Meditations on mortality and quasi-incestuous desire inform this thoughtful, occasionally rambling novel.
Making his fictional return to Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, Harrison (True North, 2004, etc.) tells the story of a death and its aftermath through four different narrators. The first is Donald, a man of mixed Chippewa-Finnish blood, who reflects on his life as he suffers through the final stages of Lou Gehrig’s disease. He’s a 45-year-old man of deep spirituality and profound dignity, and he’s determined to assume control over his last days. The final section’s narrator is Cynthia, Donald’s wife, who is still trying to come to terms with his death five months later. He had enriched her life in ways that her wealthy family never could, and she had married him because he was so unlike her pedophile father. These sections are by far the novel’s strongest, leaving the reader to wonder how and why Harrison chose the two narrators in the middle. One is K, a free spirit with a Mohawk haircut, who is the stepson of Cynthia’s brother, David. K helps Donald through his last days, while sleeping with Donald’s daughter, Clare, and lusting after her mother. Though the familial ties are too close for comfort, Cynthia occasionally feels twinges of desire for her daughter’s cousin/lover as well. The weakest section of the novel is narrated by David, who hasn’t been able to come to terms with unearned wealth as well as his sister has, and whose life balances good works with mental instability. It seems that their disgraced father has somehow influenced both David’s character and his fate. As the last three narrators resume their lives after Donald’s death, it appears to each of them that his spirit has not died with him and perhaps is now inhabiting a bear. Studying Chippewa spirituality, daughter Clare comes to believe this most strongly, which makes one wonder why she and perhaps her brother weren’t narrators instead of K and David.
Death remains a mystery, as Harrison explores the meaning it gives to life.