'The Road Home': epic of empathy


"The Road Home," by Jim Harrison. Grove/Atlantic. 416 pages. $25. Pine Ridge and the infamous Wounded Knee hover on the Nebraska landscape of Jim Harrison's deeply moving new novel, "The Road Home," sequel to his 1988 "Dalva." White and mixed blooded Native American characters alike mourn "the cruelty of what happened to our first citizens" in this lush and beautiful book, a tour de force of compassion. Of voices, there are five: the elderly half-Lakota Northridge; his great grandson Nelse; his daughter-in-law Naomi; his surviving son Paul; and his granddaughter Dalva herself in a heart-wrenchingly apocalyptic finale.

Voice itself is plot. Memory suffuses every day, for Harrison believes that "our trajectories begin in childhood and are somewhat less movable than we wish to think." Wisdom is available to every character, not least Dalva, who discovers that "we all lose each other along the way.

"Everyone loses everyone, mothers, husbands, children, mere lovers, both the good and the evil." For solace, there is the landscape, known most deeply by the Native Americans and their descendants, wise enough to love "the landscape in which they lived" and "the animals to which they were drawn."

Harrison's scope is epic. From the vantage of America's first citizens the history of the century passes, from the Great Armory Show of 1913, to the Korean War where Northridge's beloved son, John Wesley perishes, to Vietnam, where John Wesley's son and putative son-in-law, Duane, serves several tours of duty and is thereby undone. Most, Harrison harvests the values of those who were here first.

"It's arguable if anyone ever truly recovers from anything," Northridge knows. To Northridge's Native American mother, "the saddest thing about native dispossession is that the people weren't able to live out the cues from their dreams." Harrison believes that "to pity these men is to pity the gods." In Cormac McCarthy country, he penetrates the heart of the ancestral American culture, without resorting to mysticism or hocus pocus.

Among the unique facets of Harrison's storytelling is his rare affection for virtually all of his characters. He loves the old geezer Northridge, portraying him as a vibrant half-Lakota youth with a sketchbook, suffering, as will Nelse, the great-grandson he never knows, from "saudade," "a homesickness or longing for something vital that has been irretrievably lost, and only the dream of it could be recovered." He worries over Nelse, inexplicably a "nomad." Harrison loves even the dog Northridge buries "except for her soul which had fled elsewhere."

Equally profound is Harrison's abiding social consciousness, which notes that "we have rebuilt Germany in a scant dozen years and have utterly ignored our first citizens." All his people are generous with their money, and even a less than admirable minor character knows that "justice has always been an accident of birth." Living in the Southwest, Paul prevents his dogs from abusing "the poor souls who were trying to migrate across the border."

"The Road Home," as poignant as Harrison's "Legends of the Fall," is an exquisite marvel of storytelling. His novel becomes a hymn to the Native Americans no less than to the Nebraska sandhills. To quote Northridge, it takes nothing less than "an abrupt bite out of the heart."

Joan Mellen teaches in the creative writing program at Temple University in Philadelphia. She is the author of 13 books.

Pub Date: 10/25/98

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