True North Summary
by Jim Harrison

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(Literary Masterpieces, Critical Compilation)

In his memoir Off to the Side (2002), Jim Harrison leaps from anecdote to anecdote in his description of his personal history, touching briefly upon the various obsessions that informed his sensibilities and upon the episodes that defined his artistic identity and helped him develop as an artist and a man. Although his book True North is a novel and not a memoir, a work of fiction as opposed to autobiography, it nevertheless follows the form of biography in many ways. Typically, novels told in the first-person voice are tightly focused, taking place over a relatively brief period and concentrating on one event or series of events that affect a character's life. Like Off to the Side, however, Truth North skips from milestone to milestone in a tale of obsession and penitence that spans more than three decades as it recounts David Burkett's quest to eradicate and atone for the evil done by his family to the wilderness and to the poor logging families of the Upper Peninsula in Michigan. Heir to a wealthy timber family that has made its fortune by destroying families’ livelihoods and despoiling the land, David is obsessed with exposing his family's sins to the world and, by doing so, perhaps being exonerated of his forefathers’ crimes.

The novel begins with a brief, italicized prologue set in the present day. An injured David is rowing his horrifically wounded father (both his father's hands have been severed) off the coast of Veracruz, Mexico. David senses that his father wishes to die, and he pushes him overboard, essentially drowning him. In a way, the entire novel is about the same thing: David seeks to drown out his father's presence and works to remove all influences of his alcoholic and rapacious father from his life. Every choice he makes, as one lover tells him, seems not to be a choice of his own but rather a reaction against the influence of his father.

At first glimpse, True North is a familiar American tale, telling the story of the rebellious youth who is fighting back against his unfair and possibly unwholesome wealthy family. However, the sins of the forefathers seem particularly concentrated in David's father, who is more than just a character in the novel—he is a symbol of all that the Burkett men have represented for four generations. In addition to being an alcoholic with little feeling for his children, he is also a “nympholectic”—which is to say that he enjoys having sex with pubescent girls. David's mother deals with his father through alcohol and pills until she is finally able to divorce him and lead a more or less normal life.

The title of True North is particularly apt in the case of this novel. David is a young man without purchase, without cause, who is seeking a direction in life. As a teenager, and then after graduating from college, he becomes interested in religion and even considers becoming a minister. After college, rather than choosing either to live a life of indolence on the money left him in trust funds by his father's family or to work for a living, he instead lives modestly on the small allowance provided him by a maternal trust fund and dedicates his life to searching out the history of the Burkett family's crimes against the Upper Peninsula. His quest to prove the corruption of his family's past is, perhaps, a desire to repudiate the innate evil that exists within him as a Burkett.

Two character types work as motifs that anchor the narrative throughout its course. First is the series of surrogate fathers who enter David's life. There is Clarence, the half-Finn, half-Chippewa Indian who works as a handyman for David's father; Jesse, a Mexican man befriended by David's father in World War II, who works as his father's aid and assistant and who knows all of the elder Burkett's dealings; and Fred, David's uncle, his mother's brother, a former Episcopal priest given to drinking too much and chasing his own phantoms. Although each of these surrogate fathers is kind and more...

(The entire section is 1,626 words.)