Throughout her life, Dalva has been alternately haunted, charmed, and driven by a series of men: her half-brother Duane, a half-breed Sioux whose child she bore and gave up for adoption at sixteen; a heroic great-grandfather, who came to Nebraska as a missionary to Indians; a father who died when Dalva was very young; an uncle who comes to be her spiritual mentor; and an alcoholic, self-absorbed Stanford historian who seeks to win tenure by writing her family's history. Discuss Dalva's relationship with each of these men. How does each relationship evolve throughout the novel?
With Dalva, Jim Harrison presents to readers an unflinching look at the United States' Indian policy over the last two centuries. Through John Wesley Northridge's journals, we are vividly reintroduced to our country's brutal history, and Professor Michael's sodden musings are sprinkled liberally with powerful associations between the genocide of American Indians and the Jewish Holocaust during World War II. Explain the politics and ideology from which Harrison's story emerges.
Compare the voice of Dalva with the voice of Michael. How does the tone of the novel change when Harrison shifts from one narrator to the other? Discuss the novel's narrative structure.
Early in the novel, Dalva says, "I'm not one to live or subsist on memory, treating it as most do, the past and future as an encapsulated space or nodule we walked into, and then out of, rather than a continuum of the life we have already lived and will live." How does Dalva's preoccupation with the past — her painful memories of Duane, her frustratingly dim recollections of life with her father, and her bittersweet memories of her beloved grandfather — support or refute this statement? Does she not float within the realm of memory for much of the novel? By the end of the novel, to what degree has Dalva come to terms with the past? Is she diminished or empowered by her memories?
As with Dalva, time and memory are chief preoccupations for Michael as a historian. What is behind his drive to write the history of the Northridges? He mentions his excitement about the acclaim he is likely to garner once the work is published. What do you feel Harrison is saying about the integrity and ethics of scholarship here? Is the art of history a noble and crucially important act of committing the past to the public record, or is it, as Dalva intimates at one point, merely an act of self-serving voyeurism?
Dalva is a novel about journeys toward home, toward family, and toward a series of painful confrontations with the legacies of the past. Discuss the rich layers of journeys, both literal and metaphorical, which drive the characters and the plot of Harrison's novel.
What is the significance of the Ghost Dance in Dalva? Through his journals, chart Northridge's crumbling and evolving faith — from his failed work as a Christian missionary, to his conversion of Sioux beliefs, to his apparent madness.
How have Michael's views on the Dawes Act, Manifest Destiny, and American Indians changed by the time he has his nervous breakdown? Consider the letters about his Nebraska experience, which he writes to Dalva while his broken jaw is wired shut. Consider also Harrison's senses of humor and irony in literally silencing the novel's historian. What do you make of this?
"Genes are the fragilest of continuities," Dalva asserts. Explain this comment in the context of Dalva's particular genetic forebears. To what degree is Dalva the spiritual heir of her great-grandfather?
What do you imagine happens to Dalva after the novel ends? Will her budding affair with Sam Creekmouth continue? How will her relationship with her son progress? Will she stay in Nebraska for the rest of her life? (Harrison's latest novel, The Road Home, continues the story of Dalva.)
Why do you suppose Harrison decided to write most of his novel in the voice of a woman? Imagine an alternate novel, where Dalva is a man, and the story unfolds instead from the perspective of Northridge's great-grandson. How would the novel be different? Did you believe Dalva? Was Harrison's portrayal successful? Compare Dalva to novels by other authors whose narratives have crossed the lines of gender or ethnicity (e.g.: James Baldwin's Giovanni's Room, Wally Lamb's She's Come Undone, Carol Shields' Swann).
In what ways has your perception of America's ambivalent frontier history been influenced, reinforced, or challenged by Harrison's novel?
AN INTERVIEW WITH JIM HARRISON
Q. Most of Dalva, all of The Woman Lit By Fireflies, and a large portion of The Road Home are written in the voice of a woman. What challenges did you encounter as a man writing from a woman's perspective?
A.I just wrote an essay for the NY Times Magazine about how I wrote in the voice of a woman in Dalva, The Woman Lit By Fireflies and The Road Home. The date of the issue is May 16th, 1999. Interested students might look into it. My original title was "Looking for Sister." As a writer, I try to offer myself total freedom and part of this freedom is to temporarily become your narrators. This is not always pleasant. A writer can be thought of as a shaman without portfolio. Of course, it is difficult but hopefully worth it.
Q. Is John Wesley Northridge modeled on an actual historical figure? Tell us about your research.
A. John Wesley Northridge is invented. I didn't keep track but I probably made a dozen trips to the Nebraska Historical Society in Lincoln, plus thousands of miles of driving around the state. Probably more than 100 books were also involved plus collections of old photos. In John Wesley Northridge I wanted to write a character without our own lame irony.
Q. What sort of reparations, if any, do you feel the United States government is obligated to make to contemporary Native Americans?
A. Reparations are always difficult but our efforts toward our own Natives have been slight compared to what we did for Germany and Japan. Rather than drown the Natives with advice which we have consistently done we should give them as much land and money and possible.
Q. Your physical descriptions of Nebraska, Arizona, and the Western frontier of old are wonderfully vivid and detailed. How did you come to be so familiar with these landscapes?
A. I used to take many aimless car trips around the United States for mental reasons. In my teens I wanted to be a painter. I still try to absorb all of the visual aspects of a landscape in addition to its natural history and its Native history, not to speak of what we have done with this landscape. Since I don't teach and I have been a full-time writer for over 30 years, I have the time to absorb what I choose. I am often amazed that my preoccupations are so alien to city people.
Q. Michael's narrative and Uncle Paul's dialogue are both rich with allusions to various works of literature and philosophy. As you wrote Dalva, were you inspired by any particular authors?
A. To a certain extent we are unwilling victims of everything we read. This includes all the great literature but also all the junk. I have recently been studying the human brain for a novella I have been writing and our abilities at recall can be astounding what with 12 billion neurons and 30 trillion synapses. Unfortunately, this also includes newspapers but then we tend to remember best the emotional content of what we read. For instance, no writer ever plumbed deeper tan Dostoevsky or more broadly than Shakespeare. Along with a couple dozen others they dictate many of my feelings as they should. Of course we are responsible for how good we are and we are never as good as we have hoped to be.
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