In new novel by Moorhead author, conflict hangs over the Minnesota prairie
Like many great stories, Moorhead novelist Lin Enger's new novel, "The High Divide," starts with some family history. In Enger's case, the inspiration came from something that happened to his grandfather, a Norwegian immigrant, in 1884. "Legend h...
Like many great stories, Moorhead novelist Lin Enger's new novel, "The High Divide," starts with some family history.
In Enger's case, the inspiration came from something that happened to his grandfather, a Norwegian immigrant, in 1884.
"Legend has it, family legend, that a bison wandered up to his stock tank behind is sod-barn, and took a drink, and my great-grandfather shot it," he said.
Enger is not entirely sure it happened, but he knows the tale launched his obsession with the bison. That led to "The High Divide," a book that mixes the excitement and harsh realities of the nation's westward expansion with the lingering losses of war.
Enger will read from "The High Divide" at 4 p.m. today at the bookstore on the University of Minnesota's Minneapolis campus. He'll read around the state next week, visiting Alexandria, St. Joseph, and St. Paul before returning to Minneapolis.
The novel's connection to bison is not evident for the first 150 pages of the book, which begins as the story of a western Minnesota family whose husband and father, Ulysses Pope, walks away from their prairie town one morning, never to return.
A Civil War veteran who has returned to Minnesota after also fighting in the Indian wars, Ulysses leaves his wife and their two young boys with a financial mess that threatens everything they've worked for.
As the story unfolds, that leaves 16-year-old Eli to daydream about what adventures might have drawn his father away.
He could see him standing at the wheel of a Mississippi riverboat or perched on scaffolding high over the city, trowel in hand as a building rose brick by brick into the sky. Or loading a freight car, sacks of potatoes riding both shoulders. Other times though, at first light, or late at night under the stars, no image whatsoever came to mind -- only the sound of his father's voice, audible, close by: "I could use your help."
Eli and his younger brother Danny set off for Fargo and Bismarck and then farther west to look for their father -- without telling their mother Gretta. In a panic, she heads east to St Paul thinking that's where her family must have gone.
Enger details life in the prairie towns and the rapidly growing Minnesota capital. But he also examines the pall of conflict hanging over the time.
"So that's 20 years after the Civil War," Enger said. "Ulysses is a veteran of the Civil War. Ten years after the Indian wars ended with the Custer battle and what followed."
It's a complex tale of a father suffering the long-term psychological impact of war, and the family he abandons.
That's where the bison enter the story. Enger imagines the boys meeting the great conservationist William Hornaday in North Dakota as he headed west in 1886. Hornaday, the real life chief curator of what would become the Smithsonian Institution, believed the bison was about to become extinct -- and he needed specimens.
"The irony is too rich," Enger said with a laugh. "Incredible that this conservationist is out in the wilds of Montana, shooting the last wild bison."
"The High Divide" then delves into the fate of the once mighty bison herds and of the Plains Indians who depended on them.
Enger said he didn't realize how complex his story was until he'd finished it.
"Amazingly the first draft of this book was almost effortless for me," he said. "I wrote it in six months, writing about an hour a day, teaching full time."
A lot of rewriting and editing followed.
Enger said when he first began thinking about writing "The High Divide" the task of re-imagining 19th century life intimidated him. But then he remembered his grandparents were children of that same era – and how close modern life is to that history.
At its heart, the novel is a rip-roaring adventure story. It's a Western, but one which applies 21st Century understanding to 19th Century realities.
"There's been a new awareness, certainly in the last 20, 30 years, of American history, and that particular period of American history, and what it cost us. And what it still costs us I think. Psychologically, and what it cost certain communities in this country."
For information on Lin Enger's readings, visit http://www.lin-enger.com/