The High Divide
It is nice to see Lin Enger back once again. It has been six years since his debut novel, UNDISCOVERED COUNTRY, was published. His new book, THE HIGH DIVIDE, is somewhat different in subject matter and setting from its predecessor. In many ways, though, it examines similar issues --- the secrets men keep, the spiritual debts they owe --- that were explored in his first novel, but from a somewhat different perspective.
THE HIGH DIVIDE qualifies as a western, given its setting in the Minnesota, Dakota and Montana territories in 1886. The story begins in Minnesota, when Ulysses Pope leaves his house to work on a nearby carpentry job and fails to return. He and his wife, Gretta, had quarreled over his use of their home as security for a bank loan, and the disagreement had hung like a shroud over them for weeks. Gretta, a native of Denmark who had settled in the United States before meeting and marrying Ulysses, is certain that the man to whom she has been married for almost 20 years has abandoned her, particularly when his absence stretches into weeks with hardly a word from him as to his activities or whereabouts. Worse, she is unable to make loan payments and is being pressured by the noteholder to make up the arrearage in trade, as it were.
"Enger’s prose is matter-of-fact and economical. He is in no particular rush to get his reader to any specific point, yet the story moves quickly; one is never certain what is going to happen next."
Ulysses’s sons --- the teenaged Eli and the younger, sickly Danny --- harbor hope for their father’s return to varying degrees, but what hope they may have collectively is dashed when Eli intercepts a letter addressed to his dad from a mysterious woman in the Dakotas who is fairly straightforward about her designs upon him. Eli decides that there is nothing to be done but travel across the territories to find Ulysses and bring him home. Surprised and somewhat hampered by the last-minute appearance of Danny at the time of his clandestine departure, Eli makes his way slowly across a countryside that is by turns full of charity and violence. The narrative thread alternates among Danny and Eli, who follow the tenuous trail their father has unintentionally left; the now-solitary Gretta, who makes her own attempt to find Ulysses, only to have her life forever changed; and Ulysses himself, whose enigmatic quest seems to be the product of a fever dream but in fact is something far different.
The quest is most cathartic for Eli and Gretta, given that both discover the man they thought they knew by birth and marriage, respectively, is in reality a different person. Ulysses is haunted by his past actions, which are revealed piecemeal in different ways as the book unfolds. By the end of the tale, debts are paid to the extent possible and a justice of sorts is acquired, though at a price that can only be guessed.
Enger’s prose is matter-of-fact and economical. He is in no particular rush to get his reader to any specific point, yet the story moves quickly; one is never certain what is going to happen next. THE HIGH DIVIDE is also shot through with a quiet irony. For example, Danny and Eli experience a relatively brief but telling encounter with an expedition being conducted at the behest of the Smithsonian Institution that puts Enger’s skills at subtlety on full display. Though his quantity of work is less than one might desire, the quality sparkles, like a diamond under velvet. I hope six years don’t pass before his next novel appears, but if so, it undoubtedly will be worth the wait.
Reviewed by Joe Hartlaub on September 26, 2014