Book Review by Ann Jonas, Tradebook Buyer - CSB/SJU Bookstores
this review was published in the St. Cloud Visitor
"The High Divide" by Lin Enger, published by Algonquin Books, September 2014, 332 pp
Family legend has it that author Lin Enger's great-grandfather, a Norwegian who immigrated to the Dakota Territory in 1883, shot the last wild buffalo east of the James River as it drank from the stock tank on his farm. Ever since Enger heard this story, he has had a fascination with the American bison.
Enger's new novel, "The High Divide" has bison as a component, though the animal is not the main focus of the book. The year is 1886 and Ulysses Pope has just disappeared from his farm on the northern plains of Minnesota; he left a simple note: "A chance for work, hard cash." His wife Gretta and two sons, Eli and Danny, are left to manage, knowing that they will soon be out of funds to stay on the farm.
Against his mother's wishes, Eli, who is sixteen, decides he must set out to find his father and as he is leaving, his little brother begs to go with him. They sneak away from home and jump a train heading west, sure that their father is headed to Bismarck. When Gretta discovers that her sons have gone off to find their father she is distraught with worry. In addition, she is filled with inner turmoil; she ponders the likelihood of another woman in her husband's life. Desperate, she takes a train to the east-to St. Paul-to see if Ulysses' sister has any answers for her. She discovers that there are chapters in Ulysses' past of which she is unaware, including some of his time in the Cavalry when he served with General Custer in the Indian Territories.
Ulysses, meanwhile, is battling his own inner strife as he journeys west toward Montana, seeking redemption from a past action that has haunted him for years. "The High Divide" deftly alternates from the perspectives of Ulysses, Gretta, and the two boys.
The brothers' quest for their father takes them through the Badlands and into Montana Territory, where they meet up with William T. Hornaday from the National Museum in Washington, DC, who is on his own crusade. He aims to kill as many buffalo as he can so that he can stuff them and thus preserve their memory, knowing that the species is on its way to extinction.
Enger weaves actual events into his novel, such as the Hornaday expedition, General Custer's exploits, and the struggles of the Plains Indians, giving the book a rich, historical flavor. "The High Divide" is a beautifully told tale of a family who struggles to stay together through personal demons and uncertainty. Certainly, the story line is gripping; add Enger's masterful writing and sensitive portrayals of the main characters and you have historical fiction at its best.
A native Minnesotan, Enger currently teaches at Minnesota State University in Moorhead. "The High Divide" is his second novel. His brother Leif is also a best-selling author.