Set in 1886, Enger’s novel embraces not one but three journeys that involve guilt, expiation and redemption.
The first quest is that of Ulysses Pope, who lives with his wife, Gretta, and two sons, Eli and Danny. One day, Ulysses ups and disappears from their home in Sloan’s Crossing, Minnesota, leaving no note and no reason to part. For the previous year—in fact, ever since he was baptized—Gretta had noticed some strange behavior in her husband but nothing to make her think he'd leave home. Although Eli is only a teenager, he quickly decides to pursue his father to find out what happened. He tries to sneak away in the dead of night but finds that Danny has followed him; even though his brother is rather sickly, Eli lets him stay on the quest in pursuit of their father. Meanwhile, in a plot development that would reek of soap opera if it weren’t so well-handled, moneylender Mead Fogarty is putting pressure on Gretta to acknowledge that her husband has left permanently and that her best opportunity for economic survival resides with him. Eli and Danny finally catch up with their father, who, it turns out, has led something of a secret life: He was in Custer’s Indian campaign out West and committed an atrocity against an Indian family. The motive for his journey has been to try to make amends for his crime. The psychology of character deepens as, along the way, he starts to get involved in the third quest of the novel—hunting in Montana with a scientist/taxidermist from the Smithsonian who wants to kill buffalo and have them stuffed so their legacy will not be lost on future generations.
Enger writes in an expansive style suitable to his sprawling subject.