driven in part by a religious impulse he can’t deny.
Question: Do you think we’re missing something as a society today by not living (for the most part) so close to the land, sleeping on dirt from time to time?
Lin Enger: I do. And I have to wonder how the technological changes of the last couple decades might alter the relationship human beings have with the land. Maybe less than we fear. We all come from the dust, after all.
Question: Will you ever return to writing mysteries? Do you read them?
Lin Enger: In the 1990s my brother, the novelist Leif Enger, and I wrote a series of mystery novels (now out of print), set in northern Minnesota and featuring an amateur detective named Gun Pedersen (a former Detroit Tigers outfielder). We had great fun writing and publishing those books, and in fact we’re about to re-release them as e-books. I don’t know if I’ll ever return to that genre, but it seems to me the elements of the mystery novel are found in much, if not most good fiction. My two “literary” novels are certainly mysteries, in that the characters are searching for answers to questions of paramount concern to them.
Question: What are you working on now? What’s next?
Lin Enger: I’m on the second draft of a novel set in California, New York City, and Minnesota, during the great decade of the 1970s. I’m having a blast working on it, and it will be, of course, the best thing I’ve ever written.
We know from the beautiful opening sentence that morality will play a role in The High Divide.
It goes like this: “That summer was cool and windless, the clouds unrelenting, as if God had reached out his hand one day and nudged the sun from its rightful place.”
We are “way out on the lip of the northern plains.”
The narrator swoops in on the small town like the opening of a film, from above, but from that moment on it’s all up close and personal with the four members of the Pope family.
Within a few pages, everyone is in motion. Lin Enger’s brisk set-up is all forward movement, like the frontier itself.
It’s 1886. Ulysees, the father, is leaving after giving a dawn hug to one boy and fence repair instructions to another. He’s holding tight to a secret. His wife, Gretta is up early to see him slip away—he doesn’t know he’s being watched. He leaves no note, no idea of his destination.
And soon sons Eli and Danny are headed off on Ulysees’ trail, leaving behind Gretta to pick up the pieces, to sort through the “money troubles,” and to try and figure out a way to manage. Gretta is forced to forge her own fresh path, though her issues, at least at first, are closer to home. She’s a survivor, we learn later, someone with a “ruthless capacity for self-protection.”
The High Divide reveals itself in careful fashion. Ulysees’ search is one of redemption from an incident when Ulysees was a member of Custer’s army. He wants to “step into the glare of judgment” and be held accountable for the atrocity. He needs to unburden himself. He’s driven by the simple notion of standing in front of the man he wronged, only knowing that if he places himself there that the right words will come. At least, that’s what he believes from a passage in Luke, a passage he’s claimed as his own.
Enger shifts points of view from Ulysees to Eli to Gretta. Each of the portraits is fully three-dimensional and free of melodrama as the story moves west from Minnesota to the Dakotas and to the Indian Reservations south of Miles City in Montana. Each of the three characters, in their own way, must negotiate or barter to keep moving and, when the time comes, to resolve their issues. There is a price for everything on the frontier, from rent to souls. Negotiating is a daily chore.
The writing is beautiful. Everything about the moments within seem genuine and unforced, with a flourish here and there for big sweeping scenery. How could you resist the scenery? “By late afternoon as they rattled into Miles City—which was laid out south of the Yellowstone—the horizon had regathered itself beneath a pale sky, the reach between here and there an expanse of rolling, gray-brown prairie in all directions. To the west, a long, high butte stretched out beneath the sun like a sleeping cougar.”
Along the way, the boys encounter the conservationist William Hornaday. Enger milks the sad (and delicious) bit of irony—the renowned representative from the Smithsonian scouring the windblown landscape for the chance to kill one of the few remaining buffalo in order to “preserve” the animal for the future. Hornaday’s journey ultimately intertwines with Ulysees’ trek. And Hornaday’s cold plans for slaughtering animals contrasts with what Ulysees did at Washita. Finally, the threads resolve in calm, grounded fashion.
Moral and religious references are interwoven throughout “The High Divide,” but ultimately the meeting of Magpie and Ulysees is down to two real men, one not suddenly and not entirely certain of the messages he’s hearing from his God. It’s a powerful, completely human moment and it sets up a stirring, memorable finish.
One final thought—the cover story on a recent issue (April 2016) of High Country News (“For people who care about the West”) is this: “A Land Divided—Can a groundbreaking settlement fix a century of bad policy in Indian Country?” Inside is a long story about the legal issues based on a ranch in Montana and, not too far away in the same issue, is a detailed story about the ongoing effort to restore the bison population.
So 130 years later, the negotiations and wildlife restoration continue—lots of good people trying to do the right thing for all sorts of good reasons. How do we manage all this open land? How do we manage the wildlife? And how do we work with those who came before “we” got here?
Some things never change.