Grove Press
Grove Press
Grove Press

Returning to Earth

A Novel

by Jim Harrison

“[Harrison’s] books glisten with love of the world, and are as grounded as Thoreau’s in the particulars of American place—its rivers and thickets, its highways and taverns. Bawdily and with unrelenting gusto, Harrison’s 40 years of writing explores what constitutes a good life, both aesthetically and morally, on this planet. . . . Quietly magnificent . . . A luminous, sad calm pervades this novel. . . . [An] extraordinary valediction to mourning. It sharpens one’s appetite for life even at its darkest.” —Will Blythe, The New York Times Book Review

  • Imprint Grove Paperback
  • Page Count 288
  • Publication Date September 18, 2007
  • ISBN-13 978-0-8021-4331-0
  • Dimensions 5.5" x 8.25"
  • US List Price $17.00

About The Book

Now in paperback, Jim Harrison’s Returning to Earth has been universally praised, and is one of his most popular recent books. In Returning to Earth, Harrison has delivered a masterpiece—a tender, profound, and magnificent novel about life, death, and how it is sometimes possible to find redemption in unlikely places.

Donald is a middle-aged Chippewa-Finnish man, married to a white woman who renounced the wealth she was raised with, and father to two grown children. As Returning to Earth opens he is slowly dying of Lou Gehrig’s disease. His condition deteriorating, he realizes no one alive will be able to pass on to his children their family history once he is gone. He begins dictating to his wife, Cynthia, stories he has never shared with anyone—as around him, his family struggles with how to lay him to rest with the same dignity with which he has always lived.

Over the course of the year following Donald’s death, his loved ones struggle with how to let him go. His daughter begins studying Chippewa ideas of death for clues about her father’s religion, and her mother is at loose ends for how to protect or guide her. Bereft of the family she created to escape the malevolent influence of her own father, Cynthia, along with her brother, David, an eccentric whose life mission is to prevent Mexican border—crossers from dying in transit, find, all these years later, that redeeming the past is not a lost cause.

Returning to Earth is a deeply moving book about origins and endings, how to make sense of loss, and how to live with honor for the dead. It is among the finest novels of Harrison’s long, storied career, and confirms his standing as one of the most important American writers now working.

Tags Literary


“[Harrison’s] books glisten with love of the world, and are as grounded as Thoreau’s in the particulars of American place—its rivers and thickets, its highways and taverns. Bawdily and with unrelenting gusto, Harrison’s 40 years of writing explores what constitutes a good life, both aesthetically and morally, on this planet. . . . Quietly magnificent . . . A luminous, sad calm pervades this novel. . . . [An] extraordinary valediction to mourning. It sharpens one’s appetite for life even at its darkest.” —Will Blythe, The New York Times Book Review

“Time, memory, and the land all play key roles in Harrison’s remarkable new novel. . . . A deeply felt meditation on life and death, nature and God, this is one of Harrison’s finest works.” —Library Journal (starred review)

“Jim Harrison is a writer with a bear in him. Fearless, a top predator, omnivorous, he consumes all manner of literature and history and philosophy while walking the North Woods, fishing in streams or driving the back roads of North America . . . He is one of the great writers of our age for the muscularity of his prose; his strong, declarative sentences boom one after the other like waves pounding a Lake Superior shore, each carrying some new flotsam from the conscious or unconscious worlds.” —Jim Lenfestey, Minneapolis Star-Tribune

“Wrenchingly sad. . .” —Charles McGrath, The New York Times

“[Harrison] offers . . . roomy definition of integrity endlessly open to interpretation and based on relationships with the earth, with one’s family, with oneself. Locating ourselves in the four directions, in the march of ancestors, in the web of species, Harrison means to tell us, might help us feel safer, which would make us kinder and less destructive. . . . Although these characters share a common heritage and interests, they remain so distinct, so memorable, that you would recognize their voices in a crowded bar, even if you had your back to them. As for the places they love and inhabit, the chokecherry and dogwood and porcupine-quill baskets and feathers and stones—well, let’s just say that all five senses were used to re-create them.” —Susan Salter Reynolds, The Los Angeles Times

“Beautifully written . . .” —Ashley Simpson Shires, Rocky Mountain News

“Beautiful, complex and . . . heart-wrenching. . . . Really . . . really, Harrison is one of the most remarkable writers on the planet. He is one of the few who can write a book about death and dying that is at once dignified, uplifting and hilarious, without a trace of mawkishness or sentimentality. . . . On every page of a Harrison novel are revelatory gems of seemingly off-handed wisdom. . . . It is useless to catalog the wisdom on every page of Returning to Earth, except to say that like great poetry, Harrison’s prose has the power to stop the eye and the mind at the same time, to suspend a reader in an absolute moment of contemplation, and to tear away the junk of the world, revealing only what our deepest nature desires, peace and contentment. . . . Redemption and courage flow from Harrison’s heart to ours. We’re lucky to have him. He’s a genuine treasure, an American writer who deserves the Nobel Prize for Literature.” —Gaylord Dold, The Wichita Eagle

“For more than four decades his sinewy prose and poetry have been exhorting us—without timidity—to embrace life in all its sensuality. Now, with his splendid new novel, [Harrison] delivers a treatise on love, loss, and longing, and reminds us that such embarrassment can compromise our lives while we yet live. . . . This should not be mistaken as an endorsement of ‘closure’ that false sedative to which we, in our instant-gratification society, seem addicted. Harrison fairly thumbs his nose at that hollow concept. He knows that yearning outlives acceptance. His point is more profound.” —Craig L. Smith, Santa Fe New Mexican

“Mr. Harrison [is] one of the finest American writers of the last half-century. . . . Mr. Harrison . . . writes with great beauty and power about nature and the outdoors. . . . This is a major book by a major writer working at the top of his powers. Don’t miss it.” —John Greenya, The Washington Times

“Harrison is a companionable writer whose best work reads like a long conversation with an eccentric friend. In Returning to Earth, the anecdotes within the larger narrative have the drift of oral language and the texture of the oft-repeated tales good buddies exchange when they reconnect after a long absence. . . . The sort of speaker most people can listen to for hours.” —Joe Campana, The Missoula Independent

“At the center of the novel, the irreducible conundrum: What matters after life is stripped away? That is the question. It is not an easy question and it is the question we most often look away from, in a culture swept up in the distractions of the everyday. Be kind, Harrison might say by way of a sideways answer. Be true and be kind.” —Ft. Lauderdale Sun-Sentinel

“Harrison offers a . . . view of death and redemption that is as earthbound and humble as it is spiritual and profound.” —Tim McNulty, The Seattle Times

“[Jim Harrison] has become a major figure in American literature, and nowhere are the reasons for that more clear than in his newest novel, Returning to Earth. . . . Returning to Earth is . . . a prodigious achievement. It is both familiar and strange, rooted and rootless, endlessly dark and occasionally hilarious. It is above all human: raucous, literary, bawdy, goofy and wise. It is heartbreakingly sad. And it registers the redemption of love, the power of the word to speak the truth, the peace that comes to those who live even when it is time to die.” —Bart Thurber, San Diego Union-Tribune

“Harrison’s characters speak with a gripping frankness and intimacy about their own shortcomings, and delve into their grief with keen sympathy.” —Publishers Weekly

Returning to Earth is a poignant and powerful reflection of how all stories become one in the end . . . a story told with bare-bones honesty and simple eloquence.” —David Nolt, Livingston Weekly

“[Jim Harrison’s] fiction is rooted in primitive feelings of earthy connectedness and the mystical bonds shared by human beings and nature, or that could be shared were not our innocence corrupted by greed and unholy aspiration.” —Fredric Koeppel, The Commercial Appeal

“Readers will find Returning to Earth both substantial and nourishing . . . Robust, soulful, satisfying, Returning to Earth is a reminder of the death-defying power of deep and abiding love.” —Kathleen Johnson, Kansas City Star

“Each section of this brilliant novel set in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan is told from the perspective of a different character dealing with loss and love. I think this is one of the best novels I’ve read in months, and if you’re discovering Jim Harrison for the first time, this is a great book to get you started on his work.” —Gayle Shanks, Changing Hands Bookstore, Tempe, AZ, Book Sense quote

“Harrison’s newest novel, Returning to Earth, contains some of the most poignant moments he has ever imagined.” —Daniel Dyer, Cleveland Plain Dealer

“Grade: A. . . . Returning to Earth is a beautifully written account of one man’s passing and the effect on his multifaceted and multicultural family.” —Ashley Simpson Shires, Rocky Mountain News

“[Returning to Earth] is told in a prose so pure and scraped of excess that a paragraph can seem a novel, a sentence a poem. . . . Breathtaking.” —Ted Roelofs, The Grand Rapids Press

“Deeply moving . . .” —Book Passage

“A wise and moving story about life, death, and letting go.” —The Octavian

Returning to Earth (another wonderful title from an author who understands their importance) is best at the level of the sentence and the paragraph, which is where Harrison’s prose most shines. As a poet, he is especially attentive to the power of single words . . . there is much to be said in praise of this quiet reflective work that presents an ordinary life in its final state of repose. Here we will all go in the end, and Jim Harrison has traveled that future length of the trail for us. . . . The novel reaffirms his dedication to the craft and the persistence and clarity of his vision.” —The Bloomsbury Review

“Jim Harrison is a rare find. His characters are so skillfully rendered that they become real to the reader—self-conscious, spontaneous and imperfect. Harrison’s voice is direct and brutal, bringing to light the parts of ourselves that we try to keep hidden, and the tiniest thought we leave unsaid.” —Bridget Randles, Albuquerque Journal


A Book Sense Selection
A Publishers Weekly Best Book of 2007
A Seattle Times Best Book of 2007


At midmorning on the third day these three big ravens stood right outside of the thicket looking in at me. Ravens don’t stand on the ground unless they’re sure of themselves. Deer and many other animals haven’t figured out cars, but ravens have. Anyway, it was plain to me that these three ravens wanted to know why I was sitting there. I wasn’t so sure myself but I told them that the first day I had had a real short vision that I was going to get sick and die. This was more than two years before I got diagnosed. I told them I wasn’t too much bothered by my coming death because it’s what happens to all living things sooner or later. Later would be better but it’s not for me to decide. I also told these ravens about a funeral of their kind I had seen a few miles inland from Whitefish Point a few years back.

A real old raven had fallen slowly down through the branches of a hemlock tree over a period of two hours, grabbing hold of a branch now and then with his last strength, while around the bird about three dozen of his family were whirling. I heard the soft sound when he finally hit the ground. I got the feeling that one of the three ravens had been there as it was less than a hundred miles away. They showed no signs of leaving so I also told them of my vision of my mother and father sitting beside a creek with a sleeping bear beside them as if it were a pet dog. My mother and father looked wonderful and they said, “Don’t be afraid to come home, son.”

Reading Group Guide

1. As in his previous works of fiction, Jim Harrison chronicles life in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, a rugged landscape of thick forests filled with bear and deer. Begin your discussion of this novel by considering how this untamed backdrop affects and shapes his characters’ lives on both a physical and spiritual level. Consider the vast expanse of Lake Superior as well as the extreme climate of harsh winters and hot mosquito-filled summers—how might this influence people to be constantly at the mercy of nature?

2. K. describes Donald’s story as “what William Faulkner called ‘the raw meat on the floor’” (p. 98). What does he mean by this statement? What is it about Donald’s character and the way in which he lives that generates such respect and admiration among his family members? How far do you agree with the statement that “I never knew anyone who so thoroughly was what he was” (p. 162)? Would you describe anyone else’s story in the novel as “the raw meat on the floor?”

3. Donald’s attitude toward his death is stoic and without self-pity: “I think you’re better off understanding things like this than simply being pissed off” (p. 25). Talk about the importance of his religion in his ability to remain strong throughout his illness and the preparations for his suicide. Why is he so private about his religion? Trace the influences of his past on his personal brand of religion: take into accounts his months spent with Flower as a child, his Indian Chippewa heritage, his work ethic, and his reverence for nature.

4. What do we learn about Donald through his admission of his plan to murder a childhood enemy? Does your impression of him change? For the better or the worse?

5. Donald states “my own father’s solution for the hard knocks of life was to work too hard and that’s also been a downfall of my own” (p. 46). Identify and explain the ways in which work and the need to work appear in the novel: think about the contrast between Cynthia’s father and Donald’s father, about David’s teaching position in Mexico and what it means to him, as well as Cynthia’s decision to move away to find meaningful work. Find instances where mental well-being depends on physical exertion and, in contrast, where a lack of physical activity hinders intellectual thought.

6. As Donald recounts his family history to his wife, Cynthia, he seems to discover or rediscover a deep connection to his ancestors, especially with his great-grandfather, the first Clarence. How are the two of them alike? Consider Donald’s empathy for Clarence losing his beloved horse, Sally, stating that “I understand his feelings because I have lost my body” (p. 26). Even before the telling of these stories, what are some of the ways in which Donald has passed down his Indian heritage to his children?

7. In relating a moving story about a raven funeral, Donald muses about his own death (p. 71). How is his death similar to the raven’s passing? Discuss the author’s portrayal of Donald’s final moments, narrated by K. in one short paragraph in fairly clinical terms. Was the brevity of this description surprising to you or did it resonate with deeper, unspoken emotion? Did you want to see the family’s immediate reactions to the death or were you content to give them their privacy and imagine for yourself?

8. “We’ve been so inept and careless about death in America and have paid big for the consequences” (p. 226). What do you think this statement means and how far would you agree with it?

9. Death and attitudes toward it obviously play a central role in this novel. David states: “Death gives us a shove into a new sort of landscape” (p. 166) while Cynthia questions, “What’s an appropriate response to death?” (p. 228). Briefly consider the different characters’ responses to Donald’s death. Given what we know of their personalities does anyone’s reaction surprise you? Does anyone manage to act as Donald hoped?—”You can remember me but let me go?” (p. 228).

10. Why do you think Clare feels the need to immerse herself in Chippewa ideas on death after her father’s passing? Why is she drawn to Flower instead of her own mother? Is there a parallel between her feelings for Flower and those of her father’s feelings for Flower? How realistic do you find her responses?

11. Consider the ways in which Cynthia deals with Donald’s death. Why is she unable to help Clare? Discuss the parallels of learning to let go as a mother with letting someone go in death.

12. Donald’s death serves as a catalyst of sorts for David and gives him the strength to seek out Vera, the girl he loved twenty years earlier. Why do you think he is able to put the past behind him now?

13. Herald and Clare, Donald and Cynthia’s children, are strikingly dissimilar in character. Find instances of this dissimilarity and discuss how their character traits prepare them for handling their father’s illness and death. Do they step out of their expected roles at all? In many ways they mirror the difference that exists between Cynthia and her brother David, even K. and his sister, Rachel. What might these differences tell us about human nature?

14. David is a fascinating character, balancing his life between the wilds of his cabin and the remote poverty of Mexican villages. K. states, “David had spent his life nearly suffocated by ambiguities” (p. 137). How far would you agree with this statement? Central to his being is the need to make reparations for wrongs committed by his family over the last century. How do his survival kits for Mexican illegal immigrants fit into this picture? At one point he is advised to “cast your role as a screwdriver rather than a tank” (p. 187) in his humanitarian efforts. How far could this statement apply to his personal life too?

15. Fathers and father figures play an important role throughout the novel. Consider Cynthia’s attitude toward her father as a girl and its influence on her falling in love with Donald. Does her attitude toward her father and his monstrous act of raping Vera change over the course of the novel? What does she discover about his experience in the war, and does her knowledge bring any conclusions? What do we learn about David’s relationship with his father, and how has this affected his life? Who were father figures for Cynthia and her brother David? What about K? Talk about the four father figures in his life.

16. What are your impressions of the author’s portrayal of love in the novel? Consider the reasons for Donald and Cynthia’s deep and lasting love, which started in the most unlikely of circumstances. K. reflects with anger on “the randomness of love” (p. 105), which makes him love Cynthia more than Clare. Discuss the different relationships presented in the novel and consider the role played by “randomness.”

17. Discuss how the novel explores the idea of history, especially through the characters of David and Donald. David compares the destructive nature of Donald’s disease to his own “dithering obsession with the destructiveness of history” (p. 149). What do you think he means by this and is it a fair analogy to make? How does his preoccupation with history impact his life? Consider both the positive and negative ways. Talk about Donald’s attitude toward history. Why do you think he states “I like the stories with people myself” (p. 6)?

18. We learn, quite surprisingly, that Donald was jealous of David’s vivid animal-filled dreams (p. 119) but Donald seems to have had many striking dreams himself. Identify examples of dream images that have special importance in the novel. Consider the dream of the first Clarence that led him to a horse farm. How does Cynthia follow in his footsteps at the end of the novel? Given that dreaming occurs when the mind is in a state of subconsciousness, could Donald’s three days on the mountain fit into the dream category? What are some of the visions he experienced during his fast and how are they relevant to the rest of the novel?

19. As you will have noted, bears appear in dreams throughout the novel, and from Donald’s first mention of bad dreams about flying bears as a child, it is evident that bears will play a major role in the book. Consider the implications of the statement that “a bear is just a bear” in terms of understanding Donald’s religion. Find instances of the prevalence of bears in daily life in the Upper Peninsula. and discuss the spiritual importance of bears in Chippewa lore. How do different family members react to the possibility of Donald’s soul migrating into a bear’s body? What realization occurs at the very end of the novel when Cynthia and Clare sight a bear together? Has Cynthia changed since Donald’s death? What might this mean for her relationship with her daughter?

20. Discuss how the novel portrays man’s symbiotic relationship with nature. Consider the ways in which Donald and his family bring nature into their lives, indeed need nature in order to live life fully, and find instances where people show a lack of reverence toward nature and animals. When Donald spends his three days in the wilderness he finds his place in the world and recounts “I was able to see how creatures including insects looked at me rather than just how I saw them” (p. 70). Given what we know about the importance of nature in the characters’ lives, what might K.’s sister, Rachel, represent in the novel?

21. At the end of the novel Cynthia discovers what Camus refers to as “terrible freedom” (p. 274). What is this, and why does it fill Cynthia with “vertigo”? Do you think she will survive in Montana?

Suggestions for further reading:

A River Runs Through It by Norman Maclean, Thirteen Moons by Charles Frazier, Rites of Conquest by Charles E. Cleland, The Beast God Forgot to Invent by Jim Harrison, The Sky, the Stars, the Wilderness by Rick Bass, Love Medicine by Louise Erdrich