In pursuit of a ghost

Review of “The High Divide” by Lin Enger.

 

The High Divide
Lin Enger
332 pages,
hardcover:$24.95
Algonquin, 2014.

As The High Divide opens in 1886, Gretta Pope’s husband, Ulysses, a U.S. Army veteran, has been missing for six weeks, leaving her with two sons to raise, past-due rent, and no idea about where he might have gone or when he’ll be back. An odious landlord begins to circle Gretta, demanding payment in more than money. Then Gretta’s son, 16-year-old Eli, intercepts a letter to his father from a woman in Bismarck, suggesting that Ulysses recently visited her. Eli sneaks out of the family home in Sloan’s Crossing, Minnesota, and hops a freight train west to find his father, but his sickly 9-year-old brother guesses his plan and follows. Meanwhile, Gretta embarks on her own travels and investigations.

Minnesota novelist Lin Enger switches to the perspective of a different family member in each chapter, updating us on their individual odysseys and making it clear that the members of this family love each other deeply and want to be together, even though their lack of communication has split them apart and left them wracked by doubts about everything.

The boys and Gretta are astonished to learn that Ulysses re-enlisted after the Civil War and served in Custer’s 7th Cavalry Regiment, which was notorious for killing women and children in Indian villages. Ulysses’ recent erratic behavior appears to spring from his secret past; he is clearly haunted by something that happened when he was in the military.

As she seeks her husband, Gretta rebukes herself for not delving into Ulysses’ past sooner: “If only she had been able to summon the strength to draw the poison out of Ulysses. … But she had been raised to believe that a man’s burdens were meant for him alone to carry.”

Young men hop on a freight train in Bakersfield, California.
Rondal Partridge, U.S. National Archives and Records Administration

In The High Divide, the West is swiftly transforming from a savage, bloodthirsty land into a settled place where the only remnants of the bygone, unfettered West are the buffalo bones that litter the prairie, which men scavenge for quick money. And yet this changing land will serve as a proving ground for Ulysses’ growing sons.

In clear, vivid prose, Enger describes the family’s journeys, expanding the story of the search for one man into an investigation of the West’s conscience at a time when men had recently decimated its native peoples and fauna and were just beginning to reap the consequences. In the process, he tells a tender story of love, sorrow and the quest for redemption.