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.
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July 10, 2005
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Excerpt from True North by Jim Harrison
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.