The Summer He Didn't Die
During the heyday of magazine fiction in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, the novella was one of the more favored forms. Longer and providing more depth than the short story, a novella nevertheless did not require the commitment of time demanded by the reading of a long novel. Many of the fiction classics associated with the era are novellas: Henry James’s The Turn of the Screw (1898), Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness (1899), and Thomas Mann’s Der Tod in Venedig (1912; Death in Venice, 1925) are all examples. Other than occasional forays by writers such as William Faulkner and Philip Roth, however, the novella, perhaps too long for the modern magazine market, largely languished in the later twentieth century and into the twenty-first.
It is appropriate that Jim Harrison, who has so often written of fish-out-of-water characters and walking anachronisms, turns frequently to the novella when writing his prose. The Summer He Didn’t Die is his fifth collection of novellas. The first and titular work in the volume brings back Harrison’s backwoods logger and pulp-wooder Brown Dog, a part-Anishnabe-Chippewa Indian from the wild Upper Peninsula of Michigan. Brown Dog muddles his way through life in constant rebellion against the forces of unflinching and unnatural authority that work to derail his existence and ongoing search for love and sex. This character first appeared in Harrison’s 1990 collection of novellas, The Woman Lit by Fireflies. Affable, optimistic, and endearing, Brown Dog has not changed much since his introduction, although his circumstances have: To avoid a jail sentence, he has been forced to marry the imprisoned Rose, his friend’s sister, so that he can be able to care for her teenage son and her mentally disabled adolescent daughter, a victim of fetal alcohol syndrome.
Brown Dog’s simple, existentialist lifestyle becomes complicated in a variety of ways in “The Summer He Didn’t Die.” He falls in love with Gretchen, his social worker, a lesbian who is not romantically interested in Brown Dog. He has an affair with Gretchen’s friend Belinda, a dentist who eventually decides that she and Brown Dog are not compatible. He is then hired, briefly, to escort Belinda’s former flame Bob, a journalist, around the Upper Peninsula as he researches an article on down-and-out American Indians. Next, Brown Dog finds that his stepdaughter, Berry, is to be removed from his custody and sent to a special school. Although unable to perform intellectual exercises or achieve in school or even hold a conversation, Berry is conversant with nature and at ease in the wilderness. Brown Dog often witnesses her speaking to wild dogs, birds, and snakes.
Again and again in the various tales that Harrison has told about Brown Dog, the action boils down to Brown Dog’s casual rebelliousness in the face of a blind and unfeeling bureaucracy. In “The Summer He Didn’t Die,” Brown Dog decides to spirit Berry away into Canada with the help of his full-blooded Anishnabe-Chippewa Uncle Delmore, Gretchen, and a group of Canadian Chippewas. If Berry, in a way, represents a return to a pre-civilization form of humanity who is integrated into nature rather than separated from it, then Brown Dog’s flight with her to a Native American community is, in a sense, a flight from all that is cruel and indifferent in modern civilization. It represents a return to a time and place where matters are settled by the human heart in accord with the laws of nature, not societal codes and regulations.
The second novella, “Republican Wives,” focuses on three women who have a lot in common. All in their late thirties, they have known one another since childhood, attended the...
(The entire section is 1545 words.)