True North by Jim Harrison

Writing is about making choices. We choose what to write about, from whose perspective to tell a story, and what we want our audience to take away from the narrative. In looking at, True North, let’s examine the choices Harrison made. He chose this novel to be in the first person. The events are narrated by, David Burkett, the wealthy son from a family that logged and mined the Upper Peninsula of Michigan for three generations. Why use first person for this novel? What does it achieve?

First person narration shields the reader from the other characters in the novel. While the narrative may be about, Burkett, trying to understand his ancestors and make amends for the evils he believes they’ve brought upon the land, stripping away natural resources and bleeding their labor force in equal measure, it is really about, Burkett, the man, or Burkett, the shadow of man, trying to find his own stride against that of his father’s. If this novel were in third person, the reader might end up sympathizing for some of the other characters. They couldn’t be as evil unless they are seen through Burkett’s skewed perspective. Of course, Burkett’s father is a terrible man known for having sex with underage girls, sometimes consensually while other times forced. His terrible nature could still be represented in the third person, but it would be difficult to make him as evil as Burkett believes him to be.

The topic of the novel seems like it could be interesting. I’m from Northern Michigan, so there was a connection between me and the Upper Peninsula. However, while the narrator is writing a history of the logging industry, we never really see it and the story focuses exclusively on Burkett’s relationship with the history. This process of writing for the narrator dominates his life for twenty years, in which he spends his time guiltily living off his family’s wealth, wandering the woods, fishing, trolling the surface of Christianity, having sex with women, and feeling disconnected. Perhaps, this could be interesting, but Burkett is a bland narrator, and his story and obsessions come across as mediocre and whiny. As a reader, I found myself unable to sympathize or identify with Burkett. He’s petulant. He’s weak. If he’s an idealist, then it is negated by his utter passivity. What does he risk in the novel? When does he grow? The novel moves from the 60’s through the 70’s and then the 80’s. But the reader never gets a sense of time really moving. The decades seem of little consequence, except that Harrison can no longer use the casual sex of the late 60’s as an excuse for Burkett’s sexual romps. Burkett, while in his late 30’s seems to be the same as when he was in his 20’s.

This brings up my last question. What is the audience supposed to take away from this novel? Does the narrator overcome his father? Do we see enough of a change that it pays off? Is the investment of roughly 400 pages of prose worth the ending? Personally, I found very little to take away. In an earlier post, I’d written how I continued to read this book because I couldn’t fall asleep and didn’t want to get out of bed and dig up a new book at 2 A.M. Not exactly a gun to the head, but not a ringing endorsement either. Worst of all, the ending seems tacked on. As if Harrison realized there was something dramatic lacking from the novel. It’s dramatic, but we’ve seen that on the first page, and it comes hundreds of pages too late.

One thing I found interesting is Harrison’s stab at meta-fiction. On page 340, Burkett’s sometime lover who is a poet gives him some advice regarding the history he is writing. She says, “Figure it out for yourself. If you can’t you’ll always write shit. You’re dog-paddling in too much material. Start over. Give me a hundred clean pages called ‘What My People Did,’ or something like that. You’re trying to be a nineteenth-century curmudgeon. You’re starting twelve thousand years ago with the glaciers then moving slowly onward like a fucking crippled toad. Get over the glaciers in one page, please. You quoted that beautiful prose of Agassiz. Try to understand why it’s beautiful and your prose isn’t. You wrote nicely in those thirteen pages because you forgot yourself and your thousand post-rationalizations and let your material emerge directly and intimately.”

Perhaps, this is Burkett the narrator commenting or Harrison himself in the following passage. Whoever it is speaking, it seems to be a proper response to the novel.

“I had pressed my thumb on the dorsal fin of a trout and now watched a raindrop of blood ooze out. I had asked for this speech and been roundly whipped by a schoolmarm. All these years after the inception and I had thirteen golden pages.”

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