a new novel from Grove/Atlantic.
The epic saga of David Burketts struggle to reconcile his future with the rapacious greed of his familys history, True North is Harrisons eighth novel. The Burkett family fortune was hacked out of the virgin white pine of the central Upper Peninsula, a common setting in Harrison fiction.
Raised in Reed City and Haslett, Harrison lived more than 30 years on a Leelanau County farm. His regular forays to the U.P. also eventually necessitated a small cabin outside Grand Marais. These northern environs have always figured prominently in his fiction.
According to Harrison, True North is a more comprehensible version of what we call Northern Michigan. He says the seed for the novel came to him 17 years ago when he and poet Dan Gerber, another Michigan native now living in Montana, were walking the Kingston Plains area of the central Upper Peninsula. We both agreed we were pleased that our own grandfathers werent responsible for the vast despoiling of the U.P.s virgin white pine, now still a sea of stumps. Harrisons tale also reduces the enormity of the destruction to the personal, leaving a story that resonates with both history and compassion.
Harrison did not come to novels easily. He injured his back in a fall while grouse hunting in the 1970s. Already an accomplished poet, Harrison found himself laid up with time. He turned the convalescence into opportunity, penning his first novel, Wolf: A False Memoir.
Speaking from his new Montana home, Harrison waxes sentimental about his old home in Leelanau. Oddly enough, what you miss are the things you hadnt thought about, he concedes. On his list of longed-for home tastes are black morel mushrooms, the view of Lake Michigan, and Dicks Poorhouse in Lake Leelanau. You had these circadian rhythms in your life that were interrupted, he says about the move. But I was back (to the U.P.) four times last year, he is quick to add.
The move west was compelled in part by a desire to be closer to family. Our daughters moved out here, he says referring to the sprawling grasslands near his new home outside Livingston, Montana. And our grandchildren are here.
So, while the vistas outside his windows have changed, his writing has retained the combination of masculine vitality and urbane sophistication that has earned Harrison a worldwide audience.
His insistence on characters that act decisively while pondering the mysteries of an unknowable world has long marked Harrisons prose. This place is appreciated outside the U.S. as well. Translated into more than 20 languages, the French have a particular affinity for Harrisons work. Ive been out here in the real world since my twenties, he says. American novels are largely either mental or action driven. The French dont want to read this distinctly New York novel because they already have Paris, he adds.
As his new protagonist David Burkett navigates the rocky strait between what he wants his life to be and what he knows his history has been, the strong, enigmatic women that have long been a staple of Harrison fiction regularly cross his path. Im drawn to certain female characters, admits the author. He believes curiously enough, the enemy for a female is more visible -- they can see the enemy, he says referring to the predatory nature of males.
As well, women have more latitude in their behavior then men, he adds. Whereas David is smothered by his circumstances, the female characters in True North have more flexibility and are not tied to rigid expectations. Among these are Cynthia, Davids willful younger sister, Vernice, the enigmatic poet who tells him you cant spend your whole life in reaction to your family, and Vera, the little girl cum alluring woman whose presence has mesmerized him for more than three decades.
Although Harrison has now penned eight novels, 11 volumes of poetry, essay collections, and even a childrens book, he admits that it is not up to him to determine his literary worth. In my relatively long life Ive seen people become famous and then disappear, he says of the flimsy confines of fame. Last years flavor of the year percolates to the void. You can do quite well for awhile and then you just dont know, he concludes.
Jim Harrison may no longer reside in Michigan, but with the publication of True North, and those projects he is at work on currently, he continues to demonstrate the elemental influence of his former home.
Harrisons newest novel will bring him back to Michigan in June. He will sign copies of True North at 6 p.m. Tuesday, June 1, at Horizon Books in Traverse City.