Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2005
Many of the elements which have established Jim Harrison’s reputation as a poet and novelist are present in Dalva These include an outdoor, Midwest setting marked by an appreciation of the natural world possessed only by those who have been reared close to it (Harrison is from rural northern Michigan)...
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Many of the elements which have established Jim Harrison’s reputation as a poet and novelist are present in Dalva These include an outdoor, Midwest setting marked by an appreciation of the natural world possessed only by those who have been reared close to it (Harrison is from rural northern Michigan) and an earthy, unsentimental approach to his story and his characters. Yet Dalva does not have the same degree of violence, cruelty, and nihilistic despair that characterize the work for which Harrison is best known: the three novellas in Legends of the Fall (1979). Dalva is indeed a story of loss and suffering, but it includes other elements: enduring love, compassion, strength, and family loyalty. It is also in parts very humorous.
The novel is divided into three parts. The heroine, Dalva, a beautiful, forty-five-year-old woman from Nebraska, is the narrator of parts 1 and 3. Part 2 is narrated by her current boyfriend, a brilliant, clumsy, self-centered, alcoholic professor named Michael. The narrative is initially set in 1986, but there are extensive flashbacks to Dalva’s childhood and adolescence, to other periods in her life, and to the life of her great-grandfather, J. W. Northridge. The latter was regarded by his contemporaries as an eccentric. He befriended the Sioux Indians and traveled throughout the Midwest as an agricultural missionary, helping the Sioux adjust to their unhappy transition from hunting to farming. These flashbacks are accomplished by means of extracts from Northridge’s journal, which Michael is studying in the course of his scholarly research on the Indian question and the advent of farming in Nebraska.
Harrison uses as epigraph an old saying, unattributed, which sets the tone and one of the main themes of Dalva: “We loved the earth but could not stay.” In this novel, everything passes; only the earth endures. Yet the melancholy regret for the transience of things is accompanied by the search for continuity and the longing for permanence. It is no coincidence that all Dalva’s family are diary writers; it is “as if they thought they’d disappear if they didn’t put themselves on paper.” Although they remember and mourn their losses, they must eventually make peace with the past and with themselves for the duration of their stay.
The concern with loss occurs in two separate strands of the novel: the personal life of Dalva and the collective life of the Sioux Indians during the latter half of the nineteeth century. Dalva is a woman destined to have the things women cherish snatched from her. Her father was killed in the Korean War, when she was nine. Her first lover, and the only one for whom she ever cared, was Duane Stone Horse, a half-Sioux boy who made love to her when she was fifteen and promptly disappeared from her life. Pregnant, she then learned that Duane was the illegitimate son of her own father, and therefore her half brother. Her grandfather tells her that Duane had offered to marry her but had fled when told it was impossible.
Dalva’s third loss in life came when she was forced to give up her baby son at birth; thirty years later, she still knows nothing of his fate. As for Duane, she was briefly reunited with him fifteen years after he left, but he was dying from wounds received in Vietnam. He and Dalva married in secret, but Duane committed suicide the next day. Dalva told no one of this experience, although she still carries the pain of it thirty years later.
Thus, it is not surprising that Dalva is haunted by what she calls the “terrifying and inconsolable bitterness of life” and its inescapable fragility. It is through Dalva that the novel gains much of its melancholy, contemplative, reflective spirit. She sees her life in terms of repeated patterns, of circles and spirals. The past is always present to her, particularly when she visits old haunts, and she tends to project her feelings onto the natural world: When she hears sea lions bellowing, she supposes that they are calling out to absent partners.
Yet in spite of this, she is not morbidly preoccupied with her tragic past. On the contrary, she has realized that what is normally thought of as suffering is really only life itself making each human being “unavoidably unique.” This resilient strength is epitomized by her recollection of her grandfather’s words: “Each of us must live with a full measure of loneliness that is inescapable, and we must not destroy ourselves with our passion to escape this aloneness.” In the end, she is rewarded; at the climax of the novel she meets her son, who has been looking for her. The reunion is a tribute to the enduring love she feels for Duane and proof that there is some continuity in life other than that of grief. She realizes that it is possible to remember the past without being suffocated by it, and she provides an answer to her boyfriend Michael’s disturbing observation that time never forgives anyone a single second and his question of “whether life is long enough to get over anything” (the latter is prompted by the refusal of Dalva’s mother to read Northridge’s journals because they would bring her dead husband to mind, thirty-six years after he was killed).
The second occurrence of the theme of suffering and loss has a collective manifestation in the form of the Sioux Indians, whose cultural heritage, independence, and way of life were systematically destroyed by the white man. It is a poignant tale, revealed obliquely through Northridge’s journals and Michael’s reflections on them. Northridge was a botanist and Methodist missionary. After serving in the Civil War, digging graves and writing letters on behalf of the dying, he took up the cause of the Sioux. For twenty-five years, from 1865 to the massacre at Wounded Knee in 1890, he befriended them, lobbying on their behalf in Washington, D.C., teaching them to grow food, learning their language and dialects. Ironically, he was too sympathetic to Sioux religion and culture to be much of a missionary for Christianity. (“It is indeed difficult to convince the Sioux of the uniqueness of the Sabbath when in his beliefs every day of the week is Sabbath.”) Like Dalva, Northridge experienced grievous personal loss; his young Swedish wife, Aase, died of tuberculosis shortly after their marriage. Like Naomi, who attempted to keep in touch with her dead husband, he tried to contact Aase’s spirit as well as the spirits of the dead Indians he had known.
Northridge was regarded as a menace and as a lunatic by both the government and the settlers. Eventually, he became virtually an Indian himself, taking to peyote and participating in the Ghost Dance. Finally, he went mad. The climax of his story, revealed in the closing pages of the novel, came when he murdered three government soldiers and left their remains in a subbasement of his farm. The room served as a mausoleum, also containing the bodies of five Sioux warriors who had wished to have their remains, with their cherished artifacts, undisturbed by grave robbers. When Dalva inherits the property, she is guided by a note from her grandfather and finds the mausoleum. In some subtle way her discovery releases the spirits of the past, and Dalva is then quickly reunited with her son.
Although Dalva is a work of fiction, any reader is likely to be disturbed by the facts which are noted by Northridge and glossed by Michael. Michael compares the nineteenth century situation in the Great Plains with modern South Africa and, worse, with Nazi Germany. He comments that the American government never kept a single treaty it made with the Indians, that twenty thousand buffalo hunters destroyed between 5 and 7 million buffalo—virtually the entire buffalo population—on which the Indians depended for their subsistence, that the Indians died of diseases brought by white settlers, and that their degeneration was hastened by alcohol given to them by the settlers in exchange for their valuables. These are well-known facts perhaps, but in this fictional context they acquire fresh impact.
The character of Michael is worth comment, because the section he narrates is the most entertaining and stimulating of the novel. In fact, so successful is it that it makes Dalva’s weightier but more ponderous narrative seem tedious by comparison. Certainly it sets a different mood. Michael is an assistant professor at Stanford University; his research on Northridge will help to win tenure for him. He is loquacious in the extreme and has an unintentional habit of being provocative and rude—not out of malice but because he does not realize that his wit and opinions, forcefully expressed, are likely to cause offense. (His address to the local Rotary Club is a hilarious example.) He is, as Dalva points out, somewhat unconscious in spite of his brilliant mind, and he spends much of his time trying to extricate himself from the difficult situations his tactlessness has caused. This makes him something of a comic figure, an effect which is increased by his obsessive love of food and drink, which he indulges even though he is overweight and not in the best of health. He is completely at a loss in a rural setting, although his rather innocent and harmless lechery survives the transition; eventually, this lands him in the hospital with a broken jaw inflicted by an irate father whose sexy seventeen-year-old daughter had been the willing object of Michael’s attentions.
It is through the character of Michael that the author pokes fun at the tradition of academic scholarship. Michael’s doctoral dissertation won high praise even though it was littered with faked material (necessitated by the fact that he had spent much of his travel grant on high living in Chicago). The dissertation was later published by a university press, but Michael confesses that the whole thing was written in an alcoholic haze fortified by Dexedrine. Michael himself has enough self-awareness to comment satirically on his own profession: “We academics are known for creating artificial questions to which we give artificial answers, thus ensuring our continuing employment.”
Many of the minor characters in this novel are well drawn. Dalva’s mother Naomi has an admirable tolerance and an easygoing good sense, and Dalva’s grandfather possesses an imperturbable wisdom and detachment. (“Take courage, the earth is all that lasts.”) Together with Dalva’s uncle, Paul, these characters provide some serenity and stability to counteract the intensity of Dalva and the eccentricity of Michael.
Although Dalva is an engrossing novel, powerfully told, it is not without its faults. Michael’s narration in part 2 is very successful, but he disappears into the background in part 3 and his story trails off lamely. Thus, the novel has a rather disjointed quality, and one almost wishes that Michael could have been the hero of his own picaresque tale. Perhaps he is material for a future novel.
Dalva’s search for her son is another disappointment. It is announced early and hovers around for most of the novel. Michael offers to trace the son, but Dalva never accepts his offer. Instead she asks a friend of her former brother-in-law to help, and he succeeds by the simple expedient of asking Dalva’s uncle, Paul, whom Dalva could have asked at any time. The effect is one of anticlimax. In addition, the reunion of mother and son relies a little too much on coincidence to be satisfactory.
There are also three errors in chronology. At one point Dalva is described as being two years older than her sister Ruth, but four pages later, when Ruth is three, Dalva is “six or seven.” Their father died in 1950, when Dalva was nine, in which case Ruth cannot have been only five years old “a few years after Dad died.” Moreover, Dalva’s father had been dead only six years, not “nearly ten,” at the time of Dalva’s pregnancy, since the latter occurred in 1956.
Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 54
Booklist. LXXXIV, March 15, 1988, p. 1220.
Chicago Tribune. March 20, 1988, XIV, p. 1.
The Christian Science Monitor. June 13, 1988, p. 19.
Kirkus Reviews. LVI, February 1, 1988, p. 146.
Library Journal. CXIII, April 1, 1988, p. 97.
Los Angeles Times Book Review. April 10, 1988, p. 12.
The New York Times Book Review. XCIII, June 12, 1988, p. 28.
Publishers Weekly. CCXXXIII, January 29, 1988, p. 41.
The Washington Post Book World. XVIII, March 6, 1988, p. 3.