Many of Jim Harrison’s novels and novellas are set in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula (the UP), an isolated finger of land that extends from Wisconsin into the Great Lakes Michigan, Huron, and Superior. The UP is only thinly connected to the mainland of Michigan, by bridge, and this isolation has created a distinct sense of regionalism. Harrison, best known for his novellas like Revenge and Legends of the Fall, has made the small towns, eccentric characters, and sparsely populated wilderness uniquely his own in the novella Brown Dog and his novels Warlock, Wolf, Sundog, and Farmer. His protagonists are usually middle-aged literate and worldly woodsmen, appreciative of fine cuisine, literature, the arts, and philosophy. They fish, wade, and row the waters of the UP, wander the woods, notice the flora and fauna, and think deeply about life in all its banality and wonder.
It is this quality that attracts me so to Harrison’s work, and especially his settings and characters. Like Harrison’s protagonists, men and women and children, I’ve tramped woods, climbed mountains, waded creeks, and floated boats in Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama, Georgia, North Carolian, Tennessee, Florida; in Colorado, New mexico, Utah, and Arizona; Texas and Alaska. Most of that time I had a book in my hands, and more often than not it was a book by Jim Harrison, Edward Abbey, Ernest Hemignway, or Louise Erdrich, or Wallace Stegner. All of these writers treated the land as character, and their characters both defined the land they walked on and were defined by it. This blending of literature and land, and coming to care for characters who loved the wild and books equally, kept me haunting the book shops for every book by every one of these authors. I haven’t read them all yet, but I have a small library of these authors, and I have the reading to look forward to. For my own writing, I turn to these authors for inspriation, for for technique, for companionship.
It is difficult to read Harrison’s UP books without recalling the images of Ernest Hemingway’s Nick Adams and his restorative fishing trip to the Big Two-Hearted River, which made the Upper Peninsula an indelible part of the literary landscape. Both authors ably capture the rugged beauty of the UP and explore the effect of nature on characters whose very soul seems to be connected to the land. However, until the publication of Harrison’s True North in 2004, with the introduction of the novel’s youthful narrator, David Burkett, there was never a clear connection to Hemingway’s Nick Adams. Nick Adams and David Burkett fish the same waters, but they illustrate widely varying generations. Adams’ journey into the wilderness of the U.P. represents a generation’s search for inner peace following a time of war, but Burkett’s guilt-prompted journey reflects a generation’s sense of social responsibility and the need for forgiveness.
Nick Adams and David Burkett have both been damaged by life, and as a result, retreat to the UP for spiritual healing. In order to exorcise their personal demons, both characters adhere to the healing regimen of fly-fishing for trout, living in Spartan conditions, physically embracing the land they walk on, and contemplating their lives and the circumstances that have brought them to the wilderness. “Big Two-Hearted River” takes up the story of Nick Adams following his return home from service in Italy during World War I. True North begins with the story of sixteen-year-old Burkett sometime in the mid to late 1960’s, already possessed with deep wounds, a searching nature, and a love for the outdoors, and traces his life into his early thirties. At the time “Big Two-Hearted River” is set, Adams would have been in his early twenties. Burkett’s lifetime of crisis climaxes at age twenty-seven. Both embark on a path toward healing, but the nature of the paths is quite different.