Reduce “The Farmer’s Daughter” to its basic elements, and the title novella in Jim Harrison’s latest collection might be called a revenge story: A young girl plots vengeance against the country music fiddler who had slipped a horse tranquilizer into her drink on the night that changed everything.
Stripped to the bone, “Brown Dog Redux” becomes the tale of a rogue Indian on the lam with the mentally retarded step-daughter he snatched from a state institution with, he thought, entirely too much concrete. A simple description of “Games of the Night”, the third novella in the book, would suggest that Harrison — following the latest trend in movies, TV and books — has now stooped to writing supernatural fantasies.
All those assessments might be factually accurate, but none gets at the essence of The Farmer’s Daughter. Plots, in these Harrison novellas, are like meandering little trails barely charted on road maps. Rather, Harrison builds stories around intricate, compelling character studies.
“Games of the Night” seems to be a story detailing the sexual experiences of a young boy burdened with utterly oblivious college-professor parents, a beautifully written but unremarkable coming-of-age tale. Only gradually, deep into the story, do readers begin to realize that the blood ailment suffered by the young protagonist since he was bitten by a wolf cub causes peculiar, sometimes violent behavior.
The kid evolves into what must be the most subtle creation of the entire werewolf genre — and the most literate. Harrison’s werewolf ponders the meaning behind Dostoevsky’s Notes from Underground. He listens to Pavarotti. He reads Proust and Lorca.
While other authors’ werewolves terrorize the local population, Harrison’s not-very-monstrous monster seeks solitude and thinks about lovers. And sex. Lots of sex. The mysteries of sex, even in a werewolf story, remain Harrison’s great recurring theme.
Brown Dog, an old friend to fans of Harrison, also suffers an acute preoccupation with sex and remains unapologetic in his pursuits. The character boasts the rare ability to reject the frills and artificial complexities of modern life and keep to the basics.
“He was observant of the multiple torments people seemed to have daily and felt lucky that he could resolve his own problems with a couple of beers and a half dozen hours of trout fishing and if a female crossed his path, whether fat or thin, older or younger, it was a testament that heaven was on earth rather than somewhere up there in the remote and hostile sky.”
Not that women don’t confound him:
“It occurred to him then that she would never understand the deep pleasure of spending a whole day in the company of a creek. If he could make a subsistence living repairing deer-hunting cabins, cutting firewood or pulp, why should he do more? Gretchen had said that he was frozen in place at age 12, he reflected that that had been a good year.”
Readers will fall in love with Sarah, the farmer’s daughter, as she grows up on a little farm high in the Montana mountains into a tough, determined, solitary, rural intellectual. Her first love as a teenager comes of a platonic relationship with an old man, a grizzled rancher dying of cancer.
“Sarah wasn’t mentally comfortable with the biological aspects of life.,. She had developed the soul of a solitary during her home schooling and her life had been without the dozen adolescent crushes that trail one from childhood through puberty, the terrifying lack of justice in having an infatuation with someone who hasn’t quite noticed you exist.”
Harrison wrote of this beautifully imagined character, “For the time being she preferred the idea of physical love to stay bathed in mist.” The line gives added poignancy to the coming nasty encounter.
But Harrison again weaves her revenge quest, which might have dominated a less ambitious work, into the fabric of a complete life, into a young girl’s growing awareness of the outside world. Her hunt for her rapist unfolds with a complex inner narrative and unfolds as subtly as the werewolf’s transformation.
The natural world, from the mountains of Montana to the cold woods of Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, do more than serve as a backdrop. Birds, bears, deer, elk, the mountains, the lakes, even the wind have vivid roles in Harrison’s dramas. He offers readers such a sense of place that it all seems like home. And characters so vivid and real that The Farmer’s Daughter becomes like a chronicle of actual acquaintances, like reading a book describing dear friends.