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For their own good
Fifty years ago, they were screwed-up kids sent to the Florida School for Boys to be straightened out. But now they are screwed-up men, scarred by the whippings they endured. Read the story and see a video and portrait gallery.
In the emotionally charged Returning to Earth, Jim Harrison revisits a family going through change, then finds that he, too, must get back on the ground.
By COLETTE BANCROFT
Published February 11, 2007
Jim Harrison is looking forward to the wildflowers.
He's calling from his winter home in Patagonia, Ariz., about 20 miles from the Mexican border. "We got quite a bit of snow a few days ago. That means this year we'll have wildflowers."
In the meantime, he's keeping busy. Harrison's 14th book of fiction, the novel Returning to Earth, was published in January. "Don't feed the poets," his slyly funny take on the academic creative writing mill, appeared in the New York Times Jan. 28.
He has already finished another novel and is working on two, or maybe three, more books. At 69, this fiction writer, poet, essayist, memoirist and children's author is one of the most revered of American writers.
In such books as Legends of the Fall, Dalva and The Woman Lit by Fireflies, his spare, lyrical style and his themes - the impact of human violence and love on individuals, cultures and the natural world - place him squarely in the tradition of such great American writers as Melville, Twain and Hemingway.
But he resists square placement; he's interested in too many things. In an hour, his conversation spins from politics to screenwriting, from Chippewa bear dancers to chef Mario Batali.
Some subjects hold his interest. The characters and Upper Peninsula Michigan setting of Returning to Earth were also central to his 2004 novel True North, in which young David Burkett tries to come to terms with his family's destructive past.
Returning to Earth revolves around the death of Donald, the husband of David's sister, from Lou Gehrig's disease. Harrison depicts his dying, then follows those closest to him through the first year of mourning. The novel is the farthest thing from sentimental, a book both elegiac and joyful - an unlikely trick Harrison pulls off with grace.
"Some people have said it's my best novel, but I never think about my babies quite that way."
He says, "When I started True North I knew I'd have to revisit the characters. I thought of the whole story about 15 years ago when I was walking with the poet Dan Gerber through these acres and acres of huge stumps. He said, 'I'm glad my grandpa didn't do this.' "
David's ancestors did, and that rape of the land is echoed in his monstrous father's rape of Vera, the young daughter of an employee. David, just a boy at the time, was in love with Vera.
In Returning to Earth, Harrison says, "I wanted to see what happened to them. I wanted to see if I could make it credible.
"It's the mystery of human affection. If it starts that early and is that poignant, there's an emotional residue that remains."
Writing such an emotionally intense book means living inside it, he says, and he has to find his own return to Earth. "The whole fictive mentality was beginning to drive me a bit batty. Walker Percy called it the re-entry problem. I think that's why a lot of writers drink too much: Getting back on the ground is so hard."
He did it this time by writing an entirely different kind of novel. "This one was a bit melancholy. About four days after I finished it, I started a comic novel. That helped levitate my spirits."
What's it about? "The title will give you a clue: The English Major. I've often thought about the curse of going through the world having taken the Emerson essays seriously."
Harrison says he had the idea for the book 40 years ago, during his own brief teaching career. "I'm temperamentally indisposed to teaching. I think it's not good for you to read that much bad writing."
Harrison also spent many years making quite a bit of money as a screenwriter. But, he says, it led to "bad behavior," so he stopped about 12 years ago.
He and his wife, Linda, split their time between homes in Arizona and Montana. Harrison is a legendary epicure and has produced much knowledgeable, sensual food writing. He writes an occasional piece for author Michael Ondaatje's literary magazine Brick - "You know, food and eternity, that kind of thing" - but he's had to slow down.
"I got Type 2 diabetes a few years ago, and it really did me a lot of good," he says. "My only regret is that I can't eat good French bread and big bowls of pasta. Now I only get little bitty sissy bowls."
He eats well, though, when his friend Mario Batali visits each summer in Montana. "He brings 10 cartons of supplies and wine. But he doesn't trust his Italian white truffles to the airline. He brings them in his pockets."
Harrison's Arizona writing studio is a cabin on the Hard Luck Ranch, in country still wild enough to be home to mountain lions and bears.
Bears have a resonance for Harrison and appear in many of his books. In Returning to Earth, they're so closely associated with Donald that his grief-stricken daughter seeks them out after his death.
Clare, Harrison says, is "one of those preternaturally strong women" but struggles with the loss of her father. "Clare is crazy enough to think she can make contact, which people do, you know, especially that first year, seeing revenants and ghosts.
"There are worse things than thinking your father has come back as a bear."
Colette Bancroft can be reached at (727) 893-8435 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
Returning to Earth
By Jim Harrison Grove Press, 280 pages, $24
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Part One of Jim Harrison's novel Returning to Earth is narrated by Donald, who at 45 is dying of amyotrophic lateral sclerosis. Years before, Donald, who is Chippewa and Finnish, had spent three days in spiritual meditation in the woods, an experience he never spoke about.
Here he recounts it for his family:
Around noon the second day a flock of ravens began checking me out. I got this idea that the ravens hung around because they have spare time and were wondering what I was doing sitting still in their general home, which was where I was. Animals spend a lot of time being still so when we do too they lose their logical mistrust of us. At midmorning on the third day these three big ravens stood right outside of the thicket looking in at me. Ravens don't stand on the ground unless they're sure of themselves. Only once have I seen one dead by the road and it was pretty young. Deer and many other animals haven't figured out cars but ravens have. Anyway, it was plain to me that these three ravens wanted to know why I was sitting there. I wasn't so sure myself but I told them that the first day I had a real short vision that I was going to get sick and die. This was more than two years before I got diagnosed. I told them I wasn't too much bothered by my coming death because it's what happens to all living things sooner or later. Later would be better but it's not for me to decide. I also told these ravens about a funeral of their kind I had seen a few miles from Whitefish Point a few years back. A real old raven had fallen slowly down through the branches of a hemlock tree over a period of two hours, grabbing hold of a branch now and then with his or her last strength, while around the bird about three dozen of his family were whirling. I heard the soft sound when he finally hit the ground. I got the feeling that one of the three ravens had been there as it was less than a hundred miles away. They showed no signs of leaving so I also told them of my vision of my mother and father sitting beside a creek with a sleeping bear beside them as if it were a pet dog. My mother and father looked wonderful and they said, "Don't be afraid to come home, son."
. . . I've been lucky to spend a life pretty close to the earth up here in the north. I learned in those three days that the earth is so much more than I ever thought it was. It was a gift indeed to see all sides of everything at once. This makes it real hard to say good-bye. My family will be with me just like that old raven falling slowly down through the tree.