This is the third novel in the last month or so that I’ve gone back to read a second time. I first enjoyed it in June 2008, after hearing a friend recommend it many times. As with those other books, while I remembered the story, the second reading uncovered a wealth of great stuff that hadn’t stayed with me.
The beginning sequence is just lovely, with the narrator telling how he’d been pronounced dead at birth but was then miraculously revived by his father. The high drama of that scene is relieved by bits of humor, such as his report that there wasn’t even any brain damage–or at least none evident until he got to Plane Geometry in tenth grade. As the story unfolds, the father’s extraordinary gifts become ever more apparent, and my fascination with them is probably the thing that overshadowed the book’s other qualities the first time through. (Reportedly, such people do live in our world from time to time, and for almost three decades I’ve longed to meet one.)
Inevitably, the very significant goodness that the father can access is balanced in the story by pure evil, first in the form of two young criminals and later by an even more sinister character. (Law enforcement is a neutral force, at best.) The interface between good and evil is where the narrator and his two siblings reside–as do all of us, I guess. In making sense of that fundamental conflict, the sister, Swede, resorts to rather fetching old-fashioned narrative, almost epic poetry. The response of the older brother Davy is to take action, join the fray, and thereby become a sort of mythic hero. Davy also bears the brunt of the hardships and sacrifice that come with the turf. The narrator himself, generally called by the nickname Rube (which means unsophisticated), conveys all this with aplomb, despite continually feeling outclassed by his sister in terms of wordsmithing. On the other hand he does seem to merit the name when in the presence of his much-admired older brother; at those times Rube becomes a pathetic fool, at least in his own eyes.
The story introduces certain themes that recur in Leif Enger’s more recent novel, So Brave, Young and Handsome, such as the romance of the Old West (with particular focus on storied and possibly misunderstood outlaws like Butch Cassidy) and a cross-country trek in which the good guys are shadowed by trouble. It’s nice to spot continuites like that from one title to the next. Ultimately, however, the flow of words itself is the best feature. This book is a pure delight to read, with exquisite pacing and a voice that’s both lyrical and folksy. The following passage is typical:
Having retreated to sleep I snapped from a dream in which Swede’s persistent bad man Valdez had got into the Airstream and crawled into my bunk. I knew he was there but couldn’t tell anyone–not that I didn’t want to, I just couldn’t say the right words. Time after time I got Dad’s attention only to mumble some nursery rhyme instead of the evil fact. …
“Wake up, Rube,” Dad said, as we bounced into August’s yard.
Relieved, I was nonetheless unbalanced by the dream and stumbled up to the house with it still attached. Unbundling us into her hot kitchen, Birdie teased, kindly, “Somebody’s too sleepy to say hello.”
But that was only part of it. In truth I was a little scared, and preoccupied about where we’d go from here. For I had asked this of Dad the previous night, asked it straight out: Where do we go from August’s? He didn’t know. We’d simply go forth, he said, like the children of Israel when they packed up and cameled out of Egypt. He meant to encourage me. Just like us, the Israelites hadn’t any idea where they’d end up! Just like us, they were traveling by faith! Indeed, it did impart a thrill, yet the trip thus far, in the frigid and torpid Plymouth, had reminded me what a hard time the chosen people actually had of it. Once traveling, it’s remarkable how quickly faith erodes. It starts to look like something else–ignorance, for example. Same things happened to the Israelites. Sure, it’s weak, but sometimes you’d just rather have a map.
Stephen Gallup is the author of a memoir, What About the Boy: A Father’s Pledge to His Disabled Son. He has an eclectic interest in books and authors, and reviews books as part of his passion for the written word. He blogs at fatherspledge.com.