Lonesome dove 

Farmer's Daughter finds Harrison at his best

At age 73, and with more than 36 books under his belt, Jim Harrison ranks among our most prolific authors. In the last three years alone, Harrison has published two novels, a collection of poetry and, most recently, a collection of three novellas titled The Farmer's Daughter. The novella is nothing new to Harrison. Indeed, with five previous novella collections, it's arguably his signature form—and one he's clearly mastered.

The Farmer's Daughter follows the stories of three characters who appear dramatically different from one another. The title story features a teenage girl who grows up on a Montana ranch. The second resurrects one of Harrison's most recognizable characters, Brown Dog, the Chippewa Indian with an insatiable appetite for ladies and a heart of gold. The final novella follows the story of a thoughtful wanderer, one who happens to be part werewolf. Ostensibly, these three characters have nothing in common, yet all are loners of a similar vein: the kind isolated first by circumstances beyond their control and then, perpetually, because they gave the world a try and decided there hadn't been much there in the first place. It's no wonder that in each of their stories the characters listen to Patsy Cline's mournful version of "The Last Word in Lonesome is Me."

click to enlarge The Farmer’s Daughter - Jim Harrison - hardcover, Grove Press - 384 pages, $24.00
  • The Farmer’s DaughterJim Harrisonhardcover, Grove Press384 pages, $24.00

In the title story, Sarah Holcomb moves with her evangelical mother and taciturn father to a ranch in Montana. The Treasure State is "where the passage between girl and woman is a short voyage," so, it's probably not the best place for a girl's mother to jump ship. Unfortunately, that's exactly what happens a few years after the move. Still, Sarah grows into a precocious teenager who hunts antelope, plays Liszt, reads Faulkner and wonders what her best friend, a 73-year-old bachelor named Old Tim, thinks when he spies her sunbathing in nothing but panties. As he's dying from cancer, Tim reaches up from his deathbed to touch Sarah's breast: "I don't want to be impolite but that's the finest breast I've ever seen."

From any other writer, it would have been the act of a dirty old codger, but from Harrison it's a gesture infused with poignancy, even love: the best way two friends could have said goodbye.

After Tim's death, Sarah heads to the county fair, hoping to fill the void left by Tim with a little fun and maybe even friends her own age. When she's drugged and raped by a fiddler from Meeteetse, Wyo., Sarah, an experienced huntress, becomes consumed with the desire for revenge.

The novella ends like a fairy tale, with all the sweetness and seeming implausibility that comes with such stories. It'd be easy to discount such an ending as contrived, maybe a touch bland, but Harrison's novellas are nothing if not rocky journeys toward a kind of negotiated peace, and Sarah's is hard-fought and deftly rendered.

"Brown Dog Redux" continues the story of B.D., who made his first appearance in 1990's The Woman Lit by Fireflies. When last we saw the character ("The Summer He Didn't Die," 2006), B.D. had fled his home in Michigan's Upper Peninsula, taking his stepdaughter Berry with him after Berry's alcoholic mother landed in prison. Had they stayed, the state would have carted off Berry, who can't speak (though she can imitate bird calls to perfection) and who suffers from the effects of fetal alcohol syndrome, to an institution.

"Redux" finds B.D. living in Toronto, a pleasant enough city, but one that makes him yearn for "the nothingness of the Upper Peninsula." He and Berry find their way home via a tour bus of a rock group called the Thunderskins. When the journey ends, it's time to make some hard decisions regarding the soon-to-be adolescent Berry. B.D.'s story couldn't hold that much sentiment if it weren't balanced by his enduring lust, which Harrison conveys in generous portions.

"The Games of the Night" tells the story of a boy who becomes part werewolf. At 12, Samuel accompanies his mostly negligent father on a trip to search for a rare carnivorous hummingbird. Lured by the stain of a lipstick kiss on his cheek, a hummingbird stabs him with her beak and the next day he's bitten by a wolf cub (with more of those unearthly hummingbirds fluttering around him). Misdiagnosed with a "blood virus," Samuel suffers from violent seizures two days a month, during which he goes on sexual binges he barely remembers afterward. Animal appetites of every kind take over, but in between moons Samuel grows into a lonely man, unable to share his story with anyone: "My own story was scarcely tellable. I couldn't very well mention that just the other day I'd found a finger in my pocket."

Adumbrated within these pages is the image of Harrison himself, or at least the Author Harrison we've come to know. Sarah's Tim, the same age as Harrison, lends the same touching resonance we hear in Harrison's poetry. B.D. has long been a kind of alter ego for the author. And Samuel is a throwback to Harrison's first book, Wolf: A False Memoir, where the author characterized himself in all his wolfish appetites. Some 40 years since that first book, The Farmer's Daughter illustrates an author who's essentially the same man he's always been—except now he's a master.

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