The Farmer's Daughter
by Jim Harrison
Reviewed by Jim Carmin
Jim Harrison is a master storyteller and one of the most prolific and powerful American authors writing today, having more than 30 volumes of poetry, essays and fiction under his name. His latest, The Farmer's Daughter, contains three novellas that continue a personal tradition that began with his remarkable Legends of the Fall in 1979.
"She was born peculiar, or so she thought," opens the title novella, she being Sarah, age 9, it being 1980, and her circumstance about to change dramatically: Sarah and her parents moving from Findlay, Ohio, to rural Montana, where she would be isolated, home-schooled and pretty much on her own to learn in a little more than a half-dozen years about life, boys and sex. There was much to learn, and much of it was horrific and painful, including a sexual assault by a roving country-band fiddler. Harrison gives us a workout as we ponder the precocious, well-read, Schubert-playing Sarah as she wends her way through a particularly messy adolescent morass. Harrison has deftly captured the essence of a lonely young rural girl who was forced to mature and become an adult way before her time.
The seriousness of the first novella is tempered by the bawdiness of the second: "Brown Dog Redux," brings back the Upper Peninsula half-Chippewa scoundrel who loves to love women even more than he loves Spam and raw onion sandwiches. Brown Dog, B.D. for short, first surfaced in Harrison's 1990 The Woman Lit by Fireflies and has appeared in several works since. Despite his friend's assessment that B.D.'s "not very interested in reality," he has always had a serious mission to take care of Berry, his fetal-alcohol-syndrome-inflicted stepdaughter who is now about to enter her own adolescence.
"Redux" opens in Toronto, where B.D. and Berry have fled to avoid her having to live at a special ed school in Michigan. Through a series of comical and crazy events, filled with many sexual encounters for B.D. (although never really enough for him), they find a solution for Berry and a way to return to the U.S. "Redux" is funny even when sad, and B.D. is such a likable guy, readers will leave this story wanting more. (Oregon readers also may be curious to see a real Portland poet, Trevino Brings Plenty, quoted by a friend of B.D.'s: "Alive in America is all we are.")
The final novella, "The Games of Night," is more myth than fiction, more melodrama than comedy, and more magic than real, as Harrison turns to a story of a young man, bitten by both hummingbird and wolf while on a journey to Mexico with his ornithologist father. This results -- and not surprisingly, knowing the overt sexual themes in the preceding stories -- in turning him into a werewolf with extraordinary sexual powers beyond human dimension when, of course, the moon is full.
Some readers will find all three novellas odd and definitely leaning toward the traditionally masculine view of the world, but Harrison has never been called a feminist and why should he be? These stories, at times raw, are filled with engaging and unforgettable characters from a skillful novelist and the beautiful language ("hummingbirds contained the soul of thunder in their bodies") of a great poet.