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Jim Harrison's The Farmer's Daughter

Posted by Scott Gast | February 17, 2010

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A precocious teenager comes of age in cowboy country. A Michigan Indian is looking to survive and hoping to get lucky. And a werewolf just wants to fit in. The story of each charmingly idiosyncratic character in this trio of novellas resounds with Harrison’s wit, wisdom, and delight in all things earthly.

Sarah Holcomb is the tall beauty of the title story, which takes place in rural Montana. Failed by her parents, having lost her aging best friend / father figure, and roaring with vengeance after being sexually assaulted, Sarah is at times a rough-and-tumble country girl and at others an introvert who turns to music and literature for solace. Though I was not convinced by Harrison’s interpretation of a girl’s vantage point on love, life, and relationships, and although it’s hard to ignore the heavy presence of the male author, the story is a beautiful and darkly funny meditation on the merits of choosing love over vengeance and balancing self-reliance with the human need for kinship.

Brown Dog, a recurrent and much-loved character in Harrison’s body of work, has a lusty appetite for women, fried animal protein, and strong drink. In “Brown Dog Redux,” he has fled to Canada in an attempt to maintain custody of his stepdaughter Berry, who, affected by fetal alcohol syndrome, speaks no human language and instead communicates in birdcalls and behaviors gleaned from the nonhuman world. Uninterested in mainstream beliefs about what’s good for him and his kid, B.D. is trying to keep his stepdaughter from being committed to the sterile, soul-sucking confinement of an institution.

Whereas B.D. unabashedly indulges carnal impulses, the protagonist of “The Games of Night” is plagued by them. A retired werewolf, he has been forced into a life of isolation by periods of uncontrollable urges to run, hunt, and ravish. Here Harrison fleshes out a discomfiting mélange of civilized-erudite and bloodthirsty-bestial, whereby the werewolf’s unsavory predilections are just an exaggeration of natural human urges for sex, sustenance, and domination.

In their own way, each protagonist is grappling with a dominant culture that often lacks empathy for the eccentric, and each takes refuge in the world’s inherent beauty—a wide-open sky, a river, a woman.

The Farmer’s Daughter
By Jim Harrison
Grove Press, 2010
Reviewed by Erica Dorpalen, Orion Intern

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