The Farmer’s Daughter
Novellasby Jim Harrison
The Farmer’s Daughter is a marvelous feast of a book that represents Jim Harrison’s finest collection of novellas since Legends of the Fall.
Jim Harrison’s fifteen works of fiction have established him as one of the most beloved and popular authors in American fiction. His last novel, The English Major, was a National Indie Bestseller, a New York Times Book Review notable, and a San Francisco Chronicle Best Book of the Year. Harrison’s latest collection of novellas, The Farmer’s Daughter, finds him writing at the height of his powers, and in fresh and audacious new directions.
The three stories in The Farmer’s Daughter are as different as they are unforgettable. Written in the voice of a home-schooled fifteen-year-old girl in rural Montana, the title novella is an uncompromising, beautiful tale of an extraordinary character whose youth intersects with unexpected brutality, and the reserves she must draw on to make herself whole. In another, Harrison’s beloved recurring character Brown Dog, still looking for love, escapes from Canada back to the States on the tour bus of an Indian rock band called Thunderskins. And finally, a retired werewolf, misdiagnosed with a rare blood disorder brought on by the bite of a Mexican hummingbird, attempts to lead a normal life but is nevertheless plagued by hazy, feverish episodes of epic lust, physical appetite, athletic exertions, and outbursts of violence under the full moon.
The Farmer’s Daughter is a memorable portrait of three decidedly unconventional American lives. With wit, poignancy, and an unbounded love for his characters, Jim Harrison has again reminded us why he is one of the most cherished and important authors at work today.
“Resilient, larger-than-life characters . . . Excellent fare for Harrison’s devoted followers. New readers with a fondness for Hemingway’s Michigan stories or Cormac McCarthy’s spare regional novels will also find these tales much to their liking. Highly recommended.” —Donna Bettencourt, Library Journal (starred review)
“Exuberant . . . Harrison (Legends of the Fall) shows he is still at the top of his game with these compressed gems. Taken together, they present another fine accomplishment in a storied career.” —Publishers Weekly (starred review)
“Harrison covers an epic range of themes in these three lively novellas. All are cast with his usual mix of endearing if idiosyncratic characters who, in these tales, confront some blunt hardships. Each of them finds solace in wild and empty places along the way. . . . And somehow, each manages to turn the odds and emerge with at least the hope of love. . . . By stalking society’s hinterlands in his fiction, Harrison reminds us of the universality of human experience. As marginal as his characters appear, he awakes in readers a genuine compassion for them. In Harrison’s generous, insightful and slightly offbeat world, even werewolves get a shot at redemption.” —Tim McNulty, The Seattle Times
“Dear President Obama: . . . As squabbling increases among those who know and ignorance blossoms among the unread, our country seems to be lurching toward a new variety of disarray and duality, the kind of country that John Dos Passos remarks on [when] he exclaims, ‘Yes, we are two Americas’ . . . Our country seems to be in glorious trouble, and I am suggesting that you add a cabinet member to help steer us toward some kind of glorious acclamation. I would like to nominate Jim Harrison for the post of Secretary of Quality of Life. Mr. President, . . . this Michigan writer who has studied in the East and now apparently lives in the Southwest, knows life in a way that few will admit to, and writes about it in a ribald, vigorous, and intelligent fashion. I don’t know a better antidote to all of the foolish repressive ideas and customs generated in our neo-puritanical society than reading the beautifully narrated and vital fiction of Jim Harrison. I don’t know an American writer who displays more boldly his gusto and love of life. . . . Jim Harrison . . . is, I hope you’ll agree, sir, a national treasure.” —Alan Cheuse, The Chicago Tribune
“Always as exhilarating as a breath of fresh air . . . Harrison’s fiction . . . is rooted in a deep connection with nature and infused with passion for the vast wilds of America and respect for its disenfranchised.” —Heller McAlpin, NPR.org
“Jim Harrison dazzle[ed] the lit scene with his first collection of novellas . . . The Farmer’s Daughter . . . ranks among his best. . . . The novella . . . is a difficult, bastard form, and Jim Harrison, simply, its master.” —Randy Michael Signor, Chicago Sun-Times
“Harrison is interested in the awful collision between body and soul and the ways in which our appetites—for food and drink and sex, for companionship and redemption, for relief and revenge—steer us toward both conflict and resolution. . . . It is in the title novella of The Farmer’s Daughter . . . that Harrison accomplishes the book’s most persuasive reckoning of the ways in which violence and longing, pain and love, serve to shape a life. . . . moving.” —John Gregory Brown, The Boston Globe
“If there’s one thing Harrison knows, it’s how to teach his characters to share his sensual hunger and relish their role in his supernaturally charged natural world.” —Liesl Schillinger, The New York Times Book Review
“The primal existential wound that festers in all Harrison’s fiction meets its equal, though not its master, in love. . . . Elusive, allusive and moving—perhaps the author’s best work in this form since Legends of the Fall.” —Kirkus Reviews
“Three novellas that offer an array of delights, from the story lines to the writing to the leaps of imagination . . . Perhaps no American author has more adroitly—or more often—worked in the format of the novella than Jim Harrison. . . . Sarah Holcomb . . . [is] one of the most precocious young women in recent literature. . . . [Harrison] remains one of our most lyrical novelists, a testament to the fact that he pulls double duty as a major contemporary American poet.” —William Porter, The Denver Post
“Jim Harrison is a master storyteller and one of the most prolific and powerful American authors writing today. . . . 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.” —Jim Carmin, The Oregonian
“[A] raucous celebration of man’s inner wolf . . . [Harrison is one of the] modern virtuosos of short fiction. . . . The Farmer’s Daughter continues Harrison’s run of masterful novellas that began with Legends of the Fall. . . . The gem of the collection . . . is ‘The Games of Night,’ which chronicles the lifestyle challenges of a modern-day werewolf. . . . It’s tremendous fun.” —Bruce Barcott, Outside Magazine
“Jim Harrison must be the only author around who can make playing a Liszt concerto or reading a Hart Crane poem seem as sensually pleasurable an experience as digging into a juicy steak or jumping into bed with an experienced partner. . . . Harrison excels when exploring the blurred zones where human consciousness is confronted by the landscape and its non-human creatures. His nature descriptions often read like transposed passages of D.H. Lawrence, the adjectives calmed by the vastness of the American landscape.” —James Grainger, The Toronto Star
“Though all three of [these] novellas are distinct from one another, they are joined by the exploration of isolation, displacement, raw sexuality, human connection. . . . One of my favorite elements of Harrison’s writing is his abilities to reveal the subtleties of a place—the landscape, cultural attitudes and atmosphere—through little details and show how they imperceptibly mix with the memories of an individual, further shaping their character. . . . Each novella in The Farmer’s Daughter is better than the last.” —Elena Spagnolie, BookBrowse
“The novella may be [Harrison’s] finest form, expansive enough for his astoundingly wide-ranging mind, compressed enough for his poet’s intensity. The wonderful novellas of The Farmer’s Daughter are not linked by character or setting, although Harrison does lace them with shared motifs. . . . Each comes alive in its own world, and each has a distinctive style and voice. Harrison’s ribald humor and cool intelligence course through them all, but the first novella is lyrically realistic, the second slyly comic and sweetly poignant, the third an exquisite fever dream. . . . The Farmer’s Daughter [is] a nuanced and convincing account of the inner life of a girl poised on the dangerous brink of puberty with no one wise to guide her. The novella’s last line is a punch in the head, an almost-haiku that captures in one phrase the ironic glory of first love.” —Colette Bancroft, St. Petersburg Times
“Harrison builds stories around intricate, compelling character studies. . . . Readers will fall in love with Sarah, the farmer’s daughter . . . [a] beautifully imagined character . . . 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.” —Fred Grimm, Miami Herald
“What a pleasure to welcome the new year with ‘novella-ist’ Jim Harrison. A fine Zen-inspired poet and robust novelist . . . Harrison writes his best in the novella form . . . [which is] the perfect length for his rangy and vigorous first-person storytelling. . . In the title novella, ‘The Farmer’s Daughter,’ we meet another of Harrison’s preternaturally strong female protagonists. . . . We grow up with her, suffering through her adolescent explorations with men and boys. We easily root for her on her journey of love and revenge.” —James Lenfestey, Minneapolis Star-Tribune
“Harrison returns to the novella form that has served him so well. . . . [and] reintroduces one of his favorite characters he’s written about in the past, Brown Dog, a young half Indian who’s a 21st-century version of Huck Finn.” —James E. Casto, The Charleston Gazette
“Three exquisite novellas . . . Harrison is a master at subtly depicting the politics of everyday life. He’s a writer who asks questions—explicitly and implicitly—about the limits of love, the nature of community, the need for human connection, and the desire for respect and recognition. His characters are tautly drawn and leave much to the imagination. Nonetheless, they’re people to root for, folks who’ll stick in your head long past the denouement of each story.” —Eleanor J. Bader, The L Magazine
“A big-hearted writer . . . [with] exuberance and gentle good humor . . . Jim Harrison’s screenplays and almost 30 books, including 15 of fiction . . . have firmly fixed him as a shining star in the literary constellation.” —Robert Birnbaum, The Morning News
A New York Times Book Review Editor’s Choice
A Denver Post Editor’s Choice
From The Farmer’s Daughter
She was born peculiar, or so she thought. Her parents had put some ice in her soul, not a rare thing, and when things went well the ice seemed to melt a bit, and when things went poorly the ice enlarged. Her name was Sarah Anitra Holcomb.
She was without self-pity never having learned how to administer it. Things were as they were. A certain loneliness was an overwhelming fact of her life. Her family had moved to Montana in 1980 when she was nine years old. They felt like pioneers striking out from Findlay, Ohio, but without the young man called Brother, then eighteen and the son of her father’s first marriage, who chose to stay behind but then up and joined the marines, an insult because the marines were the core of her father Frank’s unhappiness. Frank had seen no combat in Vietnam but as a graduate of Purdue had been in the Competitive Strategies (all unsuccessful) Office in Saigon.
His very best friend Willy, also from Findlay, had died from friendly fire in Khe Sanh. The death of Willy, a friend since childhood, was the poisonous goad that finally sent Frank out to Montana where he proposed to forget the world thirteen years after mustering out. The dissolving of the first marriage had put quite a crimp in saving a grubstake, and the second marriage and the arrival of Sarah further delayed his somewhat heroic plans. Frank was a pure ideologue and had planned a future that wouldn’t include our culture and its murderous politics. As a mechanical engineering graduate of Purdue (magna cum laude), Frank was confident of making a living in Montana beyond the amount of the savings which he estimated would last three years.
In February 1980 Frank announced that they would make the big move in late April. He had just returned from Montana where he had closed a land deal for 180 acres. He made the statement with a military tinge as if saying, “We move out at dawn.”
“Great! We’re heading for God’s country,” said Frank’s wife and Sarah’s mother, who was nicknamed Peppy.
“There must be a hundred places in the U.S. that call themselves God’s country,” Frank muttered over his goulash made with super-lean beef. Peppy had been a home economics teacher when Frank met her at the Ohio State Fair where he had been manning his engineering firm’s extensive display booth. One reason that he married Peppy was that his ex-wife had been an alcoholic and Peppy came from an evangelical family and didn’t drink.
“I’m going to stay here and live with Grandma unless I can have a horse and dog on our ranch.”
This brought dinner to a stop as Sarah’s rare ultimatums always did. Her mother had never allowed her a dog because she thought of dog poop as satanic. Frank sat there waiting for his wife’s lead.
“You know how I feel about dog fecal matter,” Peppy said properly.
“I’ll teach the dog to poop a hundred yards from the house. If we’re living twenty miles from the town we need a dog to guard our chickens, cows, and horses on the ranch.”
“It’s not a ranch. It’s a farm,” Frank said irrelevantly.
“We’ll think about it, sweetheart,” Peppy said.
“No we won’t think about it. It’s a dog and a horse or I’m staying in Ohio with Grandma.” Sarah’s grandma was a piano teacher, a Swede who had married an Italian truck farmer, not necessarily the best ethnic mix. Every day after school Sarah stopped at her grandmother’s to play the piano. She had been given her middle name, Anitra, from the composer Edvard Grieg’s “Anitra’s Dance” at iron-hard Grandma’s insistence.
“Well, all the kids in the Montana countryside seem to have a horse and a dog,” Frank offered.
“I’ll pray about it,” Peppy said in resignation.
Sarah had to pray with her mother every morning but she had her own eccentric versions of prayer including imaginary animals, the moon and stars, and music, horses, and dogs. Her grandmother disliked Peppy’s evangelical beliefs thinking her son had traded in a drunk for a nitwit. Grandmother taught little Sarah that music was the speech of the gods while Peppy insisted that Sarah learn to play some hymns to counterbalance the sinful effects of the classics. Sarah would play the lugubrious “Old Rugged Cross” poorly because it was no more than barbed wire set to music.
Packing up was hard. Sarah wanted to take along their big backyard with its maples and oaks, its coverts of viburnum, honeysuckle, and barberry, the ornamental crab-apple trees and flowering almond, the tiny playhouse you had to crawl into, even the path out the unused back gate, and the back alley where she fed stray cats and where she walked to visit her few friends. Her best friend Maria who was a year older and prematurely pubescent absolutely guaranteed Sarah that cowboys would rape her in Montana and that she best get herself a pistol to defend herself, a matter over which Sarah spent a good deal of time brooding.
One Friday afternoon in mid-April her father showed up with a huge three-quarter-ton black pickup and a long trailer. Two neighbor men helped load the trailer and on Sunday there was a yard sale for what had to be left behind including Sarah’s ancient piano. What would she do without a piano? Her parents, of course, hadn’t thought of that. Her piano in a real sense was her speech, her only viable conversation with the world. Her father talked sparsely and her mother didn’t listen in her busyness of figuring out what she was going to say next. Sarah stayed back in a thicket during the yard sale watching people paw over her bedroom furniture and beloved piano. So much had to be left behind to make room for Frank’s tools and equipment, including a large floor tent they would live in while Frank built them a log cabin. She wept behind the honeysuckle bush when a man bought the piano for thirty bucks announcing loudly that he would tear it apart for its hardwood lumber.
This man was going to murder her piano and it reminded her of when she and Maria would ride their bikes over to the Humane Society to visit the lovely dogs and pick out which ones they’d like to own should they ever be permitted a dog. Only after several trips did they learn from a brusque docent lady that most of the dogs would be euthanized because no one wanted them. They would kill the dogs like the man would kill her piano. Brushing her tears with a shirtsleeve she had the idea that children like herself were kennel dogs.
The jump from the piano to man to herself to dog wasn’t difficult. Unlike most people, she knew her own story while she kept on making up a new one. She had figured out that it was the big gaps that were the problem so she tried to keep busy. Did her father love her? Off and on. Did her mother love her? She doubted it. Her mother loved the certainty of her own religion. She had only an obligatory, perfunctory love for her daughter. Peppy always reminded Sarah of that grinning, porcelain cat on the windowsill near Grandma’s piano.