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Dalva, by Jim Harrison

September 22, 2015

My blog has had technical problems which took a month to resolve.  In trying to locate what was wrong I removed this book which I had posted at the point the problem appeared. 

Dalva, by Jim Harrison.  Washington Square Press (1991), Edition: Reprint, 324 pages.

4 stars

A wonderful, enjoyable novel about a woman who returns to her home on the prairie of western Nebraska as she searches for the son she had to give up at birth.

Dalva is a 45-year-old woman living in California as the book begins. A strong, competent woman, she has had a full and interesting life, but is ready to go back to the place where she grew up in western Nebraska. As a teenager, Dalva had a baby with a man who was half Sioux. Her family forced her to give the baby, and he  disappeared from her life. Although other family members remain close, she has lost both her father and the only man she has truly loved.  Now she wants to know what has happened to her son.

The farm to which Dalva returns is a legacy of her great-grandfather, a man who had come to the Great Plains as an agricultural missionary to the Sioux, only to find that they rejected both his religion and farming. Accompanying Dalva is Michael, an historian researching her grandfather’s journals about the end of Sioux dominance. Michael is a caricature of an urban academic who has almost no social or survival skills and little understanding of the people he is researching. The journals he studies provide readers with a story within the story as Dalva’s grandfather becomes an advocate of the Sioux and deeply unpopular with other settlers.

Jim Harrison has written numerous novels and books of poetry. His writing has often been shaped by the sparsely settled in the western USA, a region he knows well and writes about with great appreciation and love. Although he is not a Native American and writes from the perspective of the white settlers in Dalva, he writes about the Sioux with sensitivity and knowledge. Obviously, he mourns the passage of their culture. He also reveals real empathy for his women characters, something not all male writers of the west manage to do. Although he makes fun of academic historians, he notes in his introduction how valuable they have been to him in writing about the past. His book makes clear how well he knows the history of the west. At times he falls into angry rants about what is wrong with our nation’s past and present, but the fact I generally agree with him makes his anger tolerable in this otherwise well-written book. His writing of people and places is compelling. His landscapes are so dramatically specific to the Great Plains that they made me homesick.

I warmly recommend this book and his other books to all readers enjoy reading about the rural west, and especially to those who have roots there or simply love its open landscape.

 

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