Returning to Earth

by Jim Harrison

In a recent radio interview, Jim Harrison laughed when asked about
the demographics of his readers. For 40 years, he says, his
publishers have been trying to figure that out. His characters
typically inhabit less populated, unglamorous locales like the West
and Midwest, and whatever wisdom they attain is often gleaned from
the natural world. Donald, the central character of RETURNING TO
EARTH, is in some ways the Harrison Ur-hero, facing his impending
death from Lou Gehrig's disease. "I'm forty-five and it seems I'm
to leave the earth early but these things happen to people."

The first of the novel's four parts is in his voice, dictated to
his wife Cynthia, recounting what he knows of his family history in
order to preserve it for his grown children, Herald and Clare. We
find that he is the first male in four generations not to be named
Clarence, and that he is probably over half-Chippewa. "For all
practical purposes my dad and I weren't the least bit Indian but
were just among the ordinary tens of thousands of mixed bloods in
the Upper Peninsula."

Donald lost his mother to schizophrenia at a young age, but
succeeded as an athlete due to his size. Working alongside his
father, in the employ of a wealthy and decadent white family, he
fell in love with Cynthia, the daughter, and they ran away and
married as teens. Donald intersperses his family history with
matter-of-fact comments on his disease and cryptic references to
his personal religion, which is rooted in the more traditional
Chippewa ways of his Aunt Flower, who lives in the woods and
renders lard for her mince pie crusts from pigs she raises and
slaughters herself. This digressive tale could be chaotic, but
rather it pulls us into the story, gradually introducing the
characters who will have to figure out how to carry on without

The remaining three parts of the novel feature the first person
narratives of "K," Donald's friend and nephew; David, Cynthia's
brother; and Cynthia herself, all of whom are vastly affected by
losing Donald. K is the son of Polly, David's ex-wife, a smart
young man who has been away at school but is not sorry to return to
Marquette to help with Donald. He is not sorry for many reasons ---
he loves and truly admires Donald, he loves and kind of lusts after
Cynthia despite their age difference, and he loves and beds their
daughter Clare when she finally arrives back on the scene from
California. (In case you're paying close attention, K and Clare are
not blood cousins, since K is Polly's son from a subsequent

K's account covers Donald's death and burial in Canada, where the
family can arrange these matters as they wish. David's part picks
up after Donald is gone and as he grieves in his own dithering way.
David and Cynthia's parents were both rich drunks, their father
particularly perverse and at times abusive. As Cynthia says, David
is "very nice but has been basically goofy since he was a little
boy. He couldn't accept the fact that Dad was a lost cause." David
is a womanizer like his father, but different in that he forms
deep, lasting attachments to the women in his life and doesn't
hanker after jail-bait.  

Cynthia's part begins months after Donald's death. She has tried to
make plans and  continue teaching, but she is continually
tired and interrupted by grief. Donald had told her she'd have to
get a new boyfriend after he died, and she's aware of her
burgeoning need for physical contact, but she's confused about how
to go about getting it appropriately. There seems to have been no
ambiguity whatsoever in the long, sure love between Donald and
Cynthia. And while Cynthia is a realistic, strong person, we wonder
along with her whether she'll ever truly heal.

Succinctly, RETURNING TO EARTH is a rich, carefully crafted novel
about an admirable life and a good death. As K puts it, "To care
for Donald in his present state is to finally understand that there
are no miracles except that we exist. Like his ancestor Clarence,
we ride a big horse to the east and then it's over."

Reviewed by Eileen Zimmerman Nicol on January 23, 2011

Returning to Earth
by Jim Harrison

  • Publication Date: September 10, 2007
  • Genres: Fiction
  • Paperback: 280 pages
  • Publisher: Grove Press
  • ISBN-10: 0802143318
  • ISBN-13: 9780802143310