Grove Press
Grove Press
Grove Press

True North

by Jim Harrison

“Harrison consistently commands our attention for his humanity and his tenderness. That he can create such tension in the process—a tension not released until the last page—and in the end forge such violence shows his skill as a storyteller and makes True North a great achievement.” —Thomas Curwen, Los Angeles Times Book Review

  • Imprint Grove Paperback
  • Page Count 400
  • Publication Date August 29, 2005
  • ISBN-13 978-0-8021-4206-1
  • Dimensions 5.5" x 8.25"
  • US List Price $17.00

About The Book

Now in paperback, Jim Harrison’s highly acclaimed latest novel, which the Miami Herald has called “perhaps the epic of Michigan’s Upper Peninsula . . . It’s not enough to say that reading Harrison is like visiting a place. It is like knowing a place.”

Michigan has been home to Jim Harrison for most of his life here he has written the long-awaited novel of his homeland, the story of a family torn apart and a man engaged in profound reckoning with the damage scarred into the American soil. An epic tale that pits a son against the legacy of his family’s desecration of the earth, and his own father’s more personal violations, True North is a beautiful and moving novel that speaks to the territory in our hearts that calls us back to our roots.

The scion of a family of wealthy timber barons, David Burkett has grown up with a father who is a malevolent force more than a father, and a mother made vague and numb by alcohol and pills. He and his sister Cynthia, a firecracker who scandalizes the family at fourteen by taking up with the son of their Finnish-Native American gardener, are mostly left to make their own way. As David comes to adulthood—enlightened and enlivened at various points by an unforgettable triumvirate of intoxicating women—he realizes he must come to terms with his forefathers’ rapacious destruction of the woods of Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, as well as with the working people who made their wealth possible. Over thirty years of searching for the truth of what his family has done and trying to make amends, David looks closely at the root of his father’s evil—and threatens to destroy himself.

In the story of the Burketts, Jim Harrison has given us a family tragedy of betrayal and amends, joy and grief, and justice for the worst of our sins. True North is a bravura performance from one of our finest writers, accomplished with deep humanity, humor, and redemptive soul.

Tags Literary


True North is full-meal Harrison, weaving together philosophy, religion, sex, sensuality, a love of animals, poetry and food, and an elegiac appreciation for the natural world. . . . The many pleasures embedded within make True North another necessary installment in the work of one of the finest writers working today.” —Mary Ann Gwinn, The Seattle Times

“Harrison consistently commands our attention for his humanity and his tenderness. That he can create such tension in the process—a tension not released until the last page—and in the end forge such violence shows his skill as a storyteller and makes True North a great achievement.” —Thomas Curwen, Los Angeles Times Book Review

“There is no denying the urgency of Harrison’s storytelling, or his passionate involvement in the fate of his embattled hero. . . . In [Harrison’s] portrait of a father and a son he has made an indelible addition to the gallery of literature’s ‘bad dads.’” —Anthony Quinn, The New York Times Book Review

True North is shot through with themes that relate to the question of manliness and the natural world, and in many ways the novel is an extended meditation on the nature of maleness itself. . . . True North becomes a story of dissolution and cohesion, within a family, within the larger community, within the single mind of its narrator. Layered in sections titled 1960s, 1970s, and 1980s, the narrative is stratified rather than linear, allowing it to deepen gradually rather than rely on incident following incident to draw the story along.” —Art Winslow, The Chicago Tribune

“The genius of Mr. Harrison, it seems to me, is that his characters possess a uniquely human and endearing clumsiness as well as a gracefulness in the way they inhabit the sharp and sometimes exuberantly felt physical world and the restless (though also at times exuberant) realm of spirit. True North, with its tensions, tenderness, wisdom, violence and salvation, is a truly American novel. There is grace and redemption—sometimes earned, other times merely bestowed or observed—on every page.” —Rick Bass, The Dallas Morning News

“[True North} is a provocative tale that explores the roots of wealth and privilege in America and examines the troubled legacy of our 19th-century attitudes toward the land. . . . Harrison’s writing is superb, as always, rippling with thematic leaps and poetic insights.” —Tim McNulty, The Oregonian

“Watery landscapes and riparian light are constants in [Harrison’s] books. His descriptions of flora and fauna stand at the head of the line of American writers. True North is no exception. When Harrison writes about a blizzard, you shiver. When he describes a thunderstorm, you see lightning. And when writing about fishing, the author is at his most poetic.” —Stephen J. Lyons, The San Francisco Chronicle

“Harrison combines a love of nature and life in the wild, which he describes in splendid, soaring prose, with a rich and troubled conscience tortured by the ambiguities of modern life. . . . [Harrison] bursts through with splashes of true brilliance.” —Dan Goddard, Cleveland Plain Dealer

“As always, Harrison manages to reward readers with poetic insights that transcend the characters and the story.” —Terry Fiedler, Minneapolis Star Tribune

“From the brutal and gripping prologue, where the father’s hands have been severed at the wrist, through Burkett’s chronicles, his father’s misdeeds propel Burkett into the woods or across international boundaries to unearth secrets. This human story of a son’s attempt to understand a parent’s cruelty is [a] deftly told tale.” —Gail Louise Siegel, Milwaukee Journal Sentinel

“The scheme here isn’t man against nature; it is man into nature, and it is this scheme that brings the book. . . its keenest pleasures. . . . The land is beautifully, lovingly described, the writing rich with impeccable detail and the lore of the woods. . . . A worthy addition to the great [Harrison’s] work, and shows a writer, who, while comfortable with his themes, places and people, is not complacent in them. . . . Harrison is still pushing himself, and his characters, to inhabit the mysteries of the worlds they live in.” —Murray Farish, St. Louis Post-Dispatch

“Harrison can carry the reader into the Michigan wilderness with such vivid passages that they could serve a tourist better than memory. It’s not enough to say that reading Harrison is like visiting a place. It is like knowing a place.” —Fred Grimm, Miami Herald

“[Harrison] is an accomplished and worthy writer who has written. . . in styles variously earnest and comic, and in lyrical prose at once tough and insightfully tender, but always cogently and entertainingly written, encompassing or touching upon such issues as greed, revenge, nature, hunting and fishing, and American-Indian life. . . . [True North] is a rich and satisfying read for the strenuously poetic passages detailing not only the complexities, quirks and intricacies of human emotions and interactions, but also for conveying a solid sense of place.” —Gordon Hauptfleisch, San Diego Union-Tribune

“[The] best reason to read [is] for its mix of profound, bawdy, spiritual and humorous events. While Harrison’s big themes here are environmental destruction and greed, he also explores the wonders of the natural world, travel, the United States’ heavy history and, as the main character paraphrases a forgotten philosopher, ‘the miracle that life exists at all.’” —Tyler D. Johnson, Denver Post

“Harrison is a masculine writer, unabashedly so in his appetites and enthusiasms, but never macho. If he is at times adoring of and sentimental about his women characters, their edge is not dulled by sweetness. . . . If his style can be as clean and clear as [Willa] Cather’s, he writes with [William] Faulkner’s voluble, untidy spilling forth. He has readers not because his prose is stylish but because it has personality and a compelling storyteller’s voice.” —William Corbett, The Boston Phoenix

“Harrison is at his best in True North when he is describing the cold north of the setting, when he is telling about fishing for trout and how the cold slaps against his cheeks, and when the protagonist is eating his catch in the tiny cabin in the big woods. . . . Harrison, the veteran novelist, still soars with new energy in his twelfth book of fiction.” —Wayne Greenhaw, Foreword

“Harrison is Michigan’s writer, to be sure, and he is as fluent in the ways of nature as anyone. Through burly but graceful prose he gives us characters who practice a hardy, wind-in-the-face self-reliance.” —Scott W. Helman, The Boston Globe

“With more beauty, cogency and better writing than an aisle-full of self-help books, Harrison has stitched together an intricately written family history that suggests that our futures emerge only when the present is free of the past.” —John Schacht, Creative Loafing

“Like much of Harrison’s writing, [True North] is visceral, steeped in psychology, exacting in its descriptions of the natural world—and questioning of the way man has treated it.” —Steve Byrne, Detroit Free Press

“Harrison’s gift for getting inside his narrators is immediately spotlighted in True North. Burkett is equal parts mad monk and sensualist, and Harrison deftly balances these self-contradictions from scene to scene. . . . Harrison effortlessly weaves historical detail into his story, but the world his characters inhabit is defined mainly by their voices, which are spellbinding. . . . No American writer since Hemingway has produced a body of work so unflinchingly naturalistic, but Harrison has carved out his own legend by expanding the scope of his prose and his stories to take readers into uncharted territory.” —John Hicks, Weekly Planet

“Harrison, known for his ironic wit and his sense of humanity, assembles his usual cast of eccentrics and misfits . . . The evocative mélange of people and place is what makes True North a page-turner.” —Christene Meyers, Billings Gazette

True North is best taken as a novel in the grand European tradition rather than the American. Religion and history figure here on a huge scale, as they do in the works of Dostoevsky and Tolstoy. . . . An engaging read by a writer to be reckoned with.” —David Kirby, St. Petersburg Times

“[A] transcendent new novel. . . . True North features Harrison’s trademark earthy palette, complete with heavy drink, desperate sex and various self-destructive behaviors that characterize modern man’s attempt to feel something other than numb. In Harrison’s view, the only way to achieve full consciousness is to reconnect spiritually with the natural world.” —Jay MacDonald, The News-Press

“Where True North comes alive is when Harrison takes Burkett into the trees, lakes, and streams of the Upper Peninsula. He describes a place of incredible beauty despite being permanently scarred.” —Jeff Kunerth, Orlando Sentinel

“A terrific book. . . . For a book that covers so much time and wide-open space. . . this is a tight, claustrophobic telling, a painstaking portrait of a man strangling in his family’s sordid history. . . . For a novel set in the ’60s, ’70s and the ’80s, it is very much a book of our times.” —Brad Smith, National Post

“[True North] is an intriguing journey into a life ravaged by issues beyond one’s control. . . . [it] may be Harrison’s best work. . . . The true Harrison is revealed. A man vividly attuned to the earth and his homeland, he loves life yet carries a longing in him for something just beyond his grasp. . . . His work is deep and soulful; superficiality has no place in his world.” —Dana Dugan, Idaho Mountain Express

True North is a heartfelt expression of [Harrison’s] love and respect for the natural world and those who want to honor it.” —Bob Hoover, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

True North is a richly layered work of art. The layers explore human passions at many levels, and human psychology from the mythological to the intricate layering of Freud and Jung. As an artist, Harrison does what art is supposed to do whether on a grand scale—or small, one flawed human being at a time. He illuminates. He investigates. He shows us what we know but deny. He enlarges understanding.” —Elizabeth Kane Buzzelli, Traverse City Record-Eagle

“Reading Harrison can bring an almost physical pleasure. . . . One picks up the novel thinking to read a couple of quick pages; soon the reader pours a glass of wine and settles in to appreciate the musings of a writer who’s clearly observed nature—human and otherwise.” —Ron Tschida, Bozeman Daily Chronicle

“There’s no question that Harrison is one of our greatest living literary stylists, and this novel is filled with eloquence and graceful, pithy sentences. . . . As with almost any Harrison work, the reader can find on every single page some beautifully wrought, perfectly crafted passages of prose. . . . With a talent for artful prose clearly lacking in most would-be environmental writers, Harrison writes in this novel of the way that, culturally and psychologically, we become the messes we create.” —Aaron Parrett, Great Falls Tribune

“In True North, Harrison takes his ‘homeland’ novel a step further, with the Upper Peninsula emerging as a force, as much a fully developed character as many of the humans.” —Aki Soga, Burlington Free Press<

“Harrison is a writer of prodigal gifts—he was a poet before turning to novels and screenplays—and a keen registrar of impressions. The book overflows with marvelous description and hard-bitten wisdom.” —Mark Shechner, Buffalo News

“When author Harrison writes about a meal, one salivates; when he describes a drunken brawl, one looks for cover.” —Bette Erickson, Daily Camera (CO)

“It takes a writer of Harrison’s maturity and knowingness to elevate [True North] from merely another historical novel to an almost mythological story about man’s fate. . . . It’s a melancholy and beautiful performance by Harrison, taking the story of one prominent family and extending it as a metaphor for the country.” —Sam McManis, Tacoma News-Tribune

“[Harrison] paints gorgeous pictures of the land and its nonhuman inhabitants.” —Michael Salkind, Colorado Springs Independent

True North is vintage Jim Harrison.” —Mary Stewart Sale, Missoulan

“Riveting. . . . A master of surprise endings, Harrison pulls off a bravura climax. . . . Harrison’s tragic sense of history and his ironic insight into the depravities of human nature are as potent as ever and bring deeper meaning to his. . . redemptive tale.” —Publishers Weekly

“Narrator David Burkett shares with other Harrison protagonists a hearty appreciation of food, drink, sex, and the pleasures of hiking, swimming, camping, and fishing in what remains of the American wilderness. . . . Uncompromising . . . stout-hearted readers will be impressed by Harrison’s fierce passion and dark poetry.” —Kirkus Reviews

“Jim Harrison’s excellent new novel follows its protagonist across three decades as he wrestles with the destructive legacy of his family’s men, who have made their fortunes for generations by pillaging the abundant wilderness of Michigan’s Upper Peninsula. A casual epic, brimming on each page with Harrison’s trademark insight, wit, and eros.” —Jamie Kornegay, Square Books, Oxford, MS, Book Sense quote

“The novel is about a man’s decades-long attempt to come to terms with both his destructive father and robber baron ancestors, who grew wealthy from the timber and ore of northern Michigan. Raw and eloquent, the novel seethes with love, hate, and self-loathing before reaching its brutal conclusion.” —Ray Nurmi, Snowbound Books, Marquette, MI, Book Sense quote

“[Harrison] is at his best describing the simple pleasures of camping and fishing. You can almost smell the savory smokiness of fresh-dried trout and feel the itch left by mosquitoes the size of small aircraft. He also has a keen memory for the complex and contradictory feelings young men have for young women as they pass from adolescence into maturity. . . His brawny prose cuts to the heart with clear-eyed insight into the prickly process of creating one’s self.” —Thane Tierney, Bookpage

Praise for Jim Harrison:

“No one has advanced and expanded the American literary ethos in the latter part of the twentieth century more cogently, usefully, and just plain brilliantly than Jim Harrison. . . . This is a matter to which all literate Americans should pay serious attention.” —Hayden Carruth

“Harrison’s prose has an earthy physicality. He is a writer for whom the natural world is not an abstraction but a reality, the facts from which his imagination proceeds.” —William Corbett, Boston Phoenix

“Reading Jim Harrison is about as close as one can come in contemporary fiction to experiencing the abundant pleasures of living.” —Porter Shreve, The Boston Globe

“Harrison has quietly established one of the deeper canons in modern American letters.” —William Porter, Denver Post

“There is a singular comfort in knowing, on the first page of a novel, that you are in the hands of a master. . . . [The Road Home]’s view of the world emphasizes connectedness, from generation to generation and between the earth and its furred, feathered, and human inhabitants. . . . To read this book is to feel the luminosity of nature in one’s own being.” —Thomas McNamee, The New York Times Book Review


My name is David Burkett. I’m actually the fourth in a line of David Burketts beginning in the 1860s when my great-grandfather emigrated from Cornwall, England, to the Upper Peninsula of Michigan which forms the southern border of Lake Superior, that vast inland sea of freshwater. This naming process is of no particular interest except to illustrate how fathers wish to further dominate the lives of their sons from the elemental beginnings. I have done everything possible to renounce my father but then within the chaos of the events of my life it is impossible to understand the story without telling it.

My father was so purely awful that he was a public joke in our area but with his having moved to Duluth so long ago the jokes had become quite stale, truly ancient, and were now being raised to life only by older men, mostly retired, sitting near the breakwall in the public park next to Lake Superior watching boats they never boarded going in and out of the harbor.

Perhaps it is strange for a victim of evil to see this evil become more local folklore than a vital force, but then I was a temporary victim abandoning both my parents at age eighteen when I had the strength of my anger though I admit my sister Cynthia at age sixteen beat me to the punch by a full month. Cynthia got herself pregnant by her lover, a mixed-blood Finn and Chippewa (Anishinabe) Indian, the son of our yardman, who was a senior to her sophomore, and a star on the Marquette High School football team. At the time, 1966, for a girl of Cynthia’s social standing to get herself pregnant by an Indian boy would be the same as a girl from a prominent Mississippi family becoming pregnant from an affair with a black man. In animal terms Cynthia could be likened to a wolverine, the most relentlessly irascible beast in North America, whereas I, in my teens, was more an opossum who wished to be a bear. Not oddly, it was a grotesque and unprosecuted crime committed by my father that drove us away, but then I have to work up to this dire event.

I’m too impatient to start at the beginning, and besides, no apparent god knows when that might be. I’m averse to the mirror in my cabin toilet, having long ago unscrewed the single lightbulb, but since the toilet is on the north side of the cabin and heavily shaded by a clump of fir trees I never see myself anyway in more than dimmish light. I don’t dislike myself but there’s enough left of the outward thrust of jaw to remind me of my great-grandfather, my grandfather, and my father. More than a trace of luck came along when my mother’s small facial features moderated my own so that the old-timers in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula didn’t directly turn away in muted fear and nervousness. All but a few of the younger citizens, say those under forty, have forgotten the specifics of who we were.

I’m not going to trap myself here. I wasn’t quite eighteen years old when I declared my intentions to Lake Superior on a stormy night near the grave of an old Indian on Presque Isle that I wasn’t going to use up my life thinking about myself which seemed to be the total preoccupation of my schoolmates and all the adults I knew except Jesse, my father’s aide since World War II, Clarence, and my uncle, my mother’s brother Frederick who lived in a cabin way down in southern Ohio across the Ohio River from eastern Kentucky. Fred had been an Episcopalian priest in Chicago who had lost interest in his calling a step ahead of his parishioners losing patience with his terminal eccentricities. He survived on family money and a small pension from the church given for his general mental incontinence. Fred told me when I was sixteen that modern man at the crossroads mostly just stayed at the crossroads. This notion is fine in itself but more importantly Fred taught me how to row a boat on lakes and rivers. He built one for me in two weeks during a hot Ohio June, lifted and secured it in the back of his pickup, and then we drove north straight through to Au Sable Lake near Grand Marais, Michigan, launching the boat at dawn, breaking a bottle of Goebel’s beer over the bow, but then Fred became confused over the names we might use to christen the boat. Fred owned an obnoxious dog, a mixed Airedale—bull terrier he had named simply “No” so I suggested “Yes” as a boat name because when we finally rowed the boat out on the lake that summer morning Fred had to forcibly detach No’s teeth from the oar and I wanted to put a positive feeling on the experience. Fred subdued the dog and said the name Yes would be “banal.” Fred liked to imitate the questionable behavior of his poor white neighbors but he was a learned man, his cabin stuffed with books. He broke another Goebel’s bottle over the gunnel and christened my rowboat “Boat.” It was then that a male loon flew near us disappearing into the mist at the west end of the lake with that circular and querulous cry which after a long silence Fred likened to the laughter before death of an insane saint. All of Fred’s frame of reference was Christian though he thought of it as a religion that hadn’t “panned out” and after three beers would present a long and repetitive argument that the religion of his calling had done more harm than good to the world. This point was a precarious teeter-totter that daily haunted him but after too many beers and a nap he would withdraw his blasphemies because I was thinking of the ministry at the time and he didn’t want to discourage me. How better could I renounce both my father and my own Western preoccupation with self than to take up a primitive form of Christianity? Of course my father ignored this right up to the point that I also refused the family tradition of Yale and enrolled instead at Michigan State University and then he knew that he had truly lost me, not that he seemed to care.

This is a case where mere fact isn’t instructive. I had taken over the rowing and we were close to shore moving through reed and lily pad beds with the dog growling intermittently on the shore. It was already warm at eight in the morning and a slight breeze kept the clouds of mosquitoes enshrouded in the forest. Fred was peeling a hard-boiled egg drawn from the cooler and dosing it with Tabasco. I had just asked a mawkish theological question about Mary Magdalene, a query about forgiveness attached to this woman in part because I was a virgin at sixteen and imagined Mary Magdalene to be a haunted seductress, her robes parted wantonly for those who took interest and gave her a few coins. This boat incident took place over thirty years ago and I see the bits of eggshell floating on the shaded water. Fred was tired and irritable from driving north all night.

“That’s your main problem,” he said. “You can’t have religion without belief. You’re just using your religion to decorate your life to protect you from your father. It’s like your mother flying down to Chicago to go to a dress shop, say something pastel pink for Easter when the Lord was said to arise. That’s no better than your dad driving from Marquette to Duluth to fuck one of his fifteen-year-olds. What I’m saying is that you can’t be playing around with your Christianity like it was a tool kit to keep you going. How does that make you better than your dad? Right now you’d give your left nut for an hour with Mary Magdalene.” Fred was making light of my recent religious conversion wherein my soul was saved at the fundamentalist Baptist church, an event that offended my family’s Episcopalian sensibilities including Fred’s.

The landscape turned reddish and I pulled hard on the oars and hit shore in a snake-grass reed bed. The dog understood my anger before Fred and barked loudly. I jumped out of the boat and headed into an alder thicket that immediately tripped me three times because my body was trying to move faster than my feet. I think I was yelling “fuck you” and even now my voice feels boyish and cracking with dry sobs. Two weeks before on the day I hitchhiked south from Marquette my sister Cynthia had been sitting on a blanket out in her special corner of the yard near her disused playhouse. I was in the work shed next to the garage where Clarence our yardman often stayed, and where he slept on an old leather couch. I was near the greasy workbench careful not to touch it in my Sunday suit. I was on my way to the Baptist church while my parents were dressing for a later service at the Episcopalian. I was checking to see if Clarence wanted to trout-fish that afternoon. Many Chippewa are large men and so are the Finnish and Clarence was half of each. I once saw him unload a four-hundred-pound woodstove from his Studebaker pickup and carry it into this self-same shed.

One June Sunday morning through the stained window above the workbench while we were talking about where we might fish in the evening and had decided on the Yellow Dog we saw my father walk across the yard and approach Cynthia who was now doing calisthenics in a bathing suit which the prig in me thought far too brief for Sunday morning. He must have said something truly awful because Cynthia grabbed a large wooden stake that propped up a rose trellis and swung it at Father hitting him in the chest, hip, and knee before he could retreat to the back porch where Jesse was standing on the steps. Father was hobbling but Jesse made no move to help him. I made a move toward the work shed door but Clarence grabbed my arm. Jesse brushed off my father’s pant leg where the dirty end of the garden stake had soiled them. I looked back at Cynthia who was now reading a magazine as if nothing had happened. She was fourteen at the time, ruled her own world, and kept her bedroom door locked.

I went out the back door of the work shed and down the alley to the street where Jesse now stood by the old Packard waiting to drive my parents to church. I told him I was going to hitchhike or take the Greyhound down to Ohio while my parents were at church. When something went wrong with my family I always fled for a week or so. Jesse’s real name was Jesus Tom’s Sandoval but the people around Marquette couldn’t accept the occasional Mexican custom of naming a son Jesus so he was called Jesse by everyone except my father, who called him Sandy, a private joke that had never been explained to me. They had met at basic training for World War II near Houston and where Jesse had come north from Veracruz when he found out you could earn citizenship by fighting for the United States. They fought together, I think at Corregidor and the Philippines under MacArthur, and my father had quite literally bought Jesse’s life what with his becoming a faithful manservant, “amanuensis,” bookkeeper, valet, travel agent, and whatever to my father. Jesse was efficient rather than subservient while my father’s appearance was such that if you saw him in a bank or airport you’d think there’s a man who knows what he’s doing, always well groomed and tailored, checking his watch as if time was of consequence, a shell actually on which the culture had slowly painted all of the characteristics of a WASP cock of the walk, an alpha white male, while inside there was only a decayed question mark, a living grave soaked with booze and desires so errant that all but a few people wished to run from him.

I told Jesse my intentions only because I didn’t want my mother to launch a search party, or sit there in her nest in the breakfast nook in the kitchen with the table stacked with books of reassurance, from theosophy to the further reaches of domestic double-talk.

Jesse was faithful to my father and I don’t recall a single word of criticism to anyone else though once I was in the basement and could hear a conversation in the den up a furnace vent, and then Jesse was brisk and trenchant trying to reason with him.

I was simply going to head down the street but Jesse reminded me that I was wearing my Sunday suit. I was confused of course. Seeing your sister beat on your father with a club is an uncommon experience. I thanked him and shook hands good-bye in case I didn’t return before he left on vacation. Every year I could remember Jesse went home for the months of July and December to Veracruz where he had a wife and a daughter. It was less a vacation than a stipulation for his continuing services. Jesse had relatives that grew coffee up near Jalapa north of the city of Veracruz but still in the province. My father would complain about his departures, actually whine because he was quite lost without Jesse and disliked Clarence as a driver because he drove so slowly. My father had accumulated a number of drunken driving tickets and the family name and political influence couldn’t get his license back after he passed a dozen violations. The complaints were meaningless anyway because my parents spent most of the summer at an old-money club about fifty miles north of Marquette and December took them to Florida. It’s odd but I’ve never been able to refer to my father as anything but “Father” while my childhood friends had actual “dads,” many of them quite wonderful, though Fred has often reminded me that in Clarence and Jesse I had dads who were better than most anyone had. The biological collision of parenthood meant nothing to him, even though his sister was half the quotient.

Back to the lake which I couldn’t find though I’m fairly good in the woods, especially so when I was sixteen and overconscious of where I was headed. That morning, however, I had mostly thrashed through the underbrush in an enraged state. Fred had said despite my religious beliefs which I thought profound that I was no better than my father whom I loathed, and deserved loathing, or better than my daffy mother about whom I was beginning to have doubts. For instance Cynthia and Father would carry on these brittle, acerbic conversations when my mother was down in Chicago three or four days a month to get a physical condition she called “phantom pain” corrected. My father and I believed in the reality of this infirmity probably because it was suggestive of our own mental ills. Cynthia, however, had told me that the doctor mother was seeing had been a friend of hers when she was at Stephens College and he was a poor kid at the University of Missouri. I couldn’t accept this though I didn’t inquire how Cynthia knew it to be true. Cynthia merely asked that if you were married to Dad (she called him that) wouldn’t you seek outside comfort? A young man can accept a father’s unfaithfulness but a mother’s is definitely in a much higher category of pain, but then Cynthia added that she didn’t mean that they were necessarily sleeping together. She said that my helpless young male imagination construed any male-female relationships as sexual. That Sunday morning when I went back into the house to get out of my suit, nodding to my parents as they came down the steps to go to church with my father still limping from his daughter’s assault, I packed a small bag and then went out in the yard to say good-bye to Cynthia who had been joined by her friend Laurie. I simply couldn’t understand how she could do what she had done and not feel confused and remorseful. Not a chance. They were singing Beatles songs then laughed at me because I always reddened when Laurie was in her bathing suit, a two-piece flesh-colored suit only slightly less daring than a bikini. I stared off at the lilacs and Cynthia said, “Don’t feel badly. You didn’t do anything. Dad should be locked in a zoo.” And that was that to a fourteen-year-old girl who tried hard to make her brother as tough as she was. Far later when I was a graduate student in theology in Chicago taking a course in Oriental religions I read a Japanese twelfth-century philosopher who said, “No changing reality to suit the self.” Cynthia, Clarence, and Jesse were experts at reality while mother, father, and myself were tormented speculators in the area of self-deceit and Fred was a tightrope walker between the two worlds.

By noon I had reached a steep hillside from which I finally could get a firm sense of my location. I had climbed several trees in the lowlands but couldn’t get high enough to see anything more than other trees and I hadn’t paid enough attention to the position of the sun when I was first lost to have it be of help. Now I could see miles to the north to the beige and lumpy outlines of the dunes that abut Lake Superior, all too many heartless miles away. My bug repellent was in a kit in the rowboat and my face was so swollen by mosquitoes, blackflies, and deerflies I could see only in a squint. My mouth was dry as dust and my stomach rattled with hunger. I had smeared my face and bare arms with swamp muck which helped with noxious insects. Blackflies, however, had made their way well up my pant legs. The mud poultice had been shown to me by Clarence one evening when we were fishing the Yellow Dog and had forgotten our insect repellent. We built a smudge fire and fried some trout. Clarence always packed along bread, salt, an iron skillet, and a baby-food jar of bacon grease. I can’t say Clarence was wise in any orthodox sense. At one time he was a famous bar fighter in the Upper Peninsula but one day his wife took the two children and went back to her parents’ home near Ontonagon. Clarence decided to kill himself and jumped off the pier with a cement block tied to a leg but down on the lake’s bottom while running out of breath it occurred to him all he needed to do was quit drinking, not kill himself. My father who used to bet on Clarence’s more organized fights with his equally despicable cronies hired Clarence when I was about five years old and soon after that I was taught to fish. Around the smudge fire on the Yellow Dog I heard the only story with which I could directly connect Clarence with religion. When he was in the Korean War and it was January several of his friends had lost toes to frostbite and Clarence began to worry about his own. One dawn after he pulled the boots off a crying soldier friend and some toes came with the boot he shot a “gook” running out of a hut. Clarence took off his own boots, slit open the dead man’s stomach, and stuck his feet among the warm guts until they began to cool. He still lost the little toe on his left foot which he saved for his medicine bag. The problem was that the Chippewa are expected to have respect for the dead so years later Clarence was still worried about the method with which he had saved his toes. It was especially hard after shooting and gutting a deer. He told me that since he was half Finn he thought it was the Finn in him that forced him to save his toes. It was ten minutes sitting there around the fire before it occurred to me that I was supposed to make a judgment. It was a strain but I said I had heard that it was hard to walk well without toes and perhaps that Clarence’s gods knew how badly he would need to walk in the future. After the night of struggling with the knot in the black cold water and nearly drowning Clarence would take off walking for hours in the woods when he felt he had to have a drink. Later in a theology class I brought up Clarence’s religious questions but my fellow divinity students found them repellent.

After I had rested on the hill for a half hour Fred’s surly cur No showed up and began growling and barking at me. Fred’s canteen was wrapped around the dog’s neck and I detached it after a struggle laughing to think that the dog owned some of my sister’s character. It was after I drank the water that I realized what Fred probably meant about the failure of religion. He knew I went to the Baptist church in part to piss off my parents. He didn’t know that I had read the New Testament a dozen times because I hadn’t been brought up to read it. Fred was more interested in the long- term socioeconomic aspects of Christianity and lacked confidence in such basic matters as the Resurrection which I believed in irrationally because I had lost faith in rationality.

All the way following the dog back to the lake I felt light-headed, even amused by the blisters on my feet. When I fell behind the obnoxious dog would bark and wait for me, stopping where I had peed in the morning and giving me a knowing look. Maybe I’m only an animal in human clothes, I thought. Only a month before when Laurie was sleeping over Cynthia had teased her into opening my bedroom door and mooning me. I knew they had been drinking beer and smoking pot. This was the sixties and marijuana had made its way into all the nether regions of America. I was sitting at my desk reading C. S. Lewis, the door opened, and there was Laurie’s bent-over nude butt. Then she was gone. I virtually swooned like a Victorian lady. When I said my long nightly prayers I was unable to dismiss the image of Laurie’s butt. Most of me viewed her butt as satanic but when I told Fred while we were building the rowboat in Ohio he laughed and said a butt can be lovely but not satanic. I was already having trouble with my Baptist minister who startled me by disapproving of C. S. Lewis, also Mozart who had helped so much in lifting me out of depression.

It was years before the full comic volume of that day reached me. It was five in the afternoon before the dog and I reached the point on the shore where I had leaped from the boat. I was crestfallen when Fred wasn’t there but then I heard him hollering from the dock at the launch site a half mile up the lake. I waved and the dog took off, and then I floundered into the lake rinsing off my mud-caked body before I noticed that Fred had left the rowboat behind for me.

At the campsite Fred joked that an eight-hour walk had been good for my health. He fed me three hot dogs and a can of warmed- up beans, then bathed my blistered feet in hydrogen peroxide. In defiance of my vows to be unlike my father I drank a bottle of beer. I fell asleep and awoke weeping from a bad dream at midnight. Fred stoked the campfire and made coffee. I was embarrassed over my tears and hobbled down to the dock and watched the moonlight glistening on the placid water. In my dream Laurie was thin, red-eyed, and bald, obviously terribly ill (ten years later when I visited her in the Marquette hospital where she was dying of breast cancer she looked similar and I remembered the dream). I composed myself, a state that lasted at best no more than a few minutes, then walked back to the fire, turning to see that the dog who had followed me was still on the dock and apparently staring at the moon, a possible metaphor for man’s relationship to God, or so I thought at the time. I mentioned this to Fred who said, “That’s pretty good.” I asked Fred if he thought that I was a prig and he answered “probably” which destroyed my short-lived composure. “Prig” is what Cynthia called me the day after I confronted her about teasing Laurie into her errant behavior. The word “prig” wasn’t used in the U.P. but then Cynthia read a lot, especially long nineteenth-century English novels by George Eliot, Jane Austen, and the Bront’s that I didn’t care for. Cynthia had said, “I’m tired of having a prig for a brother. All you do is read and mope around disapproving of the world.” It had truly pained me to discover that at age fourteen Cynthia was no longer a virgin. Neither was Laurie for that matter. They had selected two boys, one of them Clarence’s son, Donald, who was a bright but tough athlete who affected insensitivity in public but in private—we had grown up together—was a wonderful companion.

I sat there by the fire trying to listen to Fred, who poured whiskey in his coffee, rail on about the treachery of governments, the chicanery of the Catholics, the sodden stupidity of the Protestants, but I wasn’t listening. I was trying to figure out how not to be a prig, how to stop thinking about myself, how to enter real life, the dimensions and specifics of which I had no idea. I kept thinking of a quote in the nightmarishly confusing Book of Revelation that ended the New Testament that said, “I would that you were either hot or cold because if you are lukewarm I will utterly cast you out.” A prig was lukewarm for sure.

Over thirty years later while recapturing all of this I become again a tenuous and hormonal prig somewhat frightened of the night, Fred’s dog, the glitter of the moon on the water, the power of Laurie’s bottom jutting in the door, the madness of girls, the Book of Revelations, my drunken and perverse father, my mother so densely surrounding herself with fluff that she was a ghost, how sometimes I prayed on the hardwood floor on my knees for the clarity of pain. This far away I seem to have exhausted all my fears though I can re-create them.

“Where are you?” Fred asked, bringing me out of my reverie. “There’s a sure way to stop being a prig. Just figure out what’s wrong with your family and avoid doing likewise. That doesn’t mean doing nothing. That doesn’t mean walking around with your head up your ass.”

There was an immediate visual image of a man trying to get his head out of his own ass. Fred was close to drunk but that didn’t keep me from taking him seriously. It was the first truly important night of my life. Despite my aching bones and blistered feet I sensed a possibility of strength, of a mission that drew solace and the chance of success or victory from the fire, from the dog, from my fellow human Fred, the night, the bright moon and stars, even the owl we were hearing intermittently. This sounds vaguely absurd now but then so many changes in the direction of our lives come as a result of accidents, happenstances, the slightest pushes in any direction, and on the more negative side the girl you met at a gathering you didn’t want to attend who infected your life to the extent that the scar tissue will follow you into old age.

Reading Group Guide

1. Early in the novel, David says, “I wasn’t quite eighteen years old when I declared . . . that I wasn’t going to use up my life thinking about myself” (pg. 7). How well does he live up to this pledge? Do you suppose this is why he is drawn to people like Laurie, Fred, Vernice, and Riva, who challenge his sense of self? What do each of them force David to consider about himself and his situation? Is this a natural attraction among people, or is it unique to David’s circumstances, living, as he does, in renunciation of himself and his parents?

2. How does David’s opinion of himself affect his relationships with women? Do you think it prevents him from forging a lifelong romantic relationship? Do you think his despising the men in his family influences his fascination with the opposite sex? Is David’s sexual preoccupation related to his father’s unsavory predilections? Consider David’s comment: “The only solid relationship I had with a female was my dog Carla” (p. 277). Of the women with whom David is romantically involved with in his life, who would you most like to have seen him with in the end?

3. When we meet David as a teenager, his interest in Protestant Christianity is admittedly a weapon of revenge against his parents, yet as he grows older and more independent, he becomes more assured in his own beliefs. How do his religious attitudes evolve? Discuss the ways in which David fails as a Christian, and then consider how Christianity, as it is popularly taught and practiced, fails to live up to his ideals.

4. Frequently throughout the novel, David finds clarity and spiritual rejuvenation through his experiences in nature. Why do you suppose humans have such a spiritual bond to the wilderness? Why do we persist in destroying it? Discuss both the literal and the symbolic significance of the white pine stump field. What does David mean when he says, “I thought that this was as close as I could come to finding a church for myself in our time” (p. 177)?

5. When a psychiatrist asks David what he hates most, he says money. Yet his family’s wealth affords him a lifestyle of leisure, research, and the ability to help friends in need. What role does material wealth play in David’s disengagement from society? What does Uncle Fred mean when he says that “wealth was like the breast of a pretty woman but there was no woman attached” (p. 26)? Consider David’s attitudes about work, particularly physical labor. Is this a way to separate himself from his family?

6. On page 78, David says, “After all one can’t help but love one’s parents even though this love seems to emerge mostly from the closeness and dependency of early childhood.” What is the source of the Burketts’ dysfunction? It may be easy to understand David’s disdain for his father, but how does he feel about his mother? Do you attribute David’s decision not to have children to the Burkett family dynamic? In your opinion, does Cynthia come through the family experience in better emotional condition? Consider Coughlin’s appraisal that Cynthia “was able to use the improbable willfulness of her family all to her own good purposes” (p. 236).

7. David considers something an old professor once told him, “that if you couldn’t forgive someone, you became their slave mentally” (p. 279). He mentions how this occurred “at a time when I still actively fantasized about shooting my father in the same manner that Lee Harvey Oswald had shot President Kennedy” (p. 279). Though he obviously despises his father, do you believe that David forgives him? How did you feel each time David mentioned a new sexual transgression committed by his father? Do you think David showed his father mercy each time they met? Why does David revert to his youth—”the child’s feeling of the first time swimming over one’s head” (p. 305)—when he finally confronts his father about his perversion? Is David satisfied by his father’s response?

8. Of all his family members, David seems to feel closest to Uncle Fred, especially during his teenage years. In what ways is Fred a model for David? How is Fred’s rejection of whiteness akin to David’s rejection of his family legacy? How does Fred, a fallen holy man, influence David’s own religious beliefs? Discuss David’s alliance with other family members like Cynthia and Sprague. Where do Clarence, Jesse, and Mrs. Plunkett fit into the Burkett family dynamic?

9. Is David’s project an appropriate response to his family’s history? How is it an effective way for David to confront the guilt of his family’s misuse of land and people? Discuss the ways in which people conduct business in today’s world that David would construe as “spiritual crimes.”

10. When David travels to Mexico to apologize to Vera, he discovers much more about Jesse, whose patriarchal influence looms large over his family in Veracruz. “I wondered at the complications when you lifted the lid off any particular family,” David writes in his journal (p. 274). As a father, how is Jesse like his boss, the elder David Burkett? How is Jesse’s family like the Burketts? Has the Burketts’ dangerous influence spread to this Mexican family? David writes, “What would I know about being the means of support for dozens of people?” (p. 275). Do you think Jesse’s sense of obligation to his family allowed him to forgive the elder Burkett for raping his daughter? Does this sense of obligation make men cheat and deceive to get ahead? Do you think greed can arise from a genuine concern for the welfare of others? Finally, what does David gain from his brief meeting with Vera?

11. David finds compelling similarities between his family’s history and the history of America. “We mythologized our destruction,” he writes. While walking around Paris, he observes, “There was something historically troubling in America’s geopiety that allowed her to become proud of the destructiveness of her creation of ugliness” (p. 280). How does David’s family represent the worst of American character? The best? Can people separate themselves from their own country while living in it? How do you feel implicated in the history of your country, state, town, or family?

12. Why does David travel all the way to France to see Vernice, even when he knows she is living with another man? Is it for acceptance? To win her back? Sex? What does Vernice give David during her initial eight days at the cabin that has made her so essential in his life? How does his decision to give her money characterize their relationship? What does David’s decision to call Meriam up to his room say about his intentions for this trip?

13. What is the significance of the title True North? Is it more than a physical setting? Can you think of other novels where the main character’s attachment to the setting is so inextricably linked to his or her personality, motivations, etc.?

14. Why does Harrison switch from the first-person narrative to the first-person journal narrative during David’s travels? Does it say anything about David’s struggle to become a decent writer? What does David’s decision to rewrite his project in first person say about his sense of self? When we are allowed to read the last paragraph of David’s article, it is rather stiff and pompous, as the author himself concedes. In light of the book’s first-person text, why do you suppose that is? How does Harrison’s first-person narrative enhance the book as a whole?

15. Harrison makes numerous references to Greek drama throughout the novel. “Every location has its classic Greek chorus muttering, chattering, moaning in the background” (p. 94). In what ways do you think True North resembles or differs from classical tragedies such as Oedipus the King and Medea? How is the novel’s violence reminiscent of Greek tragedy? How does the classical concept of fate exert its influence on David?

16. At the end of the novel, David agrees to accompany his father to Veracruz to apologize to Vera, whom he raped as a young girl. From Vera’s perspective, can you imagine such forgiveness? Ultimately a son avenges his father’s wrongdoings, though perhaps it is not as we expected. How did you feel about the violent conclusion?

Suggested Further Reading:

The Gnostic Gospels by Elaine Pagels; Go Down, Moses by William Faulkner; Death of a River Guide by Richard Flanagan; The Devils: The Possessed by Fyodor Dostoyevsky; A River Runs Through It by Norman Maclean; Lolita by Vladimir Nabokov; Yonder Stands Your Orphan by Barry Hannah; Killing Mr. Watson by Peter Matthiessen; Edisto by Padgett Powell; The Heaven of Mercury by Brad Watson; No Great Mischief by Alistair MacLeod; Oedipus the King by Sophocles; Medea by Euripides; Death of A Salesman by Arthur Miller; The Godfather by Mario Puzo; King Lear by William Shakespeare