Themes

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Last Updated on May 8, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 597

One of the novel's central themes is Sorry's search for who he is, his identity, both as part of a family and as part of a community. How does a man identify himself—as a worker, say, a farmer, a singer, a bull rider, a rodeo clown? Is he essentially a...

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One of the novel's central themes is Sorry's search for who he is, his identity, both as part of a family and as part of a community. How does a man identify himself—as a worker, say, a farmer, a singer, a bull rider, a rodeo clown? Is he essentially a part of a family, a tribe, with a function within that unit? Or is he alone and a loner, one who is cut off from the usual structures that provide community? The action of this novel takes place, counting flashbacks, from about 1885 to the 1980s and ranges from a farm in Oklahoma to Saskatoon, Saskatchewan. And, if one considers its "Prologue Two," Kimball takes us back one hundred million years to the origins of the Great Plains and to the emergence of all of the forms of life that have occupied that huge sweep of space from dinosaurs to bull and bronco riders, wheat farmers, and WCTU members. Its "Prologue Three" surveys the humans who settled the prairies. This sweep of history is relevant to Sorry's search for his identity. "Man who is born of woman is born into sorrow"—the proverb suggests not only Sorry's name but his condition. Sorry's grandfather, he learns, was an alcoholic horse trader and resident of the Great Plains (reminiscent of "The Ol' Man" whom we meet in Kimball's later novel, Liar's Moon), suggesting that Sorry's search is part of the larger saga of Everyman on the Plains. Harvesting Ballads traces Sorry's journey as he acquires knowledge of his heritage by spinning together "stories, threaded through, here and later, patchwork[ing] what we know into a fit of who I am." And that fit suggests that Sorry (as well as all the rest of us) constructs himself out of the shards of personal history and community myth and legend, fragments of a story that one assembles and says, "Here I am." But it is interesting to reflect on just how much Sorry's character and adventures reveal him as "a man of sorrows and acquainted with grief."

Part of his identity involves Sorry's proving himself to be a man. He does this in a number of ways: by mastering work; by mastering scholarly knowledge, especially mathematics; by mastering snooker, a billiards-like game clearly identified in the novel as a form of ritual combat with serious wagering on the outcome. He does it by "slaying dragons" to win the hand of the fair maiden. He does it by being a wandering knight in search of—well, who can say exactly—the Holy Grail, perhaps? Sorry's father, Roger Lyons, was a "twister," rodeo slang for bull rider. Hence, he engaged in another form of testing. And as a bull rider, Lyons was enacting a primeval form of conflict, of man against nature—in this instance, the bull, Duke Morgan, wins. Sorry's areas of conflict involve man against himself, of man against the laws of physics, and of man against nature. Each of these themes is played out in Sorry's adventures with the harvest crew, at shooting snooker, and as an agent of his uncle Marcus. These are important themes in this bildungsroman, or apprenticeship novel, a novel that deals with the development of a young person. They also relate closely to the social concerns discussed above about the nature of work in various communities. The function of artistic expression is also a major theme of the novel. In Harvesting Ballads men and women express themselves artistically especially by writing and singing songs, by telling stories, by gardening, by cooking, and by shooting snooker.

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